Another day, another ho-hum victory for the Boston Bruins… perhaps not so ho-hum, though. Scoring nine goals against a team which is (purportedly) in the same League as you certainly raises some questions, mostly involving expletives.
How did the Bruins get here? With clinical victory after clinical victory in the past two-plus months, the B’s have almost erased the nightmare that was the beginning of their title defense. Almost.
The Boston Bruins started the 2011-12 season 3-7-0, sitting last in the Eastern Conference and barely a shoe toss from last place overall in the NHL. The defending champs’ laughable October brought more than a few comments about the ‘flukiness’ of their Cup victory and expectations for immediate and significant changes.
Then, something happened.
Whether it was coaching, leadership or just light dawning on Marblehead – the B’s got their butts into gear and started playing like the force that had won a Stanley Cup just four and a half months prior. But better. Crazy better.
The B’s won ten straight contests, dropped a game in overtime, won four more, dropped two more, won seven in a row before falling one more time. Had the luster worn off? Was the magic gone? It was. Temporarily… Then, the Black and gold dropped fifteen consecutive goals on the Devils and Flames (not exactly elite squads, but certainly not the dregs) to push their post-Halloween surge to 23-3-1: 47 of 54 possible points (That’s Levitation, Holmes!)
How did we arrive here, now just over two months later, the Bruins sitting just a point shy (with a game in hand) of the top mark in the Conference and League?
Offensively, the B’s are much better than many had them pegged pre-season. After tallying just 21 markers in October, the Black and Gold attack exploded for 114 since: Averaging 4.2 goals per game.
Looking at the Bruins’ players’ numbers, it’s not hard to see why. In the two-plus months since their horrid start, they have four ‘Wonderboys’ scoring at a point-per-game pace: Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci. Another five have at least eighteen points in that span (Milan Lucic, Rich Peverley, Nathan Horton, Zdeno Chara and Chris Kelly).
The unexpectedly impressive performances of their youngsters (namely Seguin and Marchand) have made a significant impact, bumping expectations for the Black and Gold. Entering the season projections for Seguin varied wildly, but few in the national hockey media predicted that a 19 year-old would jump into the realm of the point-per-game scorers (and he has, with 36 points in 36 games).
Marchand has similarly jumped over the bar of expectation. Coming into the season, many saw the B’s Honey Badger holding serve or perhaps regressing in terms of production. Instead, he’s got fifteen goals and thirty-one points and ‘on-pace’ for an almost shocking 33-36-69.
But even though these youngsters have elevated the B’s outlook, it wouldn’t be enough to bump their performance in the win-loss column by this factor. However, the Black and Gold have accumulated better-than-average showings from players up and down the lineup. In addition to the youngsters, Lucic, Peverley, Kelly, Chara and Ference are all in line for career years; and others are close and at least above their nominal expectations.
In fact, if we define ‘scoring at a first-line rate’ as producing at least among the top-90 forwards in the NHL (per game … minimum twenty games), the Bruins have seven forwards scoring at that pace so far over the course of the 2011-12 season: Seguin, Bergeron, Marchand, Lucic, Krejci, Peverley and Horton.
Seven ‘first-line’ forwards? That’s definitely a recipe for success. An eighth (Kelly) sits just outside, scoring at a very capable second-line rate while Beniot Pouliot, Gregory Campbell and Dan Paille are all managing to produce like third-liners. Among B’s forwards, only pugilist Shawn Thornton has tallied points at a sub-third-line rate.
Of course, the buck doesn’t stop with the offense. The Bruins under Claude Julien have always been a defense-first organization. Julien’s emphasis on system play and team defense has led to this squad currently placing first in the NHL in goals allowed, at a microscopic 1.84 per game.
In the season’s first month, the team looked far shakier in their own end than at any point during their race to the Cup last spring. However, as the season has worn on, guys like Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Andy Ference have returned to the form that made the B’s a blueline juggernaut in 2010-11.
Joe Corvo (brought in to replace the outgoing Tomas Kaberle) has been nearly-seamlessly integrated into the B’s system play. He might not bring the top-flight puck-moving prowess that Kaberle does (did?), but he’s a significantly better fit in the Bruins’ defensive zone.
The whole-season additions of Peverley and Kelly account for some of this. Both represent a marked defensive improvement over the players they replaced. Their defensive prowess has given the Bruins an additional shutdown forward line which, coupled with the post-October improvements from the team’s blueliners creates a squad with tremendous chance-limiting/mitigating prowess.
In net, the Bruins have been fortunate to enjoy not one, but two Vezina-caliber performances between the pipes this season. Tim Thomas has (so far) exceeded his numbers from 2010-11 and Tuukka Rask leads the NHL with a 1.49 GAA and a .949 Sv%.
As if the B’s needed more help during their almost-a-third-of-a-season run, Rask and Thomas have been nearly lights-out in the past 27 contests. Thomas sports exceedingly impressive 1.80 GAA, .945 Sv% and four shutouts during that span (earning a 16-2-0 record); while Rask has been otherworldly – posting a 1.14 GAA, a .961 Sv%, a 9-1-1 record with three shutouts since the beginning of November.
Resultantly, the Bruins five-on-five goal ratio is at an almost inconceivable level (2.09): The Bruins have scored more than twice as many goals at even strength as they’ve allowed.
Unlike last season, the B’s have benefited from consistently strong special teams play. They currently ice the League’s fourth-best penalty-kill and the seventh-best man advantage.
On the powerplay, the Bruins are getting more chances (on pace for 293 man-advantage opportunities – almost 30 more than 2010-11) and are finding the back of the net with increased regularity on those chances (19.7%). If they keep up their current rate of success, the B’s will score an additional 15 goals via the powerplay in 2011-12.
Part of that success comes from the additional chances but part of it comes from an elevated shooting percentage on the powerplay. The B’s are currently shooting 16.0% with the man advantage (compare that to a League-wide average of 12.0% and last year’s disappointing 11.0%).
So, to summarize, since the season’s second month the Bruins have received superlative production from their forwards (seven first liners … ouch!), with four point per game performances (and several close to that); they’ve seen their goaltenders reach staggering heights with more than a quarter of their games ending in a shutout; all the while their special teams have been outstanding and they’ve avoided major injuries.
With these facts in mind, it’s not really surprising that the B’s have been so successful. It’s been a staggering convergence of outstanding play from up and down the lineup. The only real consideration is if it will continue – a topic I’ll explore in detail later this weekend.