By Bob Mand, Boston Bruins Senior Correspondent
Despite a rough go of it in October, the Boston Bruins are close to where most thought they’d be, coming out of the All-Star Break with thirty wins and the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Still, even with their outstanding run from November till January, they’re only four points ahead of their closest divisional rival.
Who is this challenger, the number one contender to usurp Boston’s crown? Their arch-rivals, the Canadiens? The pre-season favorite Sabres? The much-discusses Leafs? No. The Ottawa Senators, last season’s Northeast bottom-feeders, are just four points back of the defending champs.
Yes, the Bruins have five games in-hand on the Sens. Yes, the Bruins have won both contests between the squads this year. Yes, the Senators give up more shots than they take and have one of the League’s worst defenses – but somehow, they’ve parlayed some resurgent performances from their veterans and a few remarkable breakthroughs by their youngsters into the fifth-best mark in the East.
With both teams having stumbled into the All-Star Break (and just the four points separating them), the matchup in Boston takes on even greater meaning as it has the added possibility of significantly swinging the second-half momentum for one or both of these franchises.
Since a 5-1 loss in Buffalo in mid-November the Sens had been on a roll, owning a 20-7-5 mark since that loss (until a three-game losing streak prior to the All-Star Game) and putting themselves in position to claim one of the eight spots for the bonus season.
The Senators are led by their four All-Stars: Milan Michalek, Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Captain Daniel Alfredsson. Karlsson has used his outstanding sophomore campaign as a springboard to ascendancy this year – his 47 point total leads all defensemen in scoring by a wide margin.
Michalek’s 23 goals are already his best as a Senator (and just three off his career best). Spezza has turned heads with his production (already 50 points) and might hit eighty for the first time since 2008. Alfredsson, in the twilight of his career, has found his scoring touch again and is leading one of the youngest teams in the League into surprising territory – contention.
Many had pegged Ottawa as lottery-bound, even a few argued they’d be in contention for the first pick in the 2012 Draft. Despite some early-season growing pains, there’s a belief in Canada’s capital that these Sens won’t be golfing in late April.
Still, it won’t be easy. The Senators have benefited from the League’s busiest first-half schedule with 52 games already under their belts. Additionally, Ottawa has come out of shootouts victorious five times and converted over a dozen games where they’ve trailed at any time into two points.
Additionally, the Sens will have to face the Bruins three times in the next month and once again in late April. The Bruins have dropped five goals on Ottawa twice already this year – so it behooves the Senators to find a way to improve their defensive capabilities. If the Senators have any hope of commandeering Boston’s control of the division, they’ll have to take two points from the majority of those games.
The Bruins enter Tuesday’s action after some inconsistent play (and a 5-4-1 mark) since their loss to the Vancouver Canucks in early January. Patrice Bergeron (one of, if not the biggest snub from the 2012 All-Star Game) has been on fire despite his team’s wobbly performance with four goals and ten points in the B’s last ten games to tie Tyler Seguin for the team lead in scoring.
There are rumblings that Tuukka Rask could see the start in place of Tim Thomas, who joined teammates Seguin and Zdeno Chara at the All-Star festivities in Ottawa and earned the victory for Team Chara (his fourth ASG win – the most ever). Thomas’ absence at the Bruins’ White House reception last week caused quite the stir and even sparked (ridiculous) trade rumors. Some wonder if B’s fans could give the Conn Smythe winner an icy reception in his first action since the incident.
The Bruins will be without the talents of Nathan Horton (sidelined by a concussion) and Andrew Ference (serving the final game of a three-game suspension). Steven Kampfer and Zach Hamill will fill in for their teammates.