Keep it up.
(End of article.)
With three words I could sum up how well the Boston Bruins have been playing of late. With a record of 15-3-2 over their last 20 games of 2017 and a win to begin the new year there really aren’t any glaring issues holding the team back.
They employ one of the best lines in hockey and have of been receiving copious amounts of depth scoring of late. Tuukka Rask has been playing his best hockey since the 2013-14 Season, in which he captured the Vezina Trophy. Anton Khudobin has played so well that there were calls for him to replace Rask as the starter just one month ago — only two teams in the league are giving up fewer goals per game than the Bruins.
The rookies, led by presumptive Calder Trophy candidate Charlie McAvoy, have been as good as advertised, steadying the blue line and filling out the depth chart with aplomb.
The Bruins currently sit in second place in the Atlantic Division and are comfortably entrenched in playoff position, thanks to the collective struggles of everyone not named the Lightning or Maple Leafs — really, the rest of the division is downright awful.
However, fortunes can change in a moment. Players cool off. Injuries occur. Other teams catch fire.
Should Boston have designs of not only locking-up a playoff spot but also making waves once the “second season” begins, here are five ways in which the team can ensure continued success:
Simple enough, right?
Grabbing the first goal of a contest is never a bad policy, but some teams are better suited to come from behind than others. Take the electric Tampa Bay Lightning, for example. Sixteen times through their first 38 games they have conceded the first goal, and yet they own a 10-4-2 record in those contests.
Red-hot though they may be, the Bruins are not nearly as successful when playing from behind. Boston has also conceded the first goal 16 times, but have a record of just 5-9-2 when doing so.
Conversely, when Boston scores first they own a record of 17-1-4.
The Bruins have done a much better job of late of getting off to a fast start. The seemingly disaffected, wayward starts that plagued the team late in the Claude Julien era have largely been eradicated under Bruce Cassidy. Nonetheless, cashing-in on those “engaged” starts and jumping out to a lead are paramount to the success of a Bruins team built to grind things out and wear teams down.
Develop Killer Instinct Against League’s Best
This may seem to fly in the face of the previous bullet point considering Boston’s sterling record when playing with a lead. But there is a subtle, underlying trend that suggests Boston has difficulty putting away the league’s better teams, their record notwithstanding. And considering those are the teams the Bruins figure to meet come playoff-time it bears mentioning.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, the team jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on the New Jersey Devils. After conceding the proximate goal they allowed the tying tally with less than five minutes to play before ultimately winning via shootout.
One week later they resoundingly outplayed the Tampa Bay Lightning for 30 minutes to the tune of a 3-0 lead. Boston barely hung on in that contest, recording just four shots on goal in the third frame after registering 32 over the first two periods; they won 3-2.
Most recently, the B’s exploded out of the gate versus the Washington Capitals, clearly sick and tired of losing to a team that, for whatever reason, absolutely owns them. After scoring twice in the first two minutes the Bruins slowly, surely lost their grip. They were held scoreless for the next 45 minutes, coughed-up their two-goal lead and then relinquished a subsequent 3-2 lead en route to a loss in the shootout.
As of this writing, the aforementioned clubs own the three best records in the Eastern Conference. Boston had all three against the ropes early in the respective contests and failed to put them away when they had the chance. Though it may seem like nitpicking, that’s a trend that could come back to haunt Boston down the line.
Developing that killer instinct against the league’s best could be the difference between playing hockey and playing golf come May.
Boost the Power Play
At first glance, this may seem to be nitpicking as well. After all, Boston’s power play sits ninth in the league, clicking at 20.6 percent. However, going beyond the face-value of the numbers paints a slightly more accurate picture of the team’s effectiveness with the man advantage.
Over four games versus Vancouver (October 19), Washington (December 14), Columbus (December 18) and Ottawa (December 30), the Bruins cashed-in with the man-advantage 11 times in 21 opportunities; exceptional, explosive numbers. The good news is that three of those instances occurred within the last three weeks. The bad news is that they have greatly inflated the numbers of what has otherwise been a weaker, inconsistent aspect of the team’s performance.
Removing those four contests from the equation gives Boston just 15 goals in 105 chances over 34 games. That 14.3% rate would be the third-worst power play in the NHL.
The return of David Krejci has already paid dividends for Boston’s power play — the 31-year-old factored into two of Boston’s three goals with the man-advantage in his return versus Ottawa. Moreover, power play ace Ryan Spooner has been playing some of the best hockey of his Bruins career of late. Actually having those two healthy and on the power play (simultaneously or on separate units) could bring Boston the stability they’ve needed with the man-advantage.
With the league drastically cracking-down on slashing infractions and the Bruins actually being an excellent skating team (which is still surprising for me to see), the power play opportunities will continue to be bountiful. If Boston can find a way to consistently make their opponents pay for their crimes they will be a very, very difficult team to beat down the stretch and into the postseason.
Easier said than done, this one has more to do with the “Hockey Gods” than the Bruins themselves.
A vicious-string of injuries early in the campaign forced the Bruins into survival mode. They were barely keeping their heads above water, and owned a record of 6-7-4 halfway through the month of November.
The subsequent return to health has enabled the team to erupt to a 16-3-2 record ever since. Nothing, absolutely nothing is more important than health, as Count Rugen of “The Princess Bride” would attest.
We’ve seen how potent and formidable this edition of the Bruins can be when blessed with a full, healthy lineup; the results speak for themselves. And though the team has displayed considerable, even enviable depth of late, this machine can only click on all cylinders when the pieces are in their appropriate places. A couple simultaneous injuries to key players and the whole machine can cease to function.
Here’s to hoping the “Hockey Gods” and injury bugs have already had their fun with this team…
Let The Good Times Roll
This is not only an excellent song by “The Cars,” it’s also more or less all Boston can do in the midst of their incredible hot streak. They’ve built a nine-point cushion between themselves and the outside of the playoff bubble. They have their health. Tuukka Rask has summoned all the powers of The Force to keep pucks out of Boston’s net, and the team is receiving contributions up and down the lineup en route to being considered legitimate contenders.
The good times won’t last forever, however. Players will inevitably cool off or get dinged up throughout the arduous 82-game schedule. “Puck Luck” will invariably turn against them. And when things do take a turn for the worse, the same folks reserving their Stanley Cup Finals tickets today will be once again questioning the team’s legitimacy.
But as “The Cars” say in the titular song above, “Let the stories be told, let them say what they want.”
The Boston Bruins can merely focus on the process, bank as many points as possible while the getting is good and prevent bad habits from creeping into their game while “puck luck” is on their side. If they can stay healthy while making a habit of scoring first, cashing-in on the power play and putting good teams away when they have the chance….look out.
This team is for real. Enjoy the ride.