Bruins in Good Company as MassMutual East Division Leader

The Boston Bruins staged yet another comeback to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 on Wednesday night, bumping them to the top of the East Division Standings. Now that they are ten games into the season, it is worth taking a look at the other three division leaders to see how the Bruins stack up.

We normally don’t think about playoff seeding this early, but ten games is a substantial part of a 56-game regular season (especially with some postponements coming up on the schedule), and we have learned a lot about the Bruins so far.

The East Division is the best in the NHL from top to bottom, as anticipated. With that in mind, the division’s number one seed will continue to change hands throughout the season. But as of today, the Bruins hold the top spot with a 7-1-2 record and 16 points. The Flyers and Washington Capitals are not far behind.

Boston Bruins celebrate David Pastrnak
Boston Bruins celebrate David Pastrnak’s goal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The other three division leaders are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Colorado Avalanche. The Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues are also in the mix. And then there are the Bruins.

After losing some key pieces in free agency and failing to acquire any big names, Boston was not expected to lead the East at this point — especially without David Pastrnak for most of the season. Yet here they are, and it’s not a fluke; the Bruins are a very good team. But how do they fare against the other division contenders?

Scotia North Division: Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens

First, let’s take a look at the teams up North. After Thursday night’s games, the Maple Leafs (8-2-1) hold a narrow lead over the Montreal Canadiens (7-2-2). While the Winnipeg Jets are also in the mix, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are a cut above the rest of their division so far.

Mitch Marner’s 17 points rank third in the league, while Auston Matthews leads the team with eight goals. Those two, along with Zach Hyman, make for a strong first line, though it isn’t quite at the level of Boston’s perfection line.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Derik Hamilton)

John Tavares and William Nylander each have over 10 points. Although Ilya Mikheyev hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, Toronto has received some surprising production from Jason Spezza, who scored a hat trick on Thursday night, and former Capital Travis Boyd, who has four points in three games. Wayne Simmonds is still around, for better or worse, with three goals, but he’s a minus-5 and has served 22 penalty minutes.

All in all, the Maple Leafs’ offense is off to a terrific start, with at least three goals in all of their games.

Top defenseman Morgan Rielly has dished out eight helpers, but he’s a surprising minus-2. He and TJ Brodie make up an average first line, all things considered. The second line of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl, on the other hand, is plus-5 and looks like the better pairing.

Goalie Frederik Anderson’s numbers are underwhelming, with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .888 save percentage. Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are both better options by a longshot. Though they have shown improvement, the Maple Leafs’ defense is still in the bottom half of the NHL, and they will have a hard time stopping the Canadiens, Jets, and Edmonton Oilers.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Pastrnak now back doing Pastrnak things, Boston’s offense would have little trouble scoring on Toronto. If they limit their penalties to keep the Mapl Leaf’s terrific power play out of the picture, the Bruins could beat them in a seven-game series.

The Canadiens are much more dangerous than the Maple Leafs. They lead the league with a plus-16 scoring differential, thanks to the efforts of their many talented young forwards and new acquisitions. Former Vancouver Canuck Tyler Toffoli has been on a tear, with nine goals and 13 points through 11 games, while Nick Suzuki (11 points) is thriving with eight assists, and five other forwards have more than seven points.

Montreal Canadiens' Mike Reilly Boston Bruins' Noel Acciari
Former Montreal Canadien Mike Reilly checks Boston Bruins’ Noel Acciari (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Winslow Townson)

Boston’s scoring is not nearly as balanced. With Pastrnak back to form, the first line has unsurprisingly dominated the scoring column for the Bruins. The power play has also found success with Nick Ritchie roaming around the crease, but production takes a big dip after these two units.

The Ben Chiarot/Shea Weber defensive pairing has been solid for Montreal, but the second pairing of Jeff Petry (13 points) and newcomer Joel Edmunson has looked the best thus far. The Victor Mete situation adds a degree of uncertainty to the Canadiens’ blue line, but it appears that the front office is intent on keeping him. With Mete in the lineup, all three defensive pairings pose a serious threat. They certainly have the upper hand on the Bruins at this position, despite the stellar play of Charlie McAvoy.

Jeff Petry Montreal Canadiens
Jeff Petry, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Habs also have a goalie rotation similar to the Bruins, with Carey Price starting six games and Jake Allen starting four. Price has seen better days, as he has given up 17 goals in his six starts. Rask and Halak are the more capable one-two punch in net with a better goals-against average and save percentage overall. With that said, Price and Allen have often been put into difficult situations thanks to the Canadiens’ major penalty problem.

Montreal has committed an absurd 53 penalties through ten games, which has averaged out to over 12 minutes of being shorthanded per contest. This leaves the defensemen gassed and puts the goalies on an island. They’ve managed to skirt around this problem so far, but it is not a recipe for long-term success. Boston’s instigators, particularly Brad Marchand and the emerging Trent Frederic, could manage to draw some penalties against their rivals if they meet in the playoffs.

At this point in the season, the Canadiens are a better team than the Bruins. They have more capable pieces on the offensive end, the defense is better and more experienced, and although Boston has the goaltending edge, this advantage is somewhat skewed by the Habs’ penalty problem. If they clean up some of these penalties, they might just be the best team in the NHL. But for now, that title belongs to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Discover Central Division: Tampa Bay Lightning

The defending champs have picked up right where they left off, recently embarrassing the Detroit Red Wings in a 5-1 blowout on Wednesday. They lead the Central Division with a 6-1-1 record and 13 points, but four other teams are within striking distance. The Carolina Hurricanes were their biggest threat early on, but they just took a major hit.

The Canes just lost goalie Petr Mrazek to an upper-body injury, so the gap has just widened between the Lightning and the rest of the field. Andrei Vasilevskiy firmly holds the distinction as the NHL’s best goaltender. Rask is not far behind, but we have to give the advantage to Tampa Bay here.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Offensively, the Lightning have not missed a beat without Nikita Kucherov. Steven Stamkos (10 points) has resumed his dominance after missing most of last season, while Brayden Point has solidified his status as the steal of the 2014 Draft.

Boston’s top line can compete with anybody, but as we get lower down the depth chart, it becomes clear that Tampa Bay has far more goal-scorers. Nick Ritchie and Craig Smith simply cannot keep up with the many scoring threats such as Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, and Yanni Gourde.

Defensively, Victor Hedman (10 points) is making his case for another Norris Trophy. Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev lead the second and third pairs, respectively, which makes for arguably the most balanced defense in the league. Even when Matt Grzelcyk returns to the lineup, the Bruins’ defense is not at the level of Tampa Bay’s.

Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Should the Bruins and Lightning meet again in the playoffs, the series would probably play out quite similarly to their bout in 2020, especially with Kucherov back in the lineup. This is not a criticism of Boston, but praise for Tampa Bay. They are the best team in the league until proven otherwise, and I cannot envision the Bruins eliminating them this season.

Honda West Division: Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues

After the Blues’ loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night, the Avalanche (7-3-1) lead the West Division thanks to a plus-14 scoring differential. Most of this comes from their 8-0 drubbing of the Blues earlier this season. Most of us would firmly put the Avalanche over the Blues, if not for one glaring factor: the Nathan MacKinnon injury.

MacKinnon’s status is week-to-week. His absence leaves a huge void in Colorado’s lineup, but there are plenty of names who can contribute to filling that void. The new first line of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and JT Compher is still above average. Joonas Donskoi, Brandon Saad, Andrei Burakovsky, and Nazem Kadri all have at least three goals, so the Avalanche are not lacking in scoring options.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

All three defensive lines also have a legitimate scoring threat, with Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and Ryan Graves. Devin Toews will be added to that list when he returns from injured reserve. Additionally, Philip Grubauer has played fantastic in net so far, giving up just 1.67 goals per start. With all of these names in the lineup, it’s easy to see why THW ranked the Avalanche as having the best defense in the NHL before the season began. The Bruins’ defense doesn’t hold a candle to this unit (nor does anybody else, frankly).

Assuming MacKinnon is healthy for the playoffs, this would be a rough matchup for Boston. Even the Bruins’ perfection line would have a hard time keeping up with Colorado’s multitude of scoring options from everywhere on the ice. There is a reason some have dubbed the Avalanche as the NHL’s next dynasty. They are stacked with young talent at every position and should break away from St. Louis as the division’s clear-cut favorite when MacKinnon and Toews return.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. The Blues and Avalanche are the odd teams out among the other division leaders. They are ranked 10th and 11th in ESPN’s latest power rankings, well behind Boston (fourth), Toronto (third), Montreal (second), and Tampa Bay (first).

Jordan Kyrou (12 points) has been a pleasant surprise, leading the scoring column along with Brayden Schenn and David Perron. Jaden Schwartz (plus-11) makes up a red-hot second line along with Kyrou and Schenn. Captain Ryan O’Reilly is doing captain things, and Zach Sanford looks to be emerging from his slump.

Jordan Kyrou St. Louis Blues
Jordan Kyrou, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While the offense has looked great, the defense is taking some time to find its footing. After a shaky start, they recently shut down the Anaheim Ducks in a two-game sweep. Torey Krug has added some finesse to the blue line and power play, and he has played well with the improving Justin Faulk.

Vince Dunn and Colton Parayko make up arguably the best second pairing in the NHL on paper, but Dunn has underperformed, and the team may trade him soon. St. Louis still has a strong defense with or without him, and the Bruins’ young blueliners don’t quite measure up in terms of skill and experience.

Vince Dunn St. Louis Blues
Vince Dunn, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jordan Binnington is a great young goalie (Bruins fans can attest to that), but he is not at the level of the veteran Rask. At least not yet.

Despite suffering some embarrassing losses early on, the Blues seem to be finding their way. They are a difficult team to evaluate compared to the other contenders in the league, just as they were during their 2019 championship run. They shut down a solid opponent like the Ducks for two straight games, then turned around and lost to the Coyotes. This is what the Blues do.

However, if St. Louis pulls it all together and makes a deep playoff run, the Bruins would love nothing more than to avenge that heartbreaking 2019 Final loss. With the toughness Boston has shown so far this season, I feel that they would succeed in exacting their revenge against the Blues.

Bruins Belong With the Best

I am not confident that the Bruins, or any team for that matter, would win a series against the Lightning. I have a similar feeling about a matchup with the Avalanche. There are just too many pieces for Bruce Cassidy’s club to account for. However, a matchup with the Blues, Maple Leafs, or Canadiens is more intriguing.

A series with the Blues would be hard-hitting and chippy, to say the least. It would be interesting to see how the Bruins’ young defensemen would handle it, but you don’t make it that deep into the playoffs by accident. Should these two teams meet, McAvoy and company will be up to the challenge. Also, keep an eye out for Trent Frederic in that one. He looks made for that series, judging from what we’ve seen.

A series with Toronto has the makings of a shootout, which I feel the Bruins would win if they play smart, clean hockey and limit their penalties. The Maple Leafs don’t look quite ready for a Stanley Cup Final appearance yet. They are just too shaky on the defensive end, and I wonder if they have what it takes to out-gun those other teams in the North Division when the playoffs come around.

Naturally, a series with the Canadiens is the one we all want to see.

Jacques Plante
14 Dec 1955, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante (r), knocks out a shot fired by Boston Bruins player Vic Stasiuk (c) during the first period of a hockey game held at Boston Garden. Cal Gardner (l) watches as his teammate Vic takes the shot at goa
Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The two teams have not met in the semifinals or final since 1978-79, so this one would be historic regardless of the outcome. If the hockey gods decide to bless us with this matchup, it will go to at least six games. The Canadiens admittedly look better at the moment, but Boston has more playoff experience and better goaltending. Both of these factors tend to become more important the deeper a team gets in the playoffs, so should the Bruins make it this far, I would give them the edge over Montreal.

Pastrnak and the first line is rolling, Rask and Halak are both great options in goal, and McAvoy is the leader they need on a blue line that will continue to improve as its young pieces get more comfortable. New faces Ritchie and Smith are exceeding expectations. The Bruins have shown great character and resiliency through these first ten games, proving that they belong with the league’s best.

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