Bruins Ran Through the Gauntlet and Surpassed Expectations

Stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Boston Bruins are good. This was true two weeks ago when I wrote it, and it remains true now. Since the middle of November, the Bruins have been able to silence any doubts that remained around the hockey world. They have set an NHL record for consecutive home wins to start a season, and led the league in points for much of the year. The Bruins did both things, taking the league by storm to start the season.

Even though the Bruins answered these questions, there remained some who were unconvinced. These concerns mostly centered around the schedule they played in those first months of the season. Although they had a win over the New Jersey Devils it came early on during their pedestrian 4-3 start where fans were chanting “Fire Lindy” at their head coach Lindy Ruff. Another “quality” win came against the Florida Panthers while they worked to integrate their offseason acquisitions while fighting the injury bug.

Following this easy schedule, the Bruins entered a brutal stretch of games. Their last seven games have come against teams that currently occupy a playoff position, or made the playoffs last year. In these seven games, the Bruins twice matched up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, twice against the Colorado Avalanche, and once against the Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, and Vegas Golden Knights. Now that this portion of the schedule is completed, how did the Bruins fare against some of the league’s best?

Bruins’ Expectations For This Tough Stretch

Looking at the upcoming string of games, I suggested the Bruins could consider it a success if they came away with points in five of the seven matchups, ideally with the full two points in at least four of them. As an optimist, I predicted a 4-1-2 record, but really thought it could be closer to 3-2-2. The Bruins saw my optimistic outlook and raised me, going 5-1-1 during the stretch. The loss came early on against the Panthers in a close game, but a game that was tilting in Florida’s favor from the get-go. The overtime/shootout loss? That came Tuesday against former Bruins’ coach Bruce Cassidy and his new squad, the Golden Knights.

Phil Kessel Vegas Golden Knights
Phil Kessel, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

The game against Vegas was one of the most exciting of the year, even though the B’s started slow and found themselves in a 3-0 hole by the second period. This game was one of the first times Jim Montgomery’s system seemed to be out of sync, as nothing the Bruins tried seemed to work. Their normal breakout play, flying the zone leading to an offensive chance, was intercepted and turned into a Golden Knights goal. The offensive zone cycle that had been so deadly for the Bruins all season long, failed to deliver results in this game. Boston seemed to be sputtering until a late second-period goal by Taylor Hall snapped the team back to life. All of a sudden, an offensive onslaught began, resulting in three unanswered goals and a tie heading to overtime. With the 3-on-3 period playing to a stalemate, this back-and-forth contest was settled through the shootout.

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The Bruins had two games against the defending Cup Champion Avalanche during this stretch of games. The B’s outscored Colorado 9-1 over the two nights, even with the Avalanche fielding a severely hamstrung roster due to their own injury issues, is as good of a statement win as the team could hope to have. On top of these wins, the Bruins handled last season’s Stanley Cup runner-up in the Lightning. Although the main talking point from the game came from the commentary box, the Bruins once again demonstrated their ability to hang with and dictate play against a team that has been the cream of the crop over the last few seasons.

As if that win wasn’t enough, the Bruins also mixed in a victory over the Hurricanes, the team that swept them last year in the regular season, and ended Boston’s season in the playoffs. After giving up the first two goals, some in TD Garden certainly felt a shadow of doubt or some version of “here we go again” as the Canes seemed to have the Bruins’ number. Instead of folding, Montgomery’s squad came charging back, dominating play and deserving the two points the team came away with following a furious comeback.

What Worked For the Bruins During This Stretch

A 5-1-1 stretch would suggest the Bruins did a lot of things right. Actually, a 20-3-1 record would say the Bruins have done a lot of things right all season, but that’s beside the point. One of the most notable outcomes from these games, has been Hall’s emergence, albeit on the third line, as a dominant force. In partnering with Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic, he has elevated the Bruins to a new level. While he was fine on the second line with David Krejci and David Pastrnak, moving him down to the third line created an opportunity to fully utilize his skill set as a play driver. Hall is a player who likes to have the puck on his stick to feel out the game and play with rhythm. When he is partnered with Krejci and Pastrnak, two players who also want the puck on their stick for the same rhythm, he can be lost in the shuffle. Although the second line would find him alongside higher skilled players, the responsibility and opportunity to maximize the touches he gets, mean his new line may fit better from a production standpoint.

Taylor Hall Boston Bruins
Taylor Hall, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On his current line, Hall can be the driver. While driving, he has complementary pieces around him. Coyle can fish out pucks from the corners and has shown his dominant puck retrieval skills, allowing his line to extend their offensive zone opportunities. Following this retrieval, he has the skill to find Hall for a scoring chance. In Frederic, Hall has a big body, net front presence that allows any shot to be dangerous thanks to the threat of a screen or deflection. Recently, Frederic has also begun to showcase a one-timer should he find himself out away from the crease.

The engine making all of this tick though is Hall. As the Bruins’ silver medalist in terms of even strength points, only trailing the Hart Trophy candidate Pastrnak, points to the importance of his contributions. He is not just taking advantage of powerplay ice time, not that there is anything wrong with special teams points, but it is no secret even strength points are harder to come by. Being able to make a meaningful contribution at even strength lengthens the Bruins’ lineup and is one of the key factors separating this team from the pack.

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This depth has been vital all season long. By sliding Hall down to the third line, the Bruins have a legitimate case at the strongest top-nine forward group in the league. On any given night, any of the three forward lines can dictate the game and drive the team to victory.

Bruins Moving Forward

I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but at some point, what else is there to say about this team? They are good, very, very good. Having taken on top teams from around the league and coming out on top over 70 percent of the time in this seven-game stretch cements that claim. It is safe to say this isn’t a hot streak or a fad, this Bruins team is a serious contender who will look to continue pacing the league throughout the season.

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