January 10, 2018 | 2:50pm ET
By SHAWN HUTCHEON, The Fourth Period
HEY BOSTON, THE BRUINS ARE FUN AGAIN
Brad Marchand, forward
BOSTON, MA -- Calling all sports fans of Boston and New England teams, many of you have not been paying attention to the Boston Bruins, and it is understandable. With a 33-10 record, the first-place Celtics are enjoying one of their best seasons in quite a while. You have also been talking about how the Red Sox continue to need a power bat. And, of course, there are the Patriots. As you know, your football team is on the verge of winning another Super Bowl.
Listen to me when I tell you it is time that you begin paying attention to the Bruins again.
No, they do not “still suck.” No, they do not need to trade Tuukka, or Chara, or Krejci, or Backes. Yes, they are good. Very good, in fact, and you need to begin paying attention to them again. And here’s why...
Coach Bruce Cassidy’s squad is in its bye week with a 23-10-7 record and a second-place standing in the Atlantic Division. All this while enduring 155 man-games lost due to injury.
When this NHL season began, in many preseason predictions, your Bruins were not considered to be a team that would see postseason action. They were considered to be a team with veterans who had won a Stanley Cup in 2011 and a team with too many holes due to the lack of experience in the lineup. The young players had potential but not enough game action to be ready to contribute to a playoff run.
Goaltending was also big question mark.
Tuukka Rask was coming off a subpar season. When Boston’s season ended with a six game loss to the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs, it was revealed that Rask had played a large portion of the year with a groin injury that required off-season surgery.
Rask’s backup netminder, Anton Khudobin, had a very disappointing season. One in which he posted a 7-6-1 record accompanied by a 2.64 goals against average and a .904 save percentage.
Expectations were not high for this 2017-18 season.
Fast forward to January, 2018.
Veterans Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Rask, all holdovers from that Stanley Cup team, have all battled injuries and/or illness but when healthy have been walking definitions of leadership on and off the ice.
Chara is playing his best hockey in three years. He no longer needs to try to do too much and his game is flourishing. He is sixth in the League with a plus-20. Remember when his Time On Ice was an issue? That is not the case any longer. The coaching staff has reduced his ice time to an average of 23:20 per game which ranks 29th in the NHL and he has not missed a game all season. I will answer your question as to how can the coaches do that, in a moment.
Bergeron, who missed the first five games of the season with a lower-body injury, may be having the best season of his career. His game has never been more complete in all three zones of the ice and is fourth on the club in scoring with 32 points in 35 contests. Like Chara, he carries a plus-20 rating (seventh-best in the NHL). And did you hear Bergeron was named the League’s First Star for the week ending January 8th? All he did that week was score five goals and two assists in three games with four of those lamplighters coming in the club’s tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes on January 7th. His third goal of the night was his 700th point of his NHL/Bruins career. Of course, his mastery in the faceoff circle continues to be one of his fortes. He has won 57.7-percent of his draws with 60.4-percent of those wins in the defensive zone.
Marchand leads the team scoring with 40 points (27th in the circuit) on 17 goals and 23 assists. The 29-year-old forward is ninth with a plus-19. Put it all together and Marchand will represent the Bruins at the 2018 All-Star tournament in Tampa Bay.
Krejci has spent 18 games on the injured list but when in the lineup, Boston is a much better team especially on the power play. He has contributed 17 points in 22 games. The Bruins are 14-6-2 with the 31-year-old center in uniform.
After a slow start to his season followed by a concussion, Rask has been the toast of the town and the NHL. He has been a lot better pretty good while compiling a 14-8-3. He’s carrying a .920 save percentage which ranks him among the top ten of the League’s goaltenders while his 2.23 goals against average ranks Rask third in the NHL. Add to that that the Finnish native’s efforts were rewarded with his being named First Star for the Month for December by the NHL and you have a puck-stopper worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration.
What about Khudobin you ask? You really have not been paying attention, have you?
All the man they call Dobby has done is put together a record of 9-2-0 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.37 goals against average. Khudobin changed his training regimen during the off-season and it has paid very good dividends for the native of Kazakhstan.
Add in 13 year veteran David Backes who missed four weeks of the season after undergoing surgery that required the removal of 10 inches of his colon due to diverticulitis only to be named the circuit’s Third Star for the Week ending on January 1 after recording six points in three games and you have a leadership group that is arguably the strongest in the NHL.
Not only are the club’s “elder statesmen” having seasons that are exceeding expectations, general manager Don Sweeney’s plan to let the young players play and develop in the NHL regardless of how many mistakes they made is showing the fruits of the GM’s labor.
David Pastrnak may only be in his fourth season with the Bruins but he is second on the club with 39 points on 17 goals and 22 assists. Fourteen of his points have come on the power play.
Boston’s fourth-place scorer is rookie Danton Heinen with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists). His value is skyrocketing with the production of eight points on Boston’s power play. Heinen’s point total may not send shivers down your spine but the 22-year-old is fifth among the League’s first-year players.
Jake DeBrusk is another first-year player who started out white-hot for Boston. He has cooled off a bit and has been a healthy scratch once but his play is trending upwards since being placed on Krejci’s line. In 36 games, DeBrusk has scored nine goals and 12 assists for a total of 21 points (14th in NHL rookie scoring). Not to mention, he leads the Bruins with three game-winning goals.
As you can see, as individuals the Bruins are playing pretty well. Now, put them together in lines and defense pairings and you have a team that has become the talk of the League.
The top trio is Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand. If you have not seen them play but think they should be one of the NHL’s best lines, you are correct. They play with speed and know where each other are at all times. Oh, you might like to know that the New York Islanders scored against them in a five-on-five situation and it is the only five-on-five goal the Bergeron line has yielded all season.
The club’s second line consists of DeBrusk, Krejci, and Ryan Spooner (two of Spooner’s four goals have been game-winners). This line is highly skilled and pushes the pace all night long.
The third line sees Heinen, Riley Nash, and Backes. Backes is the leader who constantly talks on the ice which his linemates appreciate. Heinen and Nash have said that they learn something new from Backes every day. Nash has contributed five goals and 13 assists for a total of 18 points and has been very effective in the face off circle, winning 51.2-percent of his draws.
The fourth line may be the best surprise of the season. Comprised of Sean Kuraly, Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari (fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively in hits on the club) this trio is being compared to the Merlot Line of Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell, and Daniel Paille, from the 2011 season. The 2018 version does not have a nickname yet but they bring an energy and physicality that have been missing for a year or two. They have also contributed 18 goals on the season.
On the blueline, Chara is, and always will be, the leader of the pack.
Torey Krug has emerged as an offensive defenseman who has garnered 22 points including five while on the man-advantage.
Kevan Miller has always been counted on for his defensive game but the 30-year-old native of Los Angeles has added a bit of an offensive dimension to his game by showing the ability to carry the puck out of the defensive zone and make plays that set up scoring opportunities. Always one to stand up for his teammates and dropping the gloves when necessary, Miller leads the Bruins with 54 penalty minutes and is second on the team with 90 hits.
Brandon Carlo, last year’s rookie defenseman who made great strides as an NHL player is rounding into a solid defensive defenseman who is hard to play against. He has posted five assists but more importantly, he is a plus-8 in the plus/minus category.
Speaking of rookie defensemen, Matt Grzelcyk was recalled from the Providence Bruins (AHL) when Adam McQuaid went out of the lineup with a fractured leg. Grzelcyk has filled in admirably with his speed, puck carrying, passing, and defensive skills. He is playing at a plus-13 clip which is 32nd among all NHL players and fourth in rookie plus/minus in the League.
Of course, one cannot talk about the Bruins defense without introducing you to Rookie of the Year candidate Charlie McAvoy. If you have not seen this young man (20-years-old) play, you have been missing out in a big way. All he has done is lead all rookies with an average of 22:53 Time On Ice per game (second on the Bruins). He has scored five goals (two on the power play), assisted on 16 goals (10th among all rookies), totaling 21 points (15th among rookies). One of his goals was of the game-winning variety and Boston is 12-3-2 in games in which he records a point. His plus-14 is second on the list of first-year players and did I mention he leads Boston in hits with 92 (fifth-best in the NHL)? Now do you understand why Chara’s ice time has decreased? McAvoy has not replaced Chara. He has just lightened the captain’s load.
When you put it all together, you have a team that is 11th in goals scored (129) in the League and second-best with only 100 goals allowed.
There is room for improvement on the special teams but overall they have been looking pretty good. The power play is 11th with a 20.8-percent success rate while the penalty kill is ranked ninth at an 82.8-percent rate.
After a recent game, Marchand commented on the feeling that is permeating throughout the roster.
“We’re confident right now,” Marchand said. “We’re confident in our ability in the group. We knew it was coming. We had a lot of injuries. We knew we just needed some time to come together. It seems like everyone is connecting.
“When you have a group that is united the way we are, it normally carries over out on the ice. You see all the best teams, all the teams that win every year, they're so close off the ice and it just translates into your game. That's kind of the way it is in this room right now. It's a lot of fun to see and be a part of and it's just enjoyable to come to the rink every day.”
Bergeron is also enjoying the atmosphere surrounding the club.
“I think everyone is contributing,” he commented. “We’ve had some guys go in and out of the lineup. And whoever has been called upon to have more responsibility, has done so. It’s been great, it’s been a fun ride and we gotta keep that going. I think that the young guys are doing a tremendous job to be ready and to do the job and to help us win games. And hopefully, us as older guys, we can help them get more comfortable, feeling better and learn from us. We’ve got a good mix. It’s been fun.”
And that’s exactly how those who have been paying attention describe this Bruins team. Fun. The one refrain that is being heard throughout Bruins nation is, “The Bruins are fun to watch.”
So, to those of you who vacated your seat at the Bruins Nation table, come back. Obviously, you can continue to watch and talk about the Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots but I guarantee, once you become reacquainted with your Bruins, you will talk about them again and you will not want to stop because they are fun to watch and I predict you will watch them play well into the postseason.