The Boston Bruins will never be considered anything close to a dynasty. It’s probably sobering for Bruins fans how close they are to being one, if anything can actually be sobering for Bruins fans. Had Zdeno Chara hit the other side of the post in Game 1 against the Hawks in 2013, and if Brad Marchand had maybe bothered to show up for the 2019 Final, maybe they’d have the same three Cups over eight seasons that the Penguins or Hawks could boast. That’s how close these things are in hockey.
While they won’t raise a banner for it (they aren’t the Predators after all), and fans won’t hoist beers in honor of it, there has been no team in the NHL with a longer track record of regular season excellence than the Bs. The last time they didn’t play at least at a 90+ point pace was 2007. They have missed the playoffs twice in that stretch, but in those seasons they compiled 93 and 96 points. It’s still hard for hockey fans and hockey observers to come to terms with the fact that good teams miss the playoffs now, as the sport is still kind of lodged in the era where 16 of 21 teams made it. The Bruins then were hardly bad. They have played at a 100+ point pace the five seasons after those misses (there were two abbreviated seasons in that time). The Bruins are just always there.
It felt like this was supposed to be the season where the end would at the very least knock on the door and peek into the window to see if anyone was home. Both Charlie McAvoy, the team’s best defenseman, and Brad Marchand, a top-line winger, were supposed to be out for months. It wasn’t clear that Patrice Bergeron would return. They fired their coach after their first round exit. The team seemed a little desperate while trying to coax David Krejčí back from semi-retirement in Europe after he had left the previous summer.
The Bruins have the best record in hockey, 9-1-0. They capped that off last night by overcoming a three-goal deficit on the road in Pittsburgh to kneecap the Penguins, 6-5, in OT. They got goals from six different guys to do it, while Hampus Lindholm piled up four points (1G, 3A). And Marchand returned two months earlier than expected. So he’s back to annoy the piss out of everyone.
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Lindholm has been the real story for Boston, a deadline pickup last year that has stepped into the top pairing role while McAvoy recovers from offseason surgery. Lindholm has always been a nifty puck-mover but plied his trade out of sight and out of mind in Anaheim for his entire career. But new coach Jim Montgomery’s system, which prioritizes getting up the ice quickly and turning defense into offense as quickly as possible, has seemingly hit Lindholm right between the eyes. There are few D-men in the league you’d rather have retrieving loose puck and whipping a pass out of the zone to a streaking forward.
Matt Grzelcyk, who has been a sneaky good transition D-man doing some bum-slaying on the bottom pairing for the Bs for a while now, is another who is gobbling up Montgomery’s system tweaks. Both have also seen a jump in the number of good chances the Bs get with them on the ice (rise in xG/60 for both) thanks to Montgomery’s preference for eschewing blind and hopeful point shots in favor of a d-man holding on and trying to get either himself or the puck into a better area. When McAvoy returns, the Bs will have someone to get them up the ice quickly on every pairing. Through these charts, you can really see how Montgomery stresses getting the puck into better areas to shoot rather than just fire at the first opportunity like his predecessor Bruce Cassidy preferred.
The offensive load up front has been carried by David Pastrnak, who has once again done it while playing away from Bergeron. Mostly he’s been re-paired with Krejci, until the latter’s recent injury, and he’s 18 points (7G, 11A) in just 12 games. Bergeron, as he was last year and increasingly throughout his career, has been used simply as an offensive force, starting nearly two-thirds of his shifts in the offensive zone. It’s Charlie Coyle’s line that has taken the dungeon shifts to free up everyone else.
What hasn’t changed is the defensive blanket the Bruins have always been, under three different coaches now. They’re sixth in attempts against and 5th in expected goals against. The real surprise has been Linus Ullmark’s .932 save-percentage in net, along with his 4.8 goals saved above expected already this season (he put up 5.2 in 41 starts last year). While the Bruins have suppressed chances and attempts in their normal fashion, they have given up more from the prime areas than they’d like (2021-22 for comparison).
Whether Ullmark can keep this up is a question, though a rebound from Jeremy Swayman who has been woeful so far this season after a promising rookie year would help balance that out.
The Atlantic doesn’t allow for anyone to take a breath, but the Bruins are right where they always are. It was ever thus.