I was going to write this a good while ago, but the B's blew a few games, fell into a slump, which became a funk, which became a trend, and it felt weird to write about how good they were while they were on the verge of tanking. But finally, the Bruins came out of it. They beat the Devils 4-1, then the Flyers on the road, and clinched their 22nd divisional title, their first since 2004. They’re also assured the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Who are these guys? How did this team win 51 games, rack up 112 points (most in Eastern Conference history, and the smart hockey fans will know how many caveats and "buts" that record entails), be 3rd in goals scored, and 1st in goals allowed? Last year, the Bruins were 8th in the East, squeeking into the playoffs by 2 points, and allowed 10 more goals than they scored. How is this happening?
Let's start with the most valuable player on the team. Tim Thomas is a Vezina candidate, with a 2.07 GAA (lowest in the NHL), and a .933 Save Percentage (highest in the NHL). He took a very strange road to get to where he is. He played four seasons at Vermont, was drafted by the Nordiques, played some minor league hockey, then a few years in Finland, then more minors, then more Finland, and he finally emerged as the Bruins’ #1 last year when Manny Fernandez was hurt. But even at the beginning of the 08-09 season, he was to share time with Fernandez. That arrangement became obsolete in November when Thomas went 6-1-1 with a 1.82 GAA and a .941 SV%.
Thomas' improvement is multifaceted. Last year he was solid, but now he's flat-out great. He worked on his core strength and flexibility. He's become a master of reading the play in front of him. He still struggles with puck-handling from time to time, and he's not as quick off his feet as could be. But, his poise and awareness make up for these miniscule shortcomings. He's in that upper echelon of goalies that make me think that there really are Jedi Knights.
A goalie can't do it alone. And if there’s one thing about the Bruins' way of doing things, it's that NOBODY wins alone. If the Bruins were a Broadway play, they’d have an ensemble cast, not lead and supporting actors.
Captain Zdeno Chara is the team's big brother. The 6'9" 260 pound Norris Trophy candidate averages just over 26 minutes of ice time per game. He's a force on the penalty kill, and has 2 short-handed assists. He's even more of a presence on the power play with 9 goals and 16 assists. Overall, he’s got 18 goals (4th among defensemen), 30 assists, and 166 hits. His wingspan makes him one of the most frustrating defenseman in the NHL. He plays like a bastard, getting booed in every Northeast Division arena except the Garden. And when a teammate is cornered, Chara is almost always the one that breaks up the siege, and makes someone pay.
How did the Bruins become so good? By sucking for a few years, collecting some premium draft picks, and building a good solid foundation from the ground up. Phil Kessel is part of that young foundation. The 21 year old winger leads the team with 32 goals. He’s cooled off from a red hot pace at the start of the season, and missed considerable time with mono, but he's the top shot on the team. He’s a force in all three zones. He and linemate Marc Savard have a bit of a rivalry when it comes to defensive play. Each trying to one-up the other.
Last year, Kessel was benched by Coach Claude Julien in the playoff series against Montreal. Kessel heard the message loud and clear. Since then, he's a three zone player, and a not-so-selfish scorer. But he's still a scorer, with the skill-set to score 50+ goals.
Last year, Milan Lucic was a rumor. This year, he's a fact. He's been dubbed the next Cam Neely, which is pretty much the highest praise one can receive in New England. Go to a pee-wee hockey game in Greater Boston, shout out the name "Cam!" and watch half the kids on the ice look up because you've called their name. His 258 hits are good enough for 5th in the League. And all 258 of his victims remember those hits. But he’s also rounded himself out as a complete player. Last year, he was a token 4th liner. This year he's spent time on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines. He’s more than doubled his goal total from last year with 17. Throw in 24 assists and a +15 rating.
Most of all, the kid (who turns 21 in June) can fight...
I'm gonna start calling him YouTube.
Some have started to call David Krejci "Neo" because of the way he seemingly alters the rules of time and space. The "2nd line" center has 22 goals, 50 assists, and the 2nd best +/- in the League at +37. He finds space none else could find, makes space if it isn’t there, and creates wormhole passing lanes that simply don’t exist for humanoids. He’s only 22, but has the hockey IQ of a 10 year veteran.
The Bruins have three players in the top five of +/-, and Dennis Wideman is one of them. The former 8th round pick has been a remarkable find for the Bruins. He's tallied 13 goals and 36 assists this season, but also played solid in the team's layered defense, as indicated by his +33. He doesn't make big mistakes, and he’s only been in the box for 34 minutes this season. He has 19 power play assists.
Marc Savard was another diamond in the rough. He came to Boston from the Thrashers with 20 goal potential and a not-so-good reputation. But in three seasons in black and gold, he’s turned into one of the League's best playmakers. He's on the verge of his 200th assist with the team (197). He's the leading scorer on the B's with 84 points and counting.
Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler were the two biggest acquisitions in the off-season. I'll admit, when Marian Hossa went to Detroit, I was more than disappointed and felt like the B's overpaid for a washed up Ryder. I love being wrong sometimes.
Ryder has 26 goals, 25 assists and is +28. Wheeler's cooled off since a very hot start, but still has 21 goals and is +36 (he's a rookie!). Ryder and Wheeler, along with David Krejci, have made the Bruins' 2nd line one of the best lines in the League. Krejci has the second best +/- in the NHL (best in the East), Wheeler the third best, and Ryder is tied for eighth.
Then there are players like Aaron Ward, who only has 10 points, but works hard in his 19 minutes of ice-time, playing both shorthanded and the power play, bringing a steady, veteran hand to a team propelled by youth. There's Mark Stuart beating the crap out of some guy in the corner. There's Assistant Captain Andrew Ference quietly racking up 21 minutes of ice-time a game, making smart decisions, and high percentage passes.
Patrice Bergeron hasn’t been the stud forward he once was. He only has 7 goals this year. He had 69 in his first three NHL seasons. And in a rarity for the Bruins, he doesn’t have a positive +/-. He’s -1. But as far as 3rd line centers go, he's far from bad. And he does the little things a veteran is expected to do, even though he’s 23 years old. He’s become an outstanding penalty killer, plays the point on power play, and has grown into a top defensive forward.
Mark Recchi and Steve Montador were the midseason acquisitions. Montador has been a slight positive for the team, but Recchi has contributed a great deal. He’s scored 7 times in 14 games, with a shooting percentage of 26.9%. The 41 year old 20 year veteran also brings experience to the young Bruins, which will come in handy once the regular season ends.
Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson described his Swedish national teammate P.J. Axelsson as the least fun player he's ever played against. Axelsson is a non-factor on offense, but always seems to find himself in the way of the puck as the other team attempts to sweep through the neutral zone. He simply makes the game less fun for the League’s slick offensive players. The puck is drawn like a magnet to his skates, gloves, and stick.
Chuck Kobasew was a star at Boston College. It took him a few years to make the short trip inbound on the Green Line from Chestnut Hill to North Station, but since he’s arrived, the Bruins have enjoyed having him. 22 goals last year, 20 this year despite some injuries. Players like Kobasew give the Bruins the depth that allow them to wear teams out, and consolidate victory in the 3rd period.
Speaking of depth...
The Bruins roll 4 lines. The 4th line spends about 8 to 11 minutes on the ice. But it's not your typical 4th line. Shawn Thornton does tend to fight (17 times so far) and get in trouble (he gets 1.56 penalty minutes per game, with 10 minutes of average ice-time), but he is a hockey player first, a fighter second. He has a career high 6 goals and 11 points. He’s Even in +/-. But like his teammates, brings something unique to the table. In his case, he’s turned hockey fighting into an art form.
Stephane Yelle is the 4th line center only by default. He's behind Savard, Krejci, and Bergeron. But he gets extra time on the penalty kill and power play, deservedly so. He’s +8, which is pretty friggin' good for a 4th liner.
The Bruins draw from a seemingly unending well of talent kept fresh in Providence. Cornell alum Byron Bitz made an impact in his 31 games, scoring 4 goals, and using his 6'5" 215 pound frame to shove people around. I actually think Bitz has a bright future some day as a power forward, and I’m not just saying that because I saw him play in college.
The last player I'll talk about is far from least. In fact, I saved him for last because he exemplifies what the Bruins are, how they've been successful, and why they’re so fun to watch. Matt Hunwick is a 23 year old defenseman from Warren, Michigan, and a Michigan product. He was drafted in 2004, got his first taste of the NHL last year, but has made a name for himself in 08-09. In 49 games with the Bruins, he's scored 6 goals, 18 assists, is +17, and averages 17 minutes on the ice. He's a key to the power play and has occasionally played forward on the 4th line. He's versatile, and one of many leaders-by-example on the team. He does what he’s asked, and gets the most out of his talent. He plays smart, he plays hard, and he can win a fight with just one punch...
The Bruins have been the #1 seed in the East before, and I've seen them get tossed in the first round. The B's haven't won a playoff series since 1999, and haven't won consecutive series since 1992. They've NEVER won 4 straight playoff series. Detroit, San Jose, New Jersey, and Washington are all great teams the Bruins will likely have to go through to win it all.
But I'm optimistic. Last year, simply making the playoffs was an achievement, then I was satisfied with three wins against Montreal in the opening round. This, however, is the Bruins' best chance to win it all. They've not won since 1972. 27 years of failure. Compare that to 0 years of failure for the Celtics, 1 year for the Red Sox, 4 years for the Patriots. It's long since time for the Bruins' parade. And this team has a very good shot.
Hopefully their ad campaign has been telling the truth.