For a blissful two-week period, albeit one that ended in disappointment, hockey fans across the country were united only by the red, white, and blue. It’s nice now for a smaller contingent of us to again be bonded by the Black and Gold.
Boston opened its post-Olympics schedule on Wednesday in Buffalo against the last-place Sabres and suffered a crushing 5-4 overtime defeat. Still, the Bruins pace the Atlantic with 37 wins and 79 points, a mere four points back of the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins.
Claude Julien’s B’s will win their division, and that’s not a terribly grand prediction. With 24 games remaining in the regular season, the Bruins hold an eight-point lead on the Lightning and nine-point advantages on both the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. Moreover, they have at least one game in hand on each of the latter two. Should things unfold differently, it’d be a shame but really wouldn’t matter. Getting into the playoffs healthy and fresh is the only concern.
If you’re looking for a reason to be anxious, don’t. At least not in the regular season.
Even a hefty 17-game March schedule shouldn’t slow the Bruins down, so long as the coaching staff is smart in managing minutes and building in respites for veterans, particularly those recently back from Sochi. Most players on the club enjoyed 10 days off, beach-filled vacations, and light practices upon their return. They’re rested and physically fit from a full slate of games prior to their hiatus. This next stretch won’t be nearly as grueling as what the Causeway crew faced coming out of last year’s lockout.
If forced to have one worry, it would be over how the B’s five Olympians (all healthy, thank goodness) will respond to revving up their intensity to a Stanley Cup Final level, only to return to regular season action before having to raise the bar again in less than two months. That can’t be an easy task, especially in the short-term when accounting for the travel and time-change, but it can be alleviated by rest.
Fortunately, as witnessed right away with Chad Johnson tending the net in Buffalo while Tuukka Rask stayed behind, players will get their time off and log reasonable minutes. In Johnson’s case, expect him to get every opportunity to build upon his recent success (5-0-1 with a 2.26 GAA in his last eight appearances) over the next six-plus weeks in an effort to keep Rask as ready as possible for another impressive run through June.
Boston’s young talent will likely offer the team’s veterans a break from time to time but, no matter the outcomes over the next few weeks, the Bruins are as deep and balanced as any other club in the league up front.
Paced offensively by Brad Marchand’s 20 goals and David Krejci’s 50 points, Julien’s free-wheeling four lines are comprised of two dynamic units across the top six forwards (all of whom are on track for nearly 20 goals and more than 50 points), a rapidly improving third-liner in Loui Eriksson after his strong finish to the first-half and tremendous play overseas, and an ever-energetic fourth trio. Should Reilly Smith – a less heralded member of the Eriksson-Tyler Seguin deal – cease to continue his unforeseen scoring brilliance, the concussion-free Swede may be ready for a return trip to the second line.
In all, the Bruins rank second in the conference with 3.09 goals scored per game and they’ve allowed just 2.19 goals on average, good for second in the NHL. Even the power play has thrived, checking in at 21.0 percent, which is sixth in the league.
Forget about that collapse in the Queen City. There are checkmarks across the board.
The playoffs may prove to be another story, though, and that comes back to defense.
The trade deadline is rapidly approaching and fans’ confidence in Peter Chiarelli’s squad may come down to how the general manager has reshaped his team by the evening of March 5.
Seidenberg has historically been a top-four defenseman during his regular season time in Boston, but Chara’s right-hand man in the postseason. He’s tough, physical, and a big-time minutes-eater. In 18 playoff games in 2013, he averaged roughly 26 minutes of ice-time per game, and that includes one contest where he saw only 37 seconds. Seidenberg’s an animal.
Add to that veteran Andrew Ference is long-gone to Edmonton, which leaves two gaping holes in what had been a pretty sturdy top two pairings.
As it shapes up right now, the last lines of defense in front of Rask include Chara, Johnny Boychuk, the injury-riddled Adam McQuaid, and a lot of youth in the form of Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, and rookie Kevan Miller.
All due respect to those listed above because they’ve performed admirably when necessary, but Chiarelli needs to make a move for more depth. The alternative is simply too dangerous a proposition.
You’ll hear all kinds of names, if you haven’t already, as potential suitable replacements for Seidenberg who could suit up alongside Chara or slide into the top-four.
The Rangers’ Dan Girardi is a legit top-two blueliner, a durable workhorse, and a shot-blocker. The Islanders’ Andrew MacDonald averages more than 25 minutes per game and plays in all situations. Chris Phillips of the Senators, a true defensive-defenseman, is a possibility. Nick Schultz fits that mold from the Oilers as well. The Panthers’ Tom Gilbert is an offensive-minded puck-mover who’s solid on the power play. There are two Jets who could be expendable, a rock-steady former Bruin in Mark Stuart and the championship-tested Dustin Byfuglien.
Chiarelli, while willing, is unlikely to part with someone on his current roster or a first-round draft pick, as he did when he sent Joe Colborne to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle prior to an improbable Stanley Cup win in 2011. That leaves lower-level picks and prospects of varying skill from the minors. Some combination of the two should be able to net him a late-season rental on the verge of free agency and most of the aforementioned defensemen fit such criteria. It could be the difference between a deep playoff run and a devastating early exit.
Regardless, the key is consistency, something the Bruins have basked in by comparison to last year’s Jekyll and Hyde spring. They were 8-1-2 entering the midseason stoppage and resumed with a point. It should have been a pair against the league’s cellar-dwellers, but the B’s will take the one.
For the next several weeks, Boston will put it in cruise-control. Its success after that and whether another Duck Boat parade is in the near future may come back to how the GM spends the next few days.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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