A team for the ages
Bruins’ play conjures great squads of past
The next win that awaits them is tomorrow night in Pittsburgh. After that, it’s a return visit to Winnipeg, home again to the Thrasher/Jets, for another 2 points to stick in the satchel Tuesday night.
While that may sound, oh, presumptuous, perhaps even ridiculous, that’s what we’ve come to expect of the 2011-12 Bruins. They pinned a 4-1 loss on the Maple Leafs last night at the Garden, in yet another steady dismantling of the opposition, and the defending Stanley Cup champs now are a heady 13-0-1 over the last five weeks.
Ho-hum. Stretch. Yawn. Hey, will you pass me the clicker while I try to find another team on the NHL Network that looks this good. We haven’t seen a repeat Cup winner since Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings doubled in ’97 and ’98, and right now the Bruins seem to be developing the inner core strength, confidence, and game-to-game magical mojo necessary to be the first team of the New NHL era to repeat.
“We talk about the Red Wings,’’ noted Boston coach Claude Julien after last night’s dismissal of the team that now includes the player formerly known as Phil Kessel of the Bruins, “and how every year [the Red Wings] came back strong. Maybe we’re headed in that direction.’’
That’s sort of hard to believe in and of itself, but all the harder after watching the Bruins stumble so badly out of the gate in October when they were a flatline, spiritless 3-7-0. That was five weeks ago, when general manager Peter Chiarelli was talking about working the phones in hopes of finding a body or two to find a remedy for his team’s melancholy.
“It’s a lot better than October,’’ said a wide-eyed Johnny Boychuk, who ripped home a bullet slapper with 3:06 gone in the third period for the jawbreaking 3-1 lead, “that’s for sure.’’
Now in his fifth season behind the Boston bench, this is the best Julien has had his team playing in the regular season. In some ways, it’s better than his squad performed in the playoffs, odd as that may sound. With only 24 games gone on the 82-game schedule, his Bruins own a league-best 85-51 goal differential. The final score may not reflect it, but the Bruins humbled the Leafs last night, just as they did Wednesday in Toronto (6-3), as well as Nov. 5 in Toronto (7-0).
Quiet, efficient humblings are becoming the theme for this team. It’s very difficult to compare eras, for many reasons, but there has been a lot of talk lately about how this club’s November run, 13-0-1, compared with the 1968-69 Bruins edition that went 9-0-4 in January of that season. Both clubs went the month without losing a game in regulation.
That 1968-69 season had the Bruins just coming into their Big, Bad Bruins heyday, which included Cups in ’70 and ’72. It was that 1968-69 squad that became the first in NHL history to score 300 goals in a season (in 76 games).
Now here’s the fun, telling comparison: that squad with the likes of Ken Hodge, Phil Esposito, and Bobby Orr finished with a plus-82 goal differential. If this were still a 76-game season, the Bruins would be on track to finish plus-110. Given that it’s an 82-game schedule, their pace is for a plus-119.
Yes, they’ve played their share of tight games the last five weeks, with two of their victories (Columbus, Buffalo) clinched in overtime. But they’ve also had an impressive share of big, easy wins, such as that 7-0 pasting at the Air Canada Centre and a 6-0 whitewash of the lowly Islanders. Factoring in the two bogus goals awarded in shootouts, they have outscored the opposition, 63-26, over the 14-game run.
They have won with balanced scoring, steady defense, and their usual top-notch goaltending (Tuukka Rask stopping 21 of 22 last night). But unlike so many games last year, especially in the playoffs, they can win now even if their netminders are only sufficient, or ordinary. Such stretches of confident hockey have been rare around here. Certainly, the Orr-Esposito teams had it. Likewise the Cam Neely-Adam Oates-Ray Bourque Bruins of the late ’80s and early ’90s. But for presence, power, and confidence, this is about the best the Bruins have played going on 20 years.
‘’I know it’s the best since I’ve been here,’’ said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “Obviously, we are confident. No matter what our standing is in a game, even if we’re behind, we’re able to take a deep breath and rely on our game. That’s a good feeling. Everyone on the team is working hard and playing for each other, and that becomes the incentive, to win for each other. And we look at short-term goals, like [last night] it was playing for first place. Monday, it will be taking on Sidney Crosby.’’
And no doubt for another 2 points.
Julien, like any coach would, keeps in the back of his mind the fear of perhaps peaking too early in a season. The start of the playoffs is four months down the road. The Cup isn’t awarded until mid-June. Much can change, and we need only recall October as a reminder. That said, he likes what he sees.
“We’re poised,’’ said Julien. “We’re not cocky. We’re not complacent. We’re still focused.’’
And all they do is win.