BOSTON -- Not only are the Bruins making their run at the top spot in the Eastern Conference, they’re also executing a big move to finish the regular season as the barking top dog in the NHL.
Who would have thought that possible at the beginning of the season when the Western Conference appeared to be the power conference full of the true contenders to the NHL throne?
Instead the Bruins have ripped off a nine-game winning streak with their most recent 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden, opening up a five-point lead over the sputtering Pittsburgh Penguins, who got stomped over the weekend by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Just don’t tell Claude Julien how well things are going with his hockey team.
“Too many breakaways or good scoring chances, and we have to fix that. But we played well enough to win,” said Julien on Monday night. “I think offensively, we did a lot of good things. We’ve just got to make sure we continue to fine-tune our game, and don’t get complacent. We’re young back there [on defense], and there’s still some things guys need to learn.”
Overall the Bruins have moved into a three-way tie for the second-best record in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, and they sit just four points behind their Western Conference doppelganger, the St. Louis Blues, for the best record in the entire league.
It would clearly be nice for the Bruins to win their first President’s Trophy in the Claude Julien era in Boston, but there’s also a veteran group inside the B’s dressing room that won’t chase it at the expense of readying for the playoffs.
“You try to win every game and if you have a chance to clinch the league, why wouldn’t you try? I don’t think it’s our goal in our minds that we have to win it,” said Tuukka Rask. “We just want to be feeling good about ourselves going into playoffs and play our best hockey in April, May, and June.”
The Bruins (plus-72) are also closing in on the Blues (plus-74) for best goal differential in the league as they continue to put together well-rounded efforts with a deep and diverse offense, a defense that’s surviving its odd mixture of veterans with a quarter of young blueliners, and goaltending that’s raised the bar back to elite status since the Olympic break.
The B’s were also emotionally engaged against the Wild despite their long stretch of success in March -- Brad Marchand was stirring it up with Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter early in the game to get the rest of his teammates involved -- which is a sign of a hockey team that’s not yet willing to lose their grasp on their winning ways.
Rask is riding a season-best six game winning streak with a .946 save percentage during that span, and he has been at his best in the few moments when Boston’s defensemen corps has shown signs of weakness. He once again turned away a couple of breakaways in the first period of Monday night’s win over the Wild, and he held Boston in the game early until the offense could get cranking.
The Bruins haven’t allowed a first-period goal in eight of the nine games during the streak, and they are playing with the lead rather than chasing the puck.
That is when the Big, Bad Bruins are at their very best.
The Bruins have outscored their opponents by a 36-13 margin in the nine-game winning streak where they’ve admittedly beaten up on some of the NHL’s weaker sisters. But they have also beaten likely playoff teams in Montreal, New York, Tampa Bay and Minnesota along the way.
There’s also this for the Chicken Littles of the world worried about the Bruins “peaking” too soon: The Bruins engineered a seven-game winning streak in late February/early March in 2011 after the trades for Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Tomas Kaberle, and then pretty much played .500 hockey the rest of the way.
We all know what happened with the Bruins during the 2011 run to the Stanley Cup title after escaping a first-round match against the Canadiens.
In fact, Rory Boylen did some interesting research at the Hockey News, and found that each Stanley Cup winner since the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins has ripped off a winning streak of at least six games in the last third of the regular season. Boston is now on a nine-game winning streak, and clearly seems to be the NHL’s hottest team with the playoffs just a month away.
So far the Bruins are the only Eastern playoff team to go on a winning streak longer than six games since the Olympic break. The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings are the only teams to have achieved it from the West.
Does that all mean the Bruins have locked up their second Stanley Cup title in the last four years, and their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last four years?
But it does mean that it’s time to change the scope of the discussion about the Bruins this season, and take a hint from Minnesota's Zach Parise about just how good this B’s team is right now.
“The [Bruins] are one of the best teams in the NHL, and they’re the best team in the East, for sure,” said Parise.
It’s time to start entering the streaking Bruins into the conversation as the best team in all the NHL. They’ve certainly played like it over the last two months while putting their finishing kick on the regular season.