Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division
February 20, 2013, 4:27 pm
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WILMINGTON, MA The Bruins went into this season hearing all kinds of idle hockey talk about the overall weakness that was expected of their Northeast Division this year.

The Bs romped their way to the division title last year and the Northeast Division only produced two playoff teams in the Eastern Conference with the Ottawa Senators just squeaking into the postseason as the No. 8 seed. So the expectation was that a similar scenario would play out again this season with the Bruins going wire-to-wire in the Northeast Division.

The Black and Gold bunch that won the Cup two years were expected to be the only legit team to come out of the Northeast, but it appears as though that is not the case.

Its pretty competitive. I think it surprised a lot of people, but just think where Ottawa would be if they had Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Thats been a big blow to that hockey team, said Claude Julien. Montreal has a whole new look and theyre doing well while having played a lot of home games. The Northeast has surprised a lot of people because the predictions were that it was going to be the weak division.

The Bruins even cooperated with the preseason prognosticators by jumping out to an 8-1-1 start that made them look like the class of the division. But the Bruins organization also realized pretty quickly that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were for real after playing each of them in their own barn. Now the Canadiens have jumped out to a solid start this season and actually lead the Bruins in the Northeast Division with Boston holding two games in hand.

Instead the Southeast Division looks like the dregs of the conference with only the Carolina Hurricanes in playoff position after the seasons first month, and Winnipeg, Florida and Washington all in various states of disarray.

Obviously the Bruins would choose to be leading the division if all things were equal, but theyre actually not unhappy about another team like the hated Habs or the truculent Leafs pushing them to be the best Bs they can be.

The Bruins had the run of the Northeast Division roost for the first month, but now theyre looking up at a hot Habs team thats riding a five-game winning streak. Following their first game against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, the vibe around the Bruins dressing room was a grudging respect for Montreal, which that looks like it's built for success this year.

I know we have games in hand, but when you get passed in the standings it definitely motivates you to get back to where you were . . . thats on top of the Northeast Division," Milan Lucic said. "Montreal has definitely done better than expected and theyve exceeded expectations. It always seems like every other year were going to battle with them for that top spot in the Northeast and it wouldnt surprise me if we get them in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto is good this year and Ottawa had a big win the other night. Weve done a good job in the first 13 games putting ourselves in the position were at with a 9-2-2 record. But were only fifth in the conference.

Personally I wish we had played a few more games in the first two months rather than piling all of them up at the end. Its something you cant control, but we just have to do the best we can to stay in the pack so when we get hit with a lot of games were not playing catch-up hockey.

To Lucics point, the Bruins have played the fewest games of any NHL team with only 13 games played roughly a month into the abbreviated campaign.

The Buffalo Sabres are looking more and more like theyre headed for a house-cleaning as they continue to linger in the Northeast Division basement, and perhaps the time has come for head coach Lindy Ruff to move on. The Senators pushed the Bruins right at the very end of last season, but theyre looking dead in the water with both Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson out with major injuries that should prove lethal in a 48-game shortened NHL season.

The Habs and the Maple Leafs were looked at as Eastern Conference punch lines to start the season based on last year. But Julien has learned to respect his opponents in the division, and there is something to be said for goalies Carey Price, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all residing in the Northeast Division. They give their teams a chance to win on any given night, and they have probably helped contribute to Bostons offensive slow-going in the early portion of this season.

Its probably not a bad thing now that weve got to climb back up there, Julien said. The games become important for us. We knew that was going to happen to us and the main thing is that we stay in the pack.

Were still in the pack with some games in hand, and its up to us to win those games in hand and get to the top where we feel we belong.

The schedule picks up this week for the Bruins with a three-game road swing and then they delve into a grind that will last upwards of two months where they basically play every other day. That will afford them the chance to catch all those teams that are zooming by them with more games played in the early going, and that includes the dreaded Canadiens.