The Bruins should be on top of the hockey world right now.
After all Boston’s hockey club is past the midway point of the abbreviated NHL season, and has lost only four regulation games. The Black and Gold lead the NHL in penalty kill percentage, hold one of the league’s top three stingiest defenses while allowing only 2.1 goals per game and have cracked the top third of NHL offenses while averaging just under three goals per game.
The B’s are also just one point out of first place in the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference lead while still holding two games in hand against both the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins.
But instead the way things stand this season have the Bruins about as satisfied as Mick Jagger watching a bunch of American Idol pretenders butchering a Rolling Stones medley. It takes plenty of deep thought to start reeling off any complete 60 minute efforts the Bruins have been able to put together in victories this season.
That’s because there haven’t been many of them, and the Bruins haven’t been able to string any of them together in a pretty little row.
If the David Krejci line was cranking out points, then Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin were lagging offensively for Boston’s second line. Once the Bergeron line got hot then Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton faded badly, turning into little old ladies rather than bulls in the NHL china shop.
The defense has been solid for long stretches and the goaltending from Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin has been as good as anyone could have asked for. Rask ranks among the NHL’s top five in every important statistical categories for goaltenders, and nobody in Boston is pining for Tim Thomas anymore. But there have also been a few too many chaotic moments in Boston's defensive zone at key moments when Zdeno Chara isn't out on the ice to calm things back down.
“There’s definitely been a lot of focus on us putting together a complete and full 60 minute effort,” said Milan Lucic. “Last year we never blew a lead going into the third period and this year we’ve done it three times. So there are definitely some cracks in our game right now that we’re trying to fix.
“There’s always a big learning process going through the season and trying to solidify your game. You always want to get it there so you can achieve your goals. That’s where we’re trying to get to with 23 games left in the season. It sounds like a lot, but there’s only six weeks left in the season. It’s up to us to find [our game] and make sure we peak at the right time.”
As Lucic mentioned the Bruins have also blown third period leads in three of their four regulation losses after not doing it once last season. That has taken a traditional strength of Boston’s, third period dominance, and transformed it into a question mark for a team that thought they had an established identity.
These are troubling anomalies within the 2013 season for the Bruins, and nobody is bothering to try to deny it at this point. That’s probably because they’re coming off the most unsatisfying win of the season in beating Florida despite a miserable second period sandwiched between a mediocre start and finish.
“It’s a good thing we’re finding ways to win hockey games even if we don’t deserve to win. It’s a positive because at the end of the day that’s all that matters: it’s all about winning,” said Krejci, never known to pull punches with his opinions. “But we know there isn’t much time left until the playoffs come. If we play 40 or 45 minutes hard and then take a few minutes off then it’s going to burn us.
“We have to prepare ourselves for the playoffs now. We can’t just flip a switch when playoff time finally comes.”
The Bruins pointed to last weekend’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers as their most complete win of the season, and that may absolutely be true. But it’s also entirely possible – and very likely – that shutout win over the Flyers was more about Philly sucking than Boston peaking.
It’s difficult for the Bruins to puff their chests out with pride about shellacking the Flyers when so many other teams have embarrassed the reeling hockey club this season. But there’s also an important thing to remember as the Bruins flagellate themselves for not living up to their own elevated standards.
There aren’t any teams aside from perhaps the Chicago Blackhawks that have played dominant hockey for an extended stretch of time this season, and Claude Julien watched enough of those Chicago games to know they weren’t blowing teams off the ice every night. The 29 other teams in the NHL – including the Bruins – have battled through the pitfalls and roadblocks of playing a crammed schedule coming out of the lockout, and because of that haven’t really been able to hit an extended groove this year.
“It’s been a bit of a challenge to get some consistency out of our team,” admitted Julien. “You have a couple of lines playing well and you have a couple of lines that are struggling a little bit, and then vice versa. We haven’t been able to get everybody going all at once, but you work on that during the season. “I don’t think there’s even one team that has been firing on all cylinders. Even with Chicago I think they felt they won some of those games when they weren’t firing on all cylinders. I don’t think we’re any different than any other team. We have to make sure we don’t get too hard on ourselves, and expect things out of us when we shouldn’t. At the end of the day you have to be playing your best hockey at the right time of the year, and we know when that is.”
That “time of year” is of course the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Bruins have already put themselves in good enough position for the end of April. But there’s a nagging feeling the Black and Gold need to find some answers for some of this season’s burning questions if they want another long, rewarding trip through the postseason.
Otherwise it could be a really short trip for a team with heavy aspirations, and that would be nothing more than wasted time with a core Bruins group fully capable of winning it all once again.