Haggerty: Bruins exactly where they need to be

Haggerty: Bruins exactly where they need to be
January 4, 2014, 10:15 am
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WILMINGTON – The Bruins have officially hit the midpoint of the 82-game NHL regular season, and the hockey club is exactly where it’s supposed to be. The B’s sit in first place in the Northeast Division and hold second place in the Eastern Conference just a couple of points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins with a game in hand. Statistically, the Bruins are in the NHL’s top six teams in every team category including offense, defense and special teams, and don’t have any glaring weakness aside from roster challenges brought on by injuries to Dennis Seidenberg and Loui Eriksson.

So the Bruins have essentially enjoyed a solid three months that’s placed them at the top of the standings, but they’re still pacing themselves to peak in the second half of the season with the playoffs dead ahead. That time is still four months away, so the Bruins have ample time to ramp up to their best.  

“You go through the half point and you look at yourself in the standings, and you’re in decent positions. But you know again, when I say we can get better, we know we can get better,” said Claude Julien. “I think the more the games are going to have some importance, I think you’re going to see the guys buckle down even more.

That’s just a natural trend. Right now I think we’re playing well enough that we’re at the top of the league with a lot of other teams. We’ve just got to stay there because even that’s a task to stay at the top. I think we’ve got a challenge just in regards to that.”

The first half of the 2013-14 season has seen some pretty significant developments for the Black and Gold. The addition of Torey Krug, Reilly Smith, Jarome Iginla and Carl Soderberg to the lineup has spruced up Boston’s power play for the first time in years, and the recent addition of Ryan Spooner amid injuries has given the man advantage an even bigger jolt.

Smith has surprised everyone with his offensive prowess, and leads the Bruins with 14 goals scored at the midpoint of the season while showing off skill, a crafty playmaking mind and the ability to really shoot the puck. Sure, Smith is also scoring on 20 percent of his shots in a pace that’s almost assuredly going to slow down over the course of the year.

But Smith has also worked himself into the right wing spot alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, and he’ll see plenty of offensive chances skating with those other two accomplished B’s forwards.

Soderberg, Krug and Spooner similarly give the Bruins a more explosive set of skilled players that can create with speed – in the cases of Krug and Spooner – and unquestioned offensive instincts. But they also make the Bruins perhaps a little more vulnerable defensively than they’ve been in the past, and that’s where the Boston defenseman corps and Tuukka Rask come into the picture.

Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid remain as Boston’s defensive backbone, and Dougie Hamilton is working to add his name to those established D-zone pillars with Seidenberg now out of the picture. That will be one of the storylines in the second half of the season as the Bruins audition players to be the shutdown partner alongside Chara once the playoffs begin. It was a good first step with Hamilton and Chara on Thursday night against the Predators, but it will be about the 20-year-old first round pick showing consistency and maturity in his game.

As a team, the Bruins could certainly consider themselves under the same banner. The forward line of Lucic, Krejci and Iginla have combined for 34 goals this season, Chara has been as dominant as ever while finding his game a couple of months into the new campaign and Tuukka Rask has been Boston’s best player over the first three months of the season.

Claude Julien is famous for saying that “your best players have to be your best players” if an NHL team is going to enjoy success over an extended period of time against solid competition. That’s been the case with the B’s this season, while all the while knowing that their established group of winning veterans also has another level to push toward once it gets a little closer to Stanley Cup playoff weather in April.

That’s when the governor gets taken off the Black and Gold golf cart, and they see how fast that puppy can go. Over the last three seasons that’s worked out pretty well for the B’s in the postseason.

“[We’re looking] pretty good: first in the Atlantic Division and I think there’s obviously areas that we can still improve on to get our game. I wouldn’t say we are peaking as of this point, but obviously we are in a good position as far as the standings go,” said Milan Lucic. “I think we have to look forward to the second half here and -- kind of like I said -- keep building and building in these last 41 games and peak at the right time. [We need] to get our game where we want it to be.”

Of course, there may be some alterations made to this particular team. Eriksson will return from his second concussion, and the Bruins hope to see just how good he can be in an Eastern Conference setting once he puts together a few good, healthy months. The Bruins may need to trade for veteran defensemen help given the absence of Seidenberg from the playoff lineup, but there isn’t likely to be a D-man name available that’s going to take anybody’s breath away.

Some people may have wanted a Tim Gleason-type given the Winter Classic Day trade that sent him to Toronto for a relative pittance, but the Bruins weren’t about to take on a contract that will be paying Gleason $4 million per season for the foreseeable future. The Bruins have already committed to four years and a $16 million contract with Seidenberg that kicks in after this season is over, so it will be purely rental/pending UFA defensemen to choose from for the Black and Gold.

That kind of deal won’t be happening until the March trade deadline anyway, as the Bruins evaluate what they have as possible D-man complements to Chara for the playoff run. The Bruins have the kind of organizational depth and talent to withstand injuries and perhaps even a slump or two from some of the B’s usual suspects. They weathered a Brad Marchand cold spell that lasted through more than two months of the regular season, and will be well-prepared if there’s any second-half slacking from other Bruins players.

That kind of stuff is inevitable, as is the simple fact that an established group of Black and Gold winners will be poised and playing their best hockey of the season when the playoffs open.

There’s every kind of chance some Bruins are a little burnt out from their Olympic participation in Sochi, Russia followed by a 17-game workload in the month of March, but that will be the problems facing Julien and B’s general manager Peter Chiarelli in the second half of the season.

It’s been so far, so good for the Bruins through the first 41 games of the regular season.