Bruins sitting pretty after strong run into Olympic break

Bruins sitting pretty after strong run into Olympic break
February 10, 2014, 1:15 am
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Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien boarded a plane to Sochi, Russia on Sunday along with the remaining four B’s players destined for the Winter Olympics, and did so with a greater piece of mind about the team they were leaving behind.

That’s because the Bruins stabilized their lineup without the service of Dennis Seidenberg, and did so while playing their best hockey of the season in an 8-1-2 stretch over the final 11 games leading into the Olympic break.

Even more impressive was the B’s snatching three of four points against the Blues and Senators without Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara after he’d left for the Olympic opening ceremonies.

By all rights the Bruins should have beaten the Blues after taking the game over in the second period, and controlled play right up until Carl Soderberg’s pass was intercepted by T.J. Oshie behind the Boston net. Part of Boston’s success against St. Louis was the ability of Boston’s young defensemen to break the puck out of the zone quickly, and that can really add a little needed speed to the Bruins’ attack.

“Claude and I talked before that [St. Louis] game – they’re a heavy team – about getting the puck out quickly. So those are the [David] Warsofskys and more [Torey] Krugs and more Barts [Matt Bartkowski] and more [Dougie] Hamiltons, those are the types of D that can do that,” said Peter Chiarelli. “You know, at the end of the day, it would be nice to have that component all the time in the back end. It helps us with our speed, and we’re not the speediest team.

“You give up some in defending. We didn’t have Zee [Zdeno Chara], we didn’t have [Adam] McQuaid, we didn’t have Seids [Denis Seidenberg], those are three really good defenders. Our challenge is to find the right balance. But that was a good game, they are a heavy team. I think we’ve outplayed them both times we’ve played them, but we haven’t won. I’ve been happy with the way we played them both times, so it’s a good measuring stick game. It’s nice to say we have a measuring stick game instead of us being the measuring stick all the time.”

Clearly the Bruins could use a little more speed to add to a team that’s average in the skating department, and they have an opening for a big, strong veteran defenseman that can block shots and throw bodies around in the defensive zone. But there aren’t many defensive warrior-type defensemen available on the trade market, and Chiarelli might not get a player quite good enough to play among Boston’s top two pairings.

The Bruins GM wouldn’t consider this next month an abject failure if the Bruins end up moving forward with their developing defensemen group, and instead rely on Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski as they successfully did during last year’s playoffs. Bartkowski has topped 20 minutes of ice time in 14 of the last 19 games, and has had only a single minus game over that time period.

It’s a very realistic scenario that the Bruins could send away a couple of non-first round picks (a second rounder and a fourth rounder perhaps) for the services of Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald. But Chiarelli has to gauge how much better the small-ish 6-foot, 180-pound MacDonald would be than Bartkowski as the 25-year-old settles into his top-four role.

The Bruins won’t be biting on Dan Girardi as long as the New York Rangers want a first-round pick within the trade package, and Ottawa isn’t dangling Chris Phillips for Boston or anybody else.

Chiarelli wouldn’t rule out acquiring a defenseman with terms still left on his contract, and a name like Calgary’s Mark Giordano immediately springs to mind. But would involve dealing a significant player (Reilly Smith, anyone?) away from Boston’s current mix, and that’s not what the Bruins are looking for.

Names like Henrik Tallinder, Willie Mitchell, Dan Schultz and Mark Stuart may be there on March 5, but none of those players would displace anyone currently among the B’s top six defensemen.  

“There are really not that many players available, so beggars can’t be choosers really at this point," Chiarelli said. "With each passing game, I see our D maturing, I see them making fewer mistakes, and it makes it a little easier on me. But I always feel that we need eight good NHL defenders going in to the playoffs.

“While I’m certainly not going to replace [Dennis] Seidenberg, he’s too good and those players aren’t available, you’d like to think that there is a player with a little bit of Seids' [Dennis Seidenberg] defending that we could find, and [that could] help us. But this year’s been a story about our depth, and I’ve been happy with it.”

The young defenseman are maturing, the new pieces have assimilated into the B’s way of doing things, and the Bruins once again look like a viable Stanley Cup contender with only 25 games remaining in the regular season.

“They call us a heavy team, and we are a heavy team.," Chiarelli said. "I think we’re over .500 against the Pacific Coast teams, so I like us against them. We played well against St. Louis. We’re playing the right way now, our power play has been better. Our PK [penalty kill] has dropped a bit, but we had a blip earlier on that probably put us down there.

“We’ve got that component now on the power play that can move the puck, so maybe we’re a more well-rounded [team] and a little more mature. But that doesn’t guarantee anything.”

It only guarantees that opponents are having difficulty pinpointing an exploitable weakness on the B’s roster. The lack of team speed was certainly visible in their only regulation loss over the last few weeks – the lifeless defeat at the hands of the Canadiens – but there aren’t too many NHL teams that turn a playoff series against Boston into a speed skating match.

As the B’s general manager mentioned, the Bruins are currently 11th in the NHL with a penalty kill snuffing out 83 percent of the PP chances they face. That’s the only major category where the team is outside the top 10, but they’ve also gone long stretches without ace penalty killers Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson while also missing Seidenberg’s presence.

The PK numbers should rise dramatically in the second half of the season. Otherwise the B’s are averaging 3.1 goals per game (fifth in the league) on the strength of two top forward lines bursting with offense along with a lethally dangerous power play. Defensively the Bruins are second in the NHL with 2.1 goals allowed per game, and they’ve maintained that while dealing with a clearly fatigued Tuukka Rask in the last six weeks of the season.

Bruins management began to get more comfortable with their current group of defenders as the final 11-game stretch rolled out prior to the Olympics, and heavy, impressive efforts against legit teams like the Blackhawks, Kings and Blues only solidified that stance. Everyone around the NHL got a window into how good the Bruins can be during that final 8-1-2 stretch, and they appeared a team ready to grind their way through a weakly Eastern Conference once again.