BOSTON – To peak or not to peak, that is the question.
The Bruins continued their roll through the second half of the NHL regular season with a 5-1 matinee win over a fading Carolina Hurricanes team, and have now won a season-high eight games in a row. It’s the longest winning streak since the B’s ripped off a 10-game winning stretch in November of the 2011-12 before they eventually succumbed to the Stanley Cup hangover, and it hasn’t even been close among the competition. The Bruins have outscored their opponents by a 32-12 margin in those eight games, and have had 14 different Bruins players score a goal during that period in the truest sign of depth possible.
What’s perhaps even more impressive is that the Bruins are doing it all while chewing up a hectic 17 game schedule in 31 days during the month of March.
The Atlantic Division is all wrapped up with a 15-point lead for Boston over second place Toronto, and the Bruins proved last season they don’t need home ice advantage to trounce the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series. Things are going so swimmingly for the Black and Gold with a month still remaining in the season that the B’s players are left to wonder if they’re peaking a little too soon.
It’s certainly something that can happen to a hockey team, but it’s more a phenomenon for a younger hockey club rather than a grizzled, playoff-hardened bunch like the Boston Bruins.
“It seems like [right now] we’re playing at our highest level throughout the season so far and it seems to have gotten better since the start of February, you know after the Olympic break. You see where we are now and we’ve just got to, like I said, not get too high, not get too low and stay even keeled,” said Milan Lucic. “[We need to] just stay focused on what we need to do to keep our game sharp, and the coaching staff has done a good job of keeping us energized and giving us our rest when we need it.
“We’re just having fun looking forward to every game that’s ahead of us. I just hope we’re not peaking right now. We need to keep wanting it more. We’ve done a good job of staying on course and getting focused on the task at hand.”
There is the “peaking" word...even if Lucic was clearly half-joking with a good-natured grin on his face. The eternal question for an NHL team as they approach the playoffs: Is it better to be playing the best possible hockey of the season in the last month approaching the Stanley Cup playoffs, or is there a danger of emptying the gas tank prior to the “real season” getting started in April?
The Bruins are very clearly in their best extended stretch of the season. They went 8-1-2 in the final 11 games prior to the Olympic break, and now have an impressively impervious 16-2-3 in the last 21 games dating back to a Jan. 16 win over the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Arena. The offensive is clicking on each of the four forward lines with 12 fully healthy forwards, and the Bruins have good depth with eight viable defensemen jostling for six spots.
The Bruins have stabilized the penalty kill unit in recent weeks, and received elite level goaltending from the puck-stopping tandem of Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson. About the only thing to complain about is the severe lack of power play opportunities as of late, but the B's at least had a couple of chances on Saturday afternoon against the Hurricanes.
The bottom line: things are very good for a Bruins team as the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to look like a talented club crippled by injuries to Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang and Paul Martin among others.
The only thing that could derail the Bruins is injuries, and they dodged a bullet when Johnny Boychuk was able to make jokes about his ugly feet-first collision into the boards in the third period of Saturday’s game. Losing a veteran defensive warrior like Boychuk would pretty much sour any realistic chances for the Bruins hoisting another Cup this spring.
But if the Bruins players are truly concerned they’re playing “too good” a brand of hockey right now, they should just pop in the coach’s office for a list of requested on-ice improvements.
“Well, if [Lucic] thinks we’re peaking too soon then I can show him a lot of areas where we can get better. That’s not hard for me to find,” said Claude Julien. “But no we’re playing well, we’re playing hard and I think we’re doing a lot of good things here.
“But we’ve just got to stay the course here. I don’t think we are doing things to peak too early. I think we are utilizing our players, our bench as much as we can, and giving guys some rest and all that stuff. We’re doing the best we can.”
One very good thing about all this winning: the Bruins can fully line things up for the upcoming postseason. There is very little meaning to the final 15 games of the season with the B’s vying for one of the top two spots in the East. The last month of the regular season should be about getting the proper rest for players that need it like Zdeno Chara, working out the different defensemen combinations until the coaching staff is fully satisfied, and continuing to play hard-working hockey with good results.
“I’ve never thought that way [about peaking too soon]. You play as well as you can, you play as hard as you can and you hope for as many bounces as you can. You hope for those bounces,” said Iginla. “It’s game-to-game and you always work as hard as you can. I don’t think you ever wear it out. I think you just keep trying to go.”
The Bruins have essentially been “going” for the last two months with any signs of weakness or stopping, and there’s really no reason to slow it down with so many good things ready for the taking on the horizon.