In a month that is clearly the toughest of all the Boston Bruins have had to face in the 2015-16 regular season, the team is off to just about the best start possible, going 4-0-1 and earning nine of 10 possible points.
If not for Torey Krug’s negated goal against the Washington Capitals last weekend, the Bruins might boast a perfect 5-0 record in March and own sole possession of first place.
As it stands, the team prevailed in a real battle Tuesday night on the road at Amalie Arena in Tampa, finally solving Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop 10 seconds into sudden death when Brad Marchand took Patrice Bergeron’s centering feed off a 2-on-1 break and whipped it into the open side for his team-leading 34th goal of the season. Every tally adds to Marchand’s career-best NHL season, one in which he’s not only scoring, but playing a more disciplined (save for the suspension he got for low-bridging Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki) and mature game.
The B’s performance in earning their 38th victory of the season was not perfect, but they’ll take it. Skeptics will point to it as one more example of the team not putting together a full 60-minute effort, but that’s a convenient position to take on the heels of an emotional win. A year ago, there’s little doubt that the Bruins would have lost a game like this one- they weren’t able to get their offense out of second gear and the fight and grit that has been there for so much of the 2015-16 NHL season wasn’t quite there with the squad that missed the playoffs for the only time in Claude Julien’s 389-win tenure.
Boston’s scoring is currently third in the NHL behind Dallas and Washington after being down near the bottom in 2014-15. They’re getting a much more balanced attack and since Noel Acciari joined the team and Julien put together a stable fourth line with Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly on the wings. It’s a rugged, but smarter and more capable unit now that Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot are down in the AHL and allows the B’s to attack opponents with three capable lines (though the third grouping of Matt Beleskey-Ryan Spooner-Jimmy Hayes has not been able to get much going at even strength consistently throughout the season when they’ve been together). Last night, the goaltenders conspired to limit the offense, but the Bruins on the whole have been able to make up for their defensive deficiencies because they can put the puck in the net.
Backup Jonas Gustavsson was brilliant, earning a career-best 42 saves in his up-and-down NHL career. He stopped everything the Lightning threw at him and especially stood tall in the third period when the home team hemmed the B’s inside their end and prevented any shots on Bishop for about the first 10 minutes of the period. ‘Gus’ has given the Bruins everything that his countryman Niklas Svedberg was unable to provide last season. As Tuukka Rask sat on the bench last night, he had to genuinely enjoy seeing his teammate rob and stone the powerful Tampa offense…he deserved a night off and got one. That kind of a performance from Gustavsson will do more to motivate Rask to raise his game than anything else, and it just goes to show you why the Bruins did not throw an untested Jeremy Smith, Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre into the role this season. The B’s just needed Gus to be healthy and to give Rask a chance to not have to carry such a heavy load. He’s done that and more with his 11-5-1 record and .916 save percentage.
The defense changed a bit last night, as Joe Morrow came into the rotation for Zach Trotman and played a serviceable game. John-Michael Liles is not only playing like someone in his mid-20’s with his quick wheels and ability to make the long stretch passes to spring Boston forward and force opposing defenses to scramble, but his presence has stabilized the B’s defense on the whole. (note- Liles could face supplemental discipline for his extended elbow and head hit to Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov last night- we’ll find out today if a fine or suspension could be coming.) Torey Krug is a beneficiary, as he has someone else who can carry the puck out on his own and has a little pressure taken off him. He’s still not scoring goals like he has in the past, but he’s posted career-high numbers in assists and registered his 30th helper on the overtime winner last night.
Nobody is going to argue that the Boston defense is championship caliber- they’re giving up a lot of shots and the team has benefited from strong play in the nets from Tuukka Rask and Gustavsson. If we had mediocre outings from the goaltenders, we might all be signing a different tune. Having said that- the defense is playing a heavier, more physically punishing game to wear down opposing forwards and doing a decent job of funneling those players out and away from the higher danger areas. There is reason for hope that if Don Sweeney can add at least one younger No. 2 defenseman in the offseason, there is enough raw material on the roster and in the organization that the team’s Achilles heel might not be a vulnerability for too much longer.
In the end, there are still going to be those who don’t believe in the 15-16 Bruins and think the team should have burned it down to the water line. I would submit that is a video game mentality- and that the idea of being recognized as a “contender” or not being the driving force in making drastic maneuvers for better or worse- is simply not realistic. Sure, I was one of the voices that honestly thought moving on from Loui Eriksson made the most sense going into the trade deadline, but that was under the mistaken assumption that the veteran forward would be in demand and that teams would pony up for him. If we take Bruins president Cam Neely at his word, then that was not the case- so I think it was the right move to add guys like Liles and Lee Stempniak to the mix rather than just mail it in.
It would be one thing if the Bruins had been disinterested and lacked motivation this season. Clearly, they have character and have played hard for Julien and the staff, even if they don’t have the pure talent and depth to compete on paper against the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals. However, the 1-0-1 performances against both clubs, not to mention the 7-3 road thrashing of the vaunted Dallas Stars in recent weeks, has sent a message that when skating and competing, the Bruins are a better team than I and many others gave them credit for entering the season.
It’s simply not right to turn around after the players have sacrificed and done their part (for the most part) in a regular season to get in a prime position to make the postseason to then cut their legs out from under them for the sake of acquiring extra assets that you *might* be able to turn into that key defender in the offseason. The Bruins still have pieces and components to make that trade, but this version of the B’s has earned the right to see what they can do in the playoffs without the mixed messages of taking away a veteran like Eriksson and trading four picks for Liles and Stempniak.
Since the trade deadline, the B’s have gone 4-0-1 and the line of Marchand-Bergeron-Stempniak has posted 19 points- a combined 8 goals and 11 assists (per B’s media relations guru Eric Tosi). If fans ever wanted an example of a team answering the call of “show me” after a GM showed faith in the roster by adding to it, this club has done that. Marchand has already set his career standard for goals, and Bergeron is just three away from tying his best of 31 set way back when he was just 20 years old in the post-lockout 2005-06 season.
So, while the recent positive run doesn’t mean we can start planning the parade route or booking the Duck boats as some of the snarky, more sarcastic people who love to throw straw man arguments out there when their negative narrative is threatened, Bruins fans can breathe a little bit. No team is just entitled to win- it takes hard work and dedication. Right now, the 15-16 Boston Bruins are all rowing in the same direction and the guys who deserve to be here are on the roster and making it happen. The team has some options if injuries hit, as well- Frank “the Springfield Rifle” Vatrano is tearing it up in the AHL with 19 goals since he was returned to the farm in January.
Things won’t get much easier for the B’s: they have a three-game West Coast swing against three of the top Western Conference clubs: Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. The team then gets to fly back to the East Coast and close out the roadie with a date in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. However, by beating Calgary, Chicago, Florida and Tampa since the calendar flipped over to March, the pressure for Boston to face must-win situations is lessened. They can’t afford to leave points on the table and will need to dig down deep to run the table in their schedule, but sometimes- we have to acknowledge that when playing superior clubs, victories are harder to come by.
All in all, there is reason for some optimism in Boston. The team seems to have drafted well in recent seasons and even when they haven’t, undrafted diamonds in the rough like Acciari and Vatrano have give the coaches better options than some of the more heralded and hyped draft picks have. It doesn’t mean that all is sunshine and unicorns with the Bruins, but fans should expect their team to do their best.
We don’t live in a perfect world, so their best might not be good enough for some, but for the rest of us- moving in the right direction is good news.
Bring on the Ides of March.