The Lightning have led the league for much of the season and the Penguins’ star-studded team is on fire, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore the signs that the Bruins might be the beast in the East.
Good teams win when they should, bad teams lose when they shouldn’t, while the best teams are those that are a threat to come out on top even when victory looks like an impossibility. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that the latter encapsulates the Boston Bruins, particularly following their 6-4 come-from-behind win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
By the midpoint of the final frame, the Bruins-Hurricanes tilt appeared to be one that was all but over. Carolina boasted a 4-1 lead on the strength of a Brock McGinn shorthanded tally early in the third and Boston hadn’t managed to so much as trim the three-goal deficit as the 10-minute mark approached. But then Matt Grzelcyk scored his third of the season to pull the Bruins within two with 9:56 remaining. Less than a minute later, David Pastrnak found twine to pull Boston within one. And a mere 21 seconds after the Bruins started to make the Hurricanes really sweat, Danton Heinen capped a run of three goals in less than 90 seconds that drew Boston even.
From there, you could feel where the contest was headed. The ice tilted in the Bruins’ favor — after losing the 5-on-5 shot attempts battle by a margin of 40-22 across 40 minutes, Boston won the final period 19-18 — as coach Bruce Cassidy’s bunch out-skated, out-chanced and out-muscled the Hurricanes en route to the eventual go-ahead goal, which came when Pastrnak scored his second in little more than five minutes. Before time was out, the Bruins’ young gun notched his third of the game and 27th of the year to complete a seven-and-a-half minute hat trick that put the finishing touches on Boston’s unlikely win.
The thing is, though, victories of this kind haven’t exactly been uncommon for the Bruins this season. Sure, erasing a three-goal deficit with 10 minutes left to win in regulation might be a new look, but Boston has won five games when trailing entering the third period this season and has been able to at least muster a point out of another three contests when in a similar hole. The five wins when trailing after two frames are tied for the sixth-most in the NHL, too, while their 13 points when trailing after two are tied for the fifth-most and .227 winning percentage in such games is tied for the fourth-best. These things don’t happen by accident, and that the Bruins keep winning, be it by blowing opponents out, shutting them down or coming back from potential defeat, is as sure a sign as any that they’re one of the few teams with true Stanley Cup potential this season.
While individual members of the Bruins such as Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are mentioned among the league’s top scorers, Boston’s attack, as a whole, hasn’t received quite the praise of other top teams this season. Often it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights who get the top billing as high-flying clubs. But the Bruins are right there among the pack, and the only team with a better goals-per-game rate is the Lightning. What makes the Bruins’ offense so exceptional is that while they have the talent to power one of the league’s best first lines, Boston also possesses an underrated depth of scoring.
On a measure of 20-goal scorers, the Bruins may not seem too impressive with only Marchand, Pastrnak and Bergeron eclipsing the plateau as we enter the final month of the campaign, but it’s worth noting that Boston has had eight players score at least a dozen goals this season, including rookies Heinen and Jake DeBrusk. The Bruins also boast 11 players with at least 25 points, which is the second-most in the NHL, two of which are rearguards Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy and captain Zdeno Chara isn’t far off, with seven goals and 23 points in 68 games this season.
It’s not as though it’s a one-or-the-other proposition with Boston, though, as the defense has carried the load for the Bruins as much as the spread-out attack. Chara, even as he approaches his 41st birthday, continues to be a stalwart on the back end, while Krug and McAvoy have been the perfect second and third options for Cassidy. That’s not to mention Brandon Carlo continues to excel in a second-pairing, middle-of-the-lineup role and the clever acquisition of Nick Holden from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline has solidified an already steady group. The play of the blueline has allowed the Bruins to maintain the league’s second-best goals against total, and Boston is joined by the Jets as the only other team to rank inside the top five in both goals for and goals against per game.
Of course, Tuukka Rask, who has bounced back from some early season struggles, has been the biggest part of that. Since Nov. 15, Rask has won all but seven of his starts, posted a sound .922 save percentage and pitched two shutouts across 34 games. Those numbers match or outdo Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck over the same span, and Rask’s .935 SP at 5-on-5 over that same span is the third-best mark in the league of the 23 netminders to play at least 1,500 minutes. He has been outstanding and as hard to beat as any goaltender in the league.
But the kicker is that Boston, as much as anything else, has the statistical evidence to back up their claim as one of the tougher — quite possibly the toughest — outs in the East. At 5-on-5, the Bruins rank second in the league in Corsi for percentage (53.8 percent), first in shots for percentage (54), first in scoring chances for percentage (55) and sixth in high-danger chances for percentage (53.4), all of which adds up to the best goals for percentage (57.7) in the NHL. That’s not to mention Boston also has the third-best expected goals for percentage (53.9) and ranks several spots ahead of the Lightning, Jets, Penguins and Golden Knights in that category, according to Corsica.
So, while there’s hope in Boston, it may very well be time for hype league-wide. The Bruins are an offensive, defensive, goaltending and statistical beast unlike any team in the Eastern Conference, and the complete package Boston has put together looks primed to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
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