But the Bruins and Blackhawks are playing their best hockey of the NHL season, Boston sitting a season-high eighth in the Eastern Conference while Chicago, reborn under new head coach Denis Savard, is only one point out a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“The guys are playing good but I think we’ve got a little more, too, so that’s good,” Savard said Thursday.
The Hawks have missed the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons and appeared headed that way again until GM Dale Tallon decided a change was needed, firing coach Trent Yawney on Nov. 27 and replacing him with Savard, a longtime assistant coach.
Chicago has gone 9-3-3 since Savard took over, seemingly a different team altogether and definitely better with star winger Martin Havlat back in the lineup after missing seven weeks with a high ankle sprain.
“I felt that we needed to change a bit of our mindset, how we approached the games,” Savard said in explaining the Hawks’ new ways. “Instead of having a defensive mindset, we needed to have a more offensive mindset.”
So the Hawks are playing a more aggressive brand of hockey and not just on the forecheck. All over the ice.
“We want to limit time and space as much as we can on people, we want to close up on them quick,” said Savard. “There’s no 15 ways to play the game. There was a good foundation here with Yawns. But we want to have a mentality that’s more aggressive, period.”
Goaltending has been key as well. Nikolai Khabibulin is showing the form that helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004, as opposed to the way he looked last season when he was labelled a free-agent bust by many given his US$6.75-million salary.
“We have a great goalie,” said Savard. “Khabi has been unbelievable. He’s a workhouse and likes the challenge. He’s been my best player by far.”
The Bruins, meanwhile, have crept up the standings in the East. After a 6-4 loss to Toronto on Nov. 9 dropped Boston to a disappointing 4-7-2, the Bruins have gone 14-6-1.
Simply put, it took a while for all the new faces to gel.
“We finally became a team,” Bruins head coach Dave Lewis said Thursday. “Early on we didn’t know each other very much. We were just sort of a collection of players. We became a team over some of those trials and tribulations of the early part.
“We’ve improved in a lot of areas, starting with goaltending, defensive zone coverage, offence, power play, and our penalty killing as of late has been pretty good.”
The Bruins have played an NHL-low 34 games so they can make up some ground in the weeks ahead.
“We’ve continually talked to the players about that, the games in hand don’t mean anything unless you win them,” said Lewis. “It’s been a grind and we expect it to be a grind right to the end. I have the standings posted in the locker-room, so the guys are aware of it.
“But it’s so tight and I think it’s going to go right down to the wire.”
Of the 14 wins since Nov. 9, eight of them were over Northeast Division rivals Toronto (four wins), Ottawa (two wins) and Montreal (two wins).
“I think they were really important wins for us,” said Lewis. “The most recent win against Montreal (4-2 last Saturday), we really had to earn the victory. They’re one of the hottest teams in hockey.
“Winning those games are important,” added Lewis. “I always say that each game has their own value to it. You play a team from the West it’s two points, you play a team from your division or in the East it’s four points and sometimes it’s a four-point game with emotional value to it, especially in your division.”
There was emotion in the building last Friday night when the Blackhawks had 17,950 fans on hand for a big win over the Maple Leafs. Another 14,278 turned out Tuesday night for another victory over Dallas. The Hawks are 27th in the NHL in average attendance of 12,948, but perhaps the last few home games are a sign fans may be buying back into it.
“I’m glad to see it,” said Savard. “The credit goes to our players. I think they’re feeling it, that people are coming back. The game against Toronto, our players were saying, ‘Boy it’s fun to play with a crowd like that.”‘
Savard is having fun, too. He’s relishing his chance to be the man behind the bench after nine years as an assistant coach with the Hawks.
“I went to school for a long time,” he said. “Nine years is a long time. And the fact that I worked under a lot of coaches, I’ve learned even more because of that.”