Blame the St. Louis Blues and their 10-game winning streak. Blame the Tampa Bay Lightning and their continued dominance and apparent cruise-control trip to the Presidents’ Trophy. Maybe even blame the Carolina Hurricanes, that bunch of jerks that has been among the league’s hottest teams over the past several weeks and taken to celebrating in style. But somehow, amidst everything else that has gone on around the NHL, it seems the Boston Bruins’ winning ways have been somewhat overlooked.
On Monday night, the Bruins rattled off their eighth win in nine tries and sixth consecutive victory, albeit it not without some controversy. Squaring off against the Pacific Division powerhouse San Jose Sharks, Boston hung tight in one of those rare last-shot-wins type affairs — one that featured a blown three-goal lead, a Joe Thornton hat trick and a final-minutes game-tying goal from Chris Wagner that’s been hotly debated in the hours since — and emerged with a 6-5 overtime victory. With the win, Boston moved ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs and into second spot in the Atlantic Division, all the while sporting one of the best records in the league over the past two months.
In fact, the Lightning have been the only team to accumulate more points than the Bruins over the past two months. Since Dec. 19, the Bolts have put up an impressive 19-4-2 record, good for 40 points in 25 games. Meanwhile, Boston’s 17-5-4 record, which works out to 38 points in 26 outings, puts them square with the New York Islanders and one point clear of the white-hot Blues, who head into action Tuesday with a chance to stretch the winning streak to 11 games.
The thing is, though, you probably haven’t heard all that much about the Bruins, not even in a discussion about the Atlantic Division. Part of that has been the Lightning’s aforementioned dominance. Part of that has been the Maple Leafs’ negotiations with William Nylander and then Auston Matthews and the focus now on Mitch Marner with a projected deep playoff run ahead. And part of that has been the surprising success of the Montreal Canadiens, who are in a wild-card position despite many pundits projecting a down year for a club that appeared to be ready to undergo a seasons-long retooling process. Yet, here Boston is, seemingly as good as ever and flying under the radar with the post-season in the offing.
The reality is, too, that while the Bruins might not be getting the press, they’re no less a threat than they have been in the past two seasons. Under coach Bruce Cassidy, many of the pillars necessary for playoff success are seemingly in place. And one wonders if this season, much like last, won’t feature at least another multi-round run.
The foundation for that success is built upon tilting the ice in their favor, and Boston has been among the league’s best teams when it comes to pushing the play. At 5-on-5 this season, the Bruins boast the seventh-best Corsi percentage (52.3), fifth-best shot percentage (52.7), 11th-best scoring change percentage (51.4) and eighth-best high-danger chance percentage (52.7), according to NaturalStatTrick. The puck possession metrics the Bruins boast at five-a-side have gone a long way in helping Boston piece together one of the best defensive units in the league, as well. Only two teams have allowed fewer goals against this season, the Islanders and Dallas Stars, though New York is the only club with a lower goals against per game rate.
Helping along those numbers, unquestionably, has been the play of the Bruins’ keepers this season, and both starter Tuukka Rask and backup Jaroslav Halak are deserving of high praise. Among the 33 goaltenders with at least 30 games played, Rask and Halak possess respective ranks of seventh (.918) and fifth (.923) in save percentage, sixth (2.45) and fifth (2.35) in goals-against average and have combined for six shutouts. The output of the two keepers is highlighted further at 5-on-5, too, as Boston’s overall .934 SP is the second-best mark in the entire NHL.
Where the play-driving dominance hasn’t turned into results, however, is on the scoreboard.
While the Bruins are by no means one of the league’s bottom-feeding attacking teams, they’re only a middle of the pack bunch with 180 goals for (13th) and an even three goals per game (14th). But there’s still time for Boston to address those needs by buying at the deadline and inserting another top-six talent into their lineup. The options are limited and expensive — Artemi Panarin would cost a fortune, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene won’t be much cheaper and Ryan Dzingel’s output this year has driven up the attached price tag — but could prove incredibly worthwhile. Though adding one more piece to the attack won’t give Boston the kind of almost-unrealistic, video-game offensive depth that the Lightning or Maple Leafs boast, it will help level the playing field. And anything that drives up the Bruins’ nearly league-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage (6.9) into a more mid-range output could pay incredible dividends come the post-season.
Does that mean Boston can hand the Maple Leafs another disappointment? Can they get past the Lightning? And can they topple the best the Metropolitan Division has to offer? That’s to be seen. But don’t go sleeping on a Bruins team that has a number of pieces in place, from the crease on out, to hang with the best the Eastern Conference has to offer.