News

The Bruins are charging up the East thanks to their top line, young guns and Rask

Boston was two points out of the Atlantic Division basement six weeks into the season, but Tuukka Rask’s recent play, a powerful top line and some standout rookies are making the Bruins look as threatening as they have in years.

In mid-November, roughly a month-and-a-half into the campaign, the Boston Bruins didn’t look like all that much. They sat one game below .500 in a dreadful division, only a couple of points up on the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres, with one of the league’s worst offenses, poor goaltending and more questions than they had answers. And then Anton Khudobin beat the Los Angeles Kings.

That victory, a 27-save performance against one of the Western Conference’s top teams, started a run for Khudobin that saw him start and win four straight contests, three of which were on the road, and two against tough Metropolitan Division clubs, the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins. Khudobin’s string of victories sent the Bruins up the Atlantic Division standings, putting them in a post-season position following the first day of action after American Thanksgiving and well clear of the bottom of the barrel where they had been little more than one week earlier. And all of a sudden things were starting to look up in Boston.

Since then, the Bruins have been one of the league’s hottest teams. In fact, since Khudobin got Boston back on track, there’s not a team that has been better. In their past 16 games, the Bruins have piled up 12 wins and 25 points, dropping just three contests in regulation since mid-November. And after looking as though they were quite possibly destined for another step backwards after snapping a two-year playoff drought, the Bruins are all of a sudden one of the East’s biggest sleepers.

In many respects, however, the Bruins have gone overlooked despite their recent performance. They’re not as dominant as the high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning, they don’t possess one of the game’s next-generation talents, like the Toronto Maple Leafs do in Auston Matthews, and they haven’t made waves with their futility in the way the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens or Buffalo Sabres have. No, the Bruins have seemingly sat somewhere in the middle, overlooked because they’re neither atop nor at the bottom of the Atlantic. But the time to continue to ignore Boston’s rise up the standings — which sees them only two points back of Toronto for second spot in the division with three games in hand — is over, and they put yet another stamp on that Thursday when they downed one of the league’s top teams, the Winnipeg Jets, in a shootout.

One of the most significant changes for the Bruins over the past five weeks has come in goal, where Khudobin’s hot hand seemed to light a fire under Tuukka Rask. The longtime starter in Boston, Rask was benched during Khudobin’s run creating a pseudo-goaltending controversy, but since the reins have been handed back to the 30-year-old, he’s taken control of the crease and helped propel Boston up the standings. Consider that since taking the crease back in mid-November, Rask has turned in a marvellous .931 save percentage, 1.88 goals-against average, one shutout and a 7-2-1 record. Prior to the kickstart he got from Khudobin, Rask was mired in a slump that saw him go 3-6-2 with a .901 SP and GAA almost a full goal higher.

READ ALSO:  Brad Marchand goals give Bruins two big points in wild-card race

While significant, though, it’s hard to call Rask’s performance the most impressive thing about the Bruins’ past five weeks. Rather, that mantle likely goes to the unit of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Offensively, maybe the line hasn’t put up the gaudy totals of the Nikita Kucherov-Steven Stamkos pairing, the New York Islanders’ top line of John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee or even the Jets’ since-broken up combination of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. What Boston’s top line has done, though, is contribute a few goals here andthere while dominating play in a way that few other lines have been capable.

According to Corsica’s line statistics, Boston’s top line of Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak is one of the 45 units to skate at least 150 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season, and their numbers across that time are almost unfathomable. In terms of possession, the Bruins’ trio has driven play to the tune of a 63.6 Corsi for percentage, all the while generating nine goals at five-a-side while allowing exactly zero against. That’s right: the line has a perfect goals for percentage, sitting at 100 percent at 5-on-5 across nearly 200 minutes of play. No other line can make that claim. Even at all strengths the trio is the best in the league, generating 20 goals for to four against for an 83.3 goals for percentage to go along with a 70.1 Corsi for percentage across 256 minutes.

While the Bruins’ top line is driving play and tilting the scoreboard, Boston has also been getting outstanding contributions from their youth. Rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy has been rightfully getting his due as a Calder Trophy candidate, and he’s only grown over this second part of his rookie season. Since mid-November when Boston started making their move, no Bruin has averaged more ice time and he’s the top-scoring defender with four goals and 11 points across the past 17 games. Beyond McAvoy, however, Boston is getting production out of other freshmen, as well. Danton Heinen, for example, has six goals and 15 points in his past 17 games. Jake DeBrusk, meanwhile, has been dynamite since sitting on the sidelines as a healthy scratch. Since Nov. 15, DeBrusk has five goals and 12 points in 14 games. Only Heinen, Pastrnak and Marchand have more points.

Best of all, though, with the holiday break approaching, the suddenly dominant Bruins have an opportunity to actually overtake second spot in the Atlantic. Saturday night, Boston will host the Detroit Red Wings on the same night Toronto heads into Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers. A Bruins win paired with a Maple Leafs loss would give the two sides equal point totals, giving Boston the edge due to games in hand. And should that come to pass, we might not be able to overlook the Bruins as one of the East’s top teams any longer.

Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.