By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Early this season, when the Boston Bruins were suffering through their Stanley Cup hangover, one NHL general manager told me he wasn't that surprised. He said the Bruins weren't a great team last season. They were a good team that happened to win the Cup.
The GM wasn't disrespecting the Bruins as much as he was making a point about parity, and his point was valid. The Bruins finished seventh in a tightly packed league last season, making them one of several contenders but certainly not the favorites. They lost their first two playoff games and then survived three Game 7s. They weren't widely expected to win the Cup perhaps until they scored the first goal of the final game.
When the Bruins won the Cup, they showed you can win a championship with no elite scorers and virtually no power play if you have enough depth, toughness, structure and great goaltending. When they started this season 3-7-0, they showed what happens when you lose your edge in this league. The Bruins weren't great enough to just waltz back and win. No one would have been.
But the Bruins are great right now. This team is better than the one that won the Cup, and it has a chance to be the best Boston team of all-time, enter the playoffs as the favorite this season and remain among the league’s elite for years to come. Though the spotlight is on the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers because of the upcoming Winter Classic, don't forget that the real beasts of the East are the B's.
The Bruins are on a 21-2-1 run. They have won seven straight. They have embarrassed opponents – and good ones – by scores of 6-0 (see Philadelphia, Dec. 17) and 8-0 (see Florida Panthers, Dec. 23).
Despite their slow start, they lead the NHL in wins (24) and points percentage (.721). They are on pace to rack up 58 wins and 118 points – and have been picking up that pace for nearly two months now. Boston’s team records are 57 wins and 121 points, both set in 1970-71 which was a 78-game season.
The Bruins lead the league in offense (3.47 goals per game) and defense (1.85 goals against), giving them a goal differential (plus-57) that is 20 better than anyone else. They are in the top 10 in both special teams categories (second in penalty killing, ninth on the power play).
"You know, it was getting a little scary there for the first 10 games or so," said forward Brad Marchand recently. "But after that, we really kind of turned it around and found our stride, and everyone is playing at the same level they did at the end of last year. It's looking really good on our team right now."
The foundation remains depth, toughness, structure and great goaltending. The Bruins have no one among the NHL's top 30 scorers, but they spread their production throughout the lineup. They earn their Big, Bad Bruins identity and stick up for each other. When the Phoenix Coyotes' Raffi Torres hit Andrew Ference in the head Wednesday night, Adam McQuaid immediately instigated a fight with Torres and sent him off the ice with blood streaming down the left side of his face. The Bruins rank third in fighting majors (25), according to hockeyfights.com.
Penetrate a defense led by captain Zdeno Chara, a contender for another Norris Trophy, and you still have to solve one of the best goaltenders in the league. Most nights it's Tim Thomas, winner of the Vezina Trophy last season, not to mention the Conn Smythe as the playoffs' most valuable player. Other nights it's Tuukka Rask, who stole the starting job two seasons ago after Thomas won his first Vezina in 2008-09. Rask leads the league in goals-against average (1.61) and save percentage (.945). Thomas' numbers are merely 1.84 and .940. If and when the 37-year-old Thomas falters, the 24-year-old Rask will be ready.
Youth has already risen to the fore up front, a big reason why the Bruins have more offensive upside. Their leading scorers are Tyler Seguin (14 goals, 31 points) and Marchand (15 goals, 30 points), who also happened to be tied for the league lead in plus/minus at plus-25. Seguin is still only 19. Marchand is 23. At this time last year, Seguin had five goals and 11 points. Marchand had five goals and 13 points.
Also making big contributions are veterans who weren't in Boston at this time last year: Forwards Rich Peverley (25 points) and Chris Kelly (12 goals) were acquired last February. Defenseman Joe Corvo was acquired in July as an upgrade for the one deadline acquisition who didn't work out, Tomas Kaberle, whom the Bruins had rented hoping to boost the power play.
The biggest issue for the Bruins now is focus. They can't let confidence slip back into complacency, especially with a tougher schedule looming in the second half. Twenty-five of their final 41 games are on the road. Even if the Bruins keep rolling through the regular season, they should know that won't necessarily equal another Cup. Remember who they beat in the final: the Vancouver Canucks, the favorites, the dominant regular-season team.
"Even though we’re winning, we can look at the video and pull out some things we think we need to get better at," coach Claude Julien told reporters recently. "We always keep our guys on their heels after a game, as far as not getting too comfortable and showing them things we need to work on. At the same time, our team has grown so much, maturity-wise, at being able to handle success."
Beware, Bruins. It was just three weeks ago that Three Periods praised the streaking, surprising Minnesota Wild.
Well, the Wild won that night, and the Wild won its next game, too, extending its winning streak to seven games. So the Yahoo! Sports jinx didn't hit right away. But since then, the Wild has lost eight straight (0-5-3) and slipped from first in the NHL all the way to sixth in the West.
The only way to read this is that things have begun to balance out and the Wild has come back to earth. As Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz told reporters Wednesday, when the Preds took a 2-1 shootout victory from the Wild: "Now it's the reality of the grind of the NHL. They're a good hockey team, but they're with the rest of us mortals now."
Let's take another look at some of the adjectives we used to describe the Wild. Surprising? That might still work, if you didn't expect the Wild to make the playoffs at all. Relentless? Still relentless. The Wild played hard Wednesday night, but it hasn't been rewarded as it was before.
Balanced? Stingy? The Wild was getting just enough offense to win with solid defense and great goaltending. But 10 goals in eight games isn't enough, and the Wild has allowed four goals in regulation three times in its past four outings. Somehow the Wild must boost an offense that ranks 28th in the NHL (2.24 goals per game).
Resilient? Three weeks ago, it looked like a positive that the Wild kept finding ways to overcome deficits. Now it looks like the Wild was tempting fate by falling into too many holes. Young? Improving? Still young, still improving in the big picture. Joyous? Not so much. The tone has changed. Coach Mike Yeo, refusing to panic, is painting this as a test.
It's a big one.
Jagr points out that he was traded when he left Pittsburgh in 2001; he fails to point out he demanded a trade. Jagr says he never spoke to anyone from the Penguins personally when he was fielding offers over the summer; the Penguins say he spoke to former teammate and co-owner Mario Lemieux. Jagr wonders why fans would go from hating him to loving him to hating him even more than they did before; he fails to understand the whole dynamic.
Fans can be forgiving, and Penguins fans would have loved Jagr like a prodigal son. All he had to do was show them some love. Had he come back on a one-year, $2 million deal, had he said his first NHL city would always be special to him, he would have had his No. 68 in the rafters. Instead, he and his agent parlayed the Penguins' interest, and he signed with the rival Flyers for $3.3 million. Pens fans feel teased, used, maybe even betrayed.
The quote everyone will remember is the one from agent Petr Svoboda: "Pittsburgh is in his heart." It's especially funny to look back on that now after Jagr told HBO: "Sometimes you think your brain knows everything, but you should follow your heart."
But from a non-Pittsburgh point of view, it's hard to say Jagr made a poor decision – that his brain or his heart or whatever it was led him to the wrong place.
With the Penguins or the Detroit Red Wings – another team with which he flirted – Jagr wouldn't have had to be the man. He would have been able to play with other smart, skilled players on a successful team. But that's the case in Philly, where Jagr has enjoyed a renaissance on the power play and on a line with Claude Giroux, the league's leading scorer.
Jagr has 30 points in 31 games. He seems to be unburdened by the past, having fun with a fresh start at age 39. From his late-night workouts to his easy interaction with teammates, he seems to have rehabilitated his image. He has gone from mercurial talent to wise vet who still loves the game.
Oh, and he's making a cool $1.3 million more than he would have made in Pittsburgh, too.
It's still early, and this isn't the KHL. We won't know for a while whether Jagr can flourish late in the season in the more grueling, more physical NHL after three years in Russia. But we wouldn't have known that had he chosen the Penguins, either, and we know this: He's playing about as well as could have been expected, just on the other side of Pennsylvania.
I admit it. I was among the many to peg Kris Versteeg as a third-liner. That was his role when he won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. When he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs that summer, much was made about him playing in the top six and on the primary power play unit, but it didn't work out. He was traded to Philadelphia, where he was buried on a deep team.
But Versteeg has proven me wrong since signing with the Panthers. Not only has he been a top-six guy in Florida, he was part of the top line in the league when he, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann were all healthy and humming together. Weiss is hurt and Fleischmann has stalled a bit. But Versteeg has five points in his past five games, 10 in his past 10, 12 in his past 12. He's tied for ninth in the NHL in goals (17) and points (38).
"I don't know how people can always peg you as something or peg you in certain areas," Versteeg said. "I've always believed I can be a top-six guy. … I'm not saying I'm as good as [Pavel] Datsyuk or I'm as good as [Henrik] Zetterberg. But I think if you look at those guys and the paths they took, they had to play third line for a few years [in Detroit]. They had to play behind [Steve] Yzerman and behind Brett Hull, behind a lot of guys before they could really get their chance to be top guys. I always look at those guys as role models for myself."
Versteeg pointed out that he played behind right wingers like Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane in Chicago. He played with two sports hernias last season – one in Toronto, another right after he arrived in Philly – and couldn't use his abdomen to skate. He kept contributing even after falling in the Leafs' lineup, but he didn't fit well with the Flyers because they already had their roster set.
In Florida, Versteeg has been healthy and had an opportunity, and he's still young.
"I think a lot of people also think I'm older than I am," said Versteeg, 25. "I won a Cup when I was only 23 years old. A lot of guys don't get their chance in the top six until they're 25, 26, 27, getting in their prime."
The environment hasn’t hurt, either. The media is less intense. The sun is brighter.
"When you go home from the rink, you can sit outside and hang by your pool," said Versteeg, who has a big, beautiful home on a golf course. "When I'm playing in Toronto or Philly and Chicago, there's those months where it's pretty darn cold and it's hard to get up in the morning. It definitely helps out with your vibe and your spirits."
1. Boston Bruins: How well are things going for the Bruins? Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg was the overtime hero of Wednesday night's 2-1 overtime victory over the Coyotes, when his shot went in off an opponent's shinpad. He has two goals in two games after failing to score in the first 32 games.
2. New York Rangers: My favorite up-and-close-and-personal moment with coach John Tortorella on Wednesday night wasn't on HBO. It was during the Rangers' 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, when Torts called a timeout after a turnover and a goal against. The camera focused on him. He didn't say a word. He just seethed.
3. Chicago Blackhawks: At least until Wednesday night – when the 'Hawks were shut out for the fourth time this season – they had been getting more secondary scoring. Viktor Stalberg had seven points in four games. He needs only two points to tie his career high of 24.
4. Detroit Red Wings: What a week of hockey. After back-to-back wins over division rivals – 4-1 at Nashville, 3-2 at home over the St. Louis Blues – the Wings have another back-to-back division set. They visit Chicago in Friday night, then host the Blues again on New Year's Eve.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: At least Ilya Bryzgalov has been entertaining on HBO and in press scrums. His latest "24/7" gem was about his five faces. His latest postgame beauty came Tuesday night after his fourth straight loss, which he sarcastically described as "outstanding." He needs to be more outstanding after signing a nine-year, $51 million deal, and he knows it.
6. Vancouver Canucks:Roberto Luongo has won nine of his past 11, and the Canucks have won 14 of their last 18. Note that Luongo is holding his glove hand higher – protecting an area that seemed to become more of a weakness when he started playing deeper in his net last season.
25. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are 3-9-1 in their last 13 games, and they have six games left on a long road trip – at Minnesota, Long Island, Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis and Dallas. They are, needless to say, in grave danger of falling out of contention yet again.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning: Coaching legend Scotty Bowman scouts a lot of Tampa Bay games for the Blackhawks. Earlier this season, he said this of Steven Stamkos: "He reminds me so much of a guy like Brett Hull in his prime, Mike Bossy. When they go over the blue line, the only thing they have on their mind is, 'How do I score?' " Amid the Bolts’ misery, Stamkos is tied for the league lead in goals with 22.
27. New York Islanders: Obvious, but pretty damning just the same to actually hear Tortorella telling his Rangers not to look past the Islanders on Dec. 22 with a game against Philly the next night. Thanks, HBO. The Rangers beat the Isles 4-2, then beat 'em again Monday night, 3-0.
28. Carolina Hurricanes:Jeff Skinner's concussion is almost as mysterious and alarming as Sidney Crosby's. Skinner, last season's recipient of the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, has missed eight games and counting. There is no timetable for his return.
29. Anaheim Ducks: Some scouts are still talking as if Bobby Ryan is on the market, though he was supposed to be taken off the block when the Ducks fired coach Randy Carlyle and replaced him with Bruce Boudreau. One GM said he didn't think the Ducks were shopping Ryan and would need to be blown away by an offer.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: Finally, changes could be coming. "This last five-game stretch has given us a little more clarity," GM Scott Howson told the Columbus Dispatch. "We're just not good enough as a team." Howson got even more clarity Tuesday night when the Jackets blew another lead and the five-game stretch became a six-gamer with a 2-1 shootout loss to the Calgary Flames. "We'll be active," Howson said.
PLUS: As ominous as Crosby's continued absence has been, he is in good spirits behind the scenes and feeling much better than he did after he was initially concussed in January. There is no timetable for his return. The Penguins have to be prudent, but they haven't come close to ruling him out for the season.
MINUS: This week's Crosby Counter is at eight games, however. It will click to nine Thursday night when the Pens host the Flyers, and considering Crosby is doing only light workouts, the assumption is that he will not return anytime soon.
PLUS: Last season, the biggest trades went down well before the deadline. Leafs GM Brian Burke, who likes to get in front of the action, opened the market Feb. 9 by acquiring Joffrey Lupul,Jake Gardiner and a conditional draft pick for Francois Beauchemin. Expect the same type of dynamic this season. The deadline is 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 27.
MINUS: The Leafs have a funny way of doing business. Coach Ron Wilson thinks it's cute to tweet the news of his contract extension on Christmas morning, and when the Leafs hold an actual news conference Monday, Burke refuses to reveal the details. These are minor-league tactics in a war with the media, and they can only backfire on an organization that should show more class. All of this feeds the perception that Burke is looking out for his former college buddy, and it gives Wilson only financial security. If the Leafs regress, the contract extension shouldn't hold up a coaching change.
PLUS: Don't know how much John Madden has left at age 38, but got to think it would be enough to help the shorthanded Panthers. He can still win faceoffs. He can still compete hard. He won a Cup with some of these guys in Chicago two years ago, and he put up 12 goals and 25 points with Minnesota last season – slightly better numbers than he put up with the 'Hawks.
MINUS: Disappointed with the brief glimpse HBO showed of the Peter Laviolette-Steve Ott incident. I expected more than a trite, profane exchange, but maybe I shouldn't have. What would have been great: Listening to the conversation Laviolette and Ott had over the phone afterward to appease the league.
“Watching HBO promote boxing right before miniseries on hockey. Hmm.”
Maybe it's because HBO shows boxing and simply wanted to promote it alongside some other sports content. Maybe it's because HBO thinks people who like boxing might like hockey, too, and vice versa. But considering the debate we're having in the hockey world, it was an interesting segue Wednesday night when HBO went from a boxing promo into a "24/7" episode that showed a fair amount of fighting – more fighting as a percentage of the action than there is in the actual game.
HBO is appealing to die-hard hockey fans. Do the producers think the die-hards like fighting? HBO is also trying to draw casual viewers. Do the producers think fighting makes for more compelling drama than some of the other stuff that happens on the ice? Do they think casual viewers can relate easier to a fistfight – something they might see in an HBO movie – than a slick scoring play? Probably, on all fronts. Remember, these are accomplished storytellers making conscious editorial choices.
One more interesting moment on HBO: the Rangers' Mike Rupp ripping on the Flyers' Jody Shelley for having no impact on whether his team won or lost. This was one enforcer to another, and the insult was directly aimed at the heart of every player – his hockey skill. I spoke to Shelley earlier this season about skating late at night with Jagr while serving a suspension. Shelley just beamed about it. These guys grow up wanting to score, but they end up fighting because it's a way to make it – and because enough of us want it to be.