Bruins

Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

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Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

WILMINGTON, MA The Bruins went into this season hearing all kinds of idle hockey talk about the overall weakness that was expected of their Northeast Division this year.

The Bs romped their way to the division title last year and the Northeast Division only produced two playoff teams in the Eastern Conference with the Ottawa Senators just squeaking into the postseason as the No. 8 seed. So the expectation was that a similar scenario would play out again this season with the Bruins going wire-to-wire in the Northeast Division.

The Black and Gold bunch that won the Cup two years were expected to be the only legit team to come out of the Northeast, but it appears as though that is not the case.

Its pretty competitive. I think it surprised a lot of people, but just think where Ottawa would be if they had Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Thats been a big blow to that hockey team, said Claude Julien. Montreal has a whole new look and theyre doing well while having played a lot of home games. The Northeast has surprised a lot of people because the predictions were that it was going to be the weak division.

The Bruins even cooperated with the preseason prognosticators by jumping out to an 8-1-1 start that made them look like the class of the division. But the Bruins organization also realized pretty quickly that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were for real after playing each of them in their own barn. Now the Canadiens have jumped out to a solid start this season and actually lead the Bruins in the Northeast Division with Boston holding two games in hand.

Instead the Southeast Division looks like the dregs of the conference with only the Carolina Hurricanes in playoff position after the seasons first month, and Winnipeg, Florida and Washington all in various states of disarray.

Obviously the Bruins would choose to be leading the division if all things were equal, but theyre actually not unhappy about another team like the hated Habs or the truculent Leafs pushing them to be the best Bs they can be.

The Bruins had the run of the Northeast Division roost for the first month, but now theyre looking up at a hot Habs team thats riding a five-game winning streak. Following their first game against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, the vibe around the Bruins dressing room was a grudging respect for Montreal, which that looks like it's built for success this year.

I know we have games in hand, but when you get passed in the standings it definitely motivates you to get back to where you were . . . thats on top of the Northeast Division," Milan Lucic said. "Montreal has definitely done better than expected and theyve exceeded expectations. It always seems like every other year were going to battle with them for that top spot in the Northeast and it wouldnt surprise me if we get them in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto is good this year and Ottawa had a big win the other night. Weve done a good job in the first 13 games putting ourselves in the position were at with a 9-2-2 record. But were only fifth in the conference.

Personally I wish we had played a few more games in the first two months rather than piling all of them up at the end. Its something you cant control, but we just have to do the best we can to stay in the pack so when we get hit with a lot of games were not playing catch-up hockey.

To Lucics point, the Bruins have played the fewest games of any NHL team with only 13 games played roughly a month into the abbreviated campaign.

The Buffalo Sabres are looking more and more like theyre headed for a house-cleaning as they continue to linger in the Northeast Division basement, and perhaps the time has come for head coach Lindy Ruff to move on. The Senators pushed the Bruins right at the very end of last season, but theyre looking dead in the water with both Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson out with major injuries that should prove lethal in a 48-game shortened NHL season.

The Habs and the Maple Leafs were looked at as Eastern Conference punch lines to start the season based on last year. But Julien has learned to respect his opponents in the division, and there is something to be said for goalies Carey Price, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all residing in the Northeast Division. They give their teams a chance to win on any given night, and they have probably helped contribute to Bostons offensive slow-going in the early portion of this season.

Its probably not a bad thing now that weve got to climb back up there, Julien said. The games become important for us. We knew that was going to happen to us and the main thing is that we stay in the pack.

Were still in the pack with some games in hand, and its up to us to win those games in hand and get to the top where we feel we belong.

The schedule picks up this week for the Bruins with a three-game road swing and then they delve into a grind that will last upwards of two months where they basically play every other day. That will afford them the chance to catch all those teams that are zooming by them with more games played in the early going, and that includes the dreaded Canadiens.

Even in their struggles, Bruins have reason(s) to be thankful

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Even in their struggles, Bruins have reason(s) to be thankful

Thanksgiving in the United States has become an important holiday in NHL circles because it provides a regular-season marker that allows teams to gauge their playoff viability. Roughly 75 percent of teams in a playoff spot at Turkey Day end up qualifying for the postseason, and teams within a handful of points of a playoff spot retain a pretty decent chance of pushing their way in. 

But Thanksgiving is also a great time for teams like the Bruins to also give thanks, just like everybody else, while they’re passing the turkey, the stuffing and the mashed potatoes.

Given that it’s the time of being thankful ahead of the holiday season, here is this humble hockey writer’s annual list of things that each member of the Bruins has to be thankful for as they sit down to enjoy a tryptophan-induced nap:
 
David Pastrnak – The 21-year-old is still thankful for the big bucks he signed for this fall . . . $40 million, to be exact. That should keep him in $8 sushi meals at the mall food court for as long as he wants them.
 
Brad Marchand –Marchand is thankful he finally got bumped up to the top power-play unit over the last couple of seasons, after Claude Julien really dragged his feet putting him there. Eleven power-play goals and 29 power-play points in his last 94 games certainly tell the story.
 
Patrice Bergeron – Bergeron is happy and thankful that he’s regained his health after missing the start this season, and that he’s been able to adequately handle the 21:01 of ice time he’s averaging per game.
 
Torey Krug – Krug is thankful he can again eat a nice steak dinner after being forced to have his food come out of a blender for months after fracturing his jaw during the preseason. Of course, that goes for a nice turkey dinner on Thanksgiving as well.
 
Danton Heinen – The 22-year-old is thankful for second chances after he whiffed during an eight-game audition last season in his first year of pro hockey. He’s making up for it by cementing a role with the Bruins this season now that he’s stronger, faster and a little more confident with the puck.
 
Charlie McAvoy – The 19-year-old defenseman is thankful he decided to leave BU after his sophomore season, making the very correct deduction that he was way more than ready for the NHL. If he plays his cards right, he may be thankful at the end of the season for a Calder Trophy.
 
Anders Bjork – The rookie is thankful that the B’s will be playing the Chicago Blackhawks in the Winter Classic at his alma mater, Notre Dame, next season. He may get to live out a lifelong dream of playing a hockey game on that iconic football field.
 
Jake DeBrusk – The rookie left winger is thankful that he got to score his first NHL goal in front of his family and his teary-eyed dad, Louie, during a pretty cool opening-night win over the Nashville Predators.
 
Tim Schaller – The New Hampshire native is thankful to be playing for his hometown hockey team, of course, but he’s more than just a local boy made good. Tim Schaller has been a positive factor for the bottom-6 with his size, speed and intermittent offense.
 
Zdeno Chara – The captain is thankful that both he and his employer agree that the 40-year-old D-man should continue playing for the Bruins beyond this season. Now it’s just a matter of agreeing on a contract at some point.
 
David Krejci – The playmaking center is thankful his cranky back has loosened up enough for him to get back in the lineup. Now the Bruins and their fans would be thankful if the points would start to follow now that he’s healthy enough to play.
 
Riley Nash – The forward is thankful that the B's thought enough of him to protect him in the expansion draft last summer, a show of commitment to a versatile, smart player who does a lot of little things well.
 
Sean Kuraly – The young center is thankful that he hasn’t yet hurt himself taking the jumping, flying and leaping goal celebrations that he’s quickly becoming known for.
 
Kevan Miller – The defenseman is thankful he’s back playing his natural right side for the most part after being pushed into left-side duty for much of the first couple of months this season.
 
Brandon Carlo – The second-year defenseman is thankful to still be on the Bruins, and not used as possible trade collateral in a possible Matt Duchene deal that was discussed quite a bit last year and through the summer.
 
Jordan Szwarz – The 26-year-old forward is thankful for another NHL opportunity in Boston after he’d gone a couple of years without a sniff during his time in the Arizona Coyotes organization after some early games with them.
 
Frank Vatrano – The Bruins forward and East Longmeadow native should frankly be happy that he’s still in the NHL given the training camp and early season he had with the Bruins. He’s scored a couple of goals and played well lately, so he has to hope that he’s pushed through the bad times.
 
Noel Acciari – The Providence College alum is happy to be healthy again after missing a month with a broken finger, and he’s proven that by going right back to the heavy hitting, shot-blocking tough kid that he’s always been.
 
Ryan Spooner – The speedy playmaker is thankful to be over his torn groin. He needs a strong season in order to once, and for all, show exactly what he could be to the Bruins, or some other team, at the NHL level.
 
Adam McQuaid – The veteran defenseman is thankful that he wasn’t selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft last summer, and instead continues to be a strong, robust presence in the D-zone when healthy.
 
David Backes – The 33-year-old forward is thankful to be back skating again after a couple of painful  bouts with diverticulitis that left him in surgery with 10 inches of his colon being removed. I'm still amazed that he returned to practice as quickly as he did, but he is a hockey player after all.
 
Paul Postma – The  D-man is thankful to be getting a second chance with another organization after spending his entire career with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.
 
Matt Beleskey – The winger is thankful that he’s getting a chance to bounce back from last year’s down season, but so far the zero points and minus-7 rating in 13 games leave lots of room for improvement.
 
Tuukka Rask – The No. 1 goaltender is thankful for all the rest he’s getting in the first half of the season, which should presumably make him healthy, fresh and strong down the stretch this season. That is, if he can actually get back in touch with a game that sees him with a turkey-like .897 save percentage right now.  
 
Anton Khudobin – The backup netminder is thankful he’s been given a chance to run with things this season as he’s already twice had a chance to start three games in a row after struggling to gain regular playing time last season.
 
Bruce Cassidy – The coach is thankful for another shot behind an NHL bench 13 years after the first one, and he’s making the most of it with a rag-tag group beset by injuries and youth right now.
 
Don Sweeney – The general manager is thankful the team is still within a handful of points of a playoff spot after everything that went wrong in the first couple of months.
 
Cam Neely – The tean president is thankful for the overwhelming talent within their youth movement and the strong, loyal fan base that backs this team no matter what. But it could be a bit of a rough ride ahead, as the B's rank fourth among the big four Boston sports teams, given how good, deep and close to championship-caliber the others are right now. 

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Talking Points: Khudobin keeps rolling in shootout win

Talking Points: Khudobin keeps rolling in shootout win

GOLD STAR: Who else but Anton Khudobin? The Bruins backup netminder improved to 6-0-2 on the season and upped his NHL-leading save percentage to .938 while making 40 saves in a shootout win over the New Jersey Devils. Khudobin was outstanding stoning players like Nico Hischier and Blake Coleman on breakaways, and stood tall in the third period while the Bruins were outshot 15-5 and ended up tying the game. Even better Khudobin was super-competitive in the shootout where he was challenging shooters, and even stared down Hischier after he poke-checked the puck away from him on his attempt. The Bruins don’t win Wednesday night’s game without Khudobin playing the way he did, and that should pretty much guarantee that he plays again on Friday afternoon against the Penguins.

BLACK EYE: One shot and one hit in 8:28 of ice time for Jimmy Hayes in his first game against his old Bruins team, so pretty much par for the course from the underachieving big guy. Hayes has scored a couple of goals for the Devils this season, but he’s been mostly the same as in the past with sporadic scoring, intermittent tough guy play in the danger areas and then long stretches where you don’t even notice the 6-foot-6 guy out on the ice. Of the two ex-Bruins forwards going up against their old team tonight, Drew Stafford was by far the better of the two with three shots on net and at least one pretty decent scoring chance among them after stealing a puck from Frank Vatrano.

TURNING POINT: The Bruins set things up for their shootout win with a strong opening first period when it came to finishing off plays. Yes, they were outshot by a 15-10 margin, but they also made two big plays with Jake DeBrusk scoring a goal and then David Pastrnak setting up Patrice Bergeron for his fifth goal of the season. Beyond that Anton Khudobin also stopped 14 pucks in the first period that included a number of scoring chances for the Devils, and it showed what the Bruins are capable of when they’re on the right side of some key plays early in the game. Sure, the Devils clawed their way back in, but the Bruins felt like they had the game in control because of the work they put in during the first period.

HONORABLE MENTION: Charlie McAvoy led all skaters with a game-high 27:04 of ice time, and played a strong game while totaling three shots on net and three blocked shots. But he saved the real good stuff for the 11th round of the shootout when he threw a nifty stick move at Cory Schneider, and then roofed a backhanded attempt in tight and close to the net. The McAvoy shootout move begged the question why it took so long to get to him, but also mercifully closed out a shootout session that felt like it could have gone on forever between the Bruins and Devils. The finishing move from the 19-year-old was pure, unadulterated skill with the puck.

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 – the first NHL career point for Matt Grzelcyk arrived in the first period when he picked up an assist on a lead pass off the boards that freed Jake DeBrusk up for a goal-scoring rush.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s the end of a road trip, so give the guys credit. They dug down deep and found a way to get the two points.” – Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy,  

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