Bruins

With the Pats officially done, the Bruins are well worth your attention

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With the Pats officially done, the Bruins are well worth your attention

BRIGHTON, Mass – After dutifully playing the second or third fiddle for most of this winter with little fanfare or hype surrounding their hockey club, it’s high time for the Boston Bruins to seize control of the Boston sports spotlight.

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Certainly they’ll need to share some of it with a Boston Celtics team that looks ready for prime time as well even without Gordon Hayward, but the painful sight of watching the New England Patriots fall short in Sunday’s Super Bowl just opens the door for the real hockey season starting right now.

Clearly the backstage drama of tension, real or perceived, between the Krafts, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will be a topic of conversation long after the vision of a thrown ball slipping through Tom Brady’s hands has dissipated.

But it becomes much more about the games at this point, and both the Bruins and Celtics are putting out one heck of a product.  

The Bruins are one of the biggest, best stories in the NHL this season with their intriguing mixture of established veteran Cup winners like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and their seemingly endless wave of talented young guys like Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk and Danton Heinen. But if you don’t believe this humble hockey writer, just look at some of the stupefying numbers they’re in the middle of producing. 

This is a Bruins team that’s gone 25-4-4 since benching Tuukka Rask for four games in mid-November. This is a Bruins team that’s gone a ridiculous 49-19-9 over the last year under Bruce Cassidy since memorably sacking Claude Julien on the morning of the Patriots Super Bowl celebration through Boston.

This is a hockey team well worth your attention while looking for the next winning lottery ticket in Boston’s pro sports landscape. They’re not the Big Bad Bruins of old or even the rough and tumble crew that hoisted the Cup back in 2011, but they have the most dominant forward trio in all of hockey with the Perfection Line of Brad Marchand (when he’s keeping his prominent nose out of trouble), Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.

All three forwards are on pace to top 35 goals this season, and are a combined plus-55 on the season while looking like hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters against defenders with no prayer of stopping them.

They are fourth in the league averaging 3.2 goals per game, and tops in the NHL allowing a piddling 2.4 goals per game. They do pretty much everything well, and even showed the kind of backbone and hardnosed approach in wins last week vs. St. Louis and Toronto that could be a harbinger of some very good things in April and May.

In other words, this Bruins team is for real and people aren’t going to want to be too much tardier hopping on the Black and Gold bandwagon. Or they might miss the next thing to come along after Brady and Co. came up short on Sunday.    

“Guys are obviously very competitive, we want to win every game and there were a lot of battles. You can see the guys were really stepping out of their comfort zone, skill guys making some big plays and determined to win the battles along the wall,” said Zdeno Chara. “Guys were physical, but also making plays…that is what you need from a [good hockey] team.”  

The Bruins are in prime position comfortably rooted in second place in the Atlantic Division, they just vanquished their closest competitor last weekend with a dominant 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs and they have a legit chance to overtake the struggling for Tampa Bay Lightning atop the Atlantic Division.

With just 32 games remaining in the regular season, this is when the regular season will be at its height and this is when the attention traditionally starting picking up for the Black and Gold anyway. If any borderline Bruins fans needed a true palate cleanser after the way Claude Julien’s last few groups disappointed in most every way, then this is it going on right now nightly on the TD Garden ice. 

“I think the intensity is only going to ramp up from here. The points – they’re important all year – but you start really seeing the teams, the numbers get crunched a little bit when you get into the latter part of the season,” said Adam McQuaid. “Everyone is playing and competing hard…it’s a fun time to be playing.”

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It’s also a fun time to be a fan of the Boston Bruins, and a fan of the Boston sports scene in general. Did you get your heart broken by the Patriots falling short in a highly entertaining Super Bowl shootout against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles?

Well, just turn your attention to the Boston Bruins as the unquestioned best sports story of these winter months, and a hockey club fully worthy of your attention and admiration for the best still to come in this hockey season.

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Bruins' defense, goaltending enjoys mini-breakthrough against Flames

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Bruins' defense, goaltending enjoys mini-breakthrough against Flames

Here’s what we learned in the Bruins 2-1 overtime win over the Calgary Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Monday afternoon.

1)      Once again the Bruins were challenged and provided the perfect response. After giving up 15 goals in their previous four games and getting blown out by Vancouver last weekend, the Bruins recognized their defensive game had slipped in all zones. Their defensive layers had disappeared up and down the ice, the fore-check had gone missing and the D-zone coverage was leaving big holes in the slot and in front of the net. The Bruins weren’t working particularly hard, they were making some pretty elementary mistakes and they were allowing opponents to gain way too much speed and momentum entering their zone. All of that changed against Calgary after a spirited practice on Sunday, and the Bruins allowed just four shots on net in the first period against the Flames. They went on to allow just a single goal in the game, and kept grinding until they took a 2-1 win in OT. Hand-in-hand with the B’s defense responding was the Bruins goaltending situation responding to the challenge as well. Tuukka Rask hadn’t been particularly good in recent losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Canucks over the last week, and he wasn’t getting the support in front of him either. That added up to a lot of goals allowed and getting yanked in the Canucks loss amid some poor rebound control. Rask was locked in from beginning to end on Monday afternoon, and made five show-stopping saves in OT prior to Brad Marchand’s breakaway game-winner. What’s impressive is that it took just one bad loss for the B’s to totally snap back into place. There are times when it can take three, four or even five games for a hockey club to shed their bad defensive habits, but the Bruins did it immediately and haven’t lost back-to-back games since November. That is simply amazing at this point, and a testament to the coaching staff and the players. 

2)      In addition to the Bruins defense and goaltending responding, it was impressive to see Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak respond with big goals as well. Neither player was very good in the blowout loss to Vancouver, and Pastrnak had been mired in a bit of a slump with just one goal in his last 11 games headed into Monday afternoon. Both players have been targeted and thumped pretty solidly by opponents just as they were down the stretch last season as well, and they hadn’t really responded in an effective way until Monday. Even into the playoffs last season, Pastrnak really struggled to respond to some of the elevated intensity and physicality that he saw. Pastrnak scored in the first period on a nifty play aided by a Patrice Bergeron active stick against the side boards, and he enjoyed a number of scoring chances against the Flames. Marchand had seven shot attempts that culminated with his breakaway in overtime for the game-winner, and he was also engaged and physical throughout while both he and Matthew Tkachuk tried to “out-punk” each other on the ice. With a Bruins team that’s going to need their top line to produce regularly for them as the games get tighter, Monday’s mini-breakthrough was an important sign that Marchand and Pastrnak are ready to fight through some of the resistance thrown their way.

3)       Monday’s win also saw the Bruins once again drop the gloves to defend one of their teammates. On Saturday night it was Brandon Carlo sticking up for David Pastrnak, and on Monday afternoon it was Adam McQuaid dropping Garnet Hathaway after he took a shot at Charlie McAvoy right in front of the Bruins bench while practically inviting No. 54 to get involved. The Bruins will need to continue to bring their immediate reaction to borderline hits and opponents taking runs at their players, and that starts with McQuaid and trickles down through the rest of the lineup. Team toughness, they call it.

Plus

*Brad Marchand finished up with the sweet, little backhanded five-hole goal on the breakaway in overtime, and played an excellent overall game with seven shot attempts and plenty of active, engaged play all over the ice in 20 plus minutes of action. 

*Tuukka Rask stopped 28-of-29 shots against Calgary and was solid throughout the game. But he was amazing in the overtime session when he was turning away Grade-A chances from Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett at one end while making five stops overall in the extra session. That little stand-on-his-head routine bought the B’s enough time for Marchand’s game-winner at the other end, and he certainly carried the Bruins to the extra OT point this time around. 

*Four shots on net and an eye-catching three blocked shots for David Pastrnak in 18:38 of ice time, including the game’s first goal in the first period when he curled to the net and beat Dave Rittich low with a shot. 

Minus

*Michael Frolik finished as a minus player for the Flames, and had the turnover to Patrice Bergeron in the first period that led directly to David Pastrnak’s goal. It was a pretty well-played game, so those little mistakes really stood out for either side. 

*Two giveaways and a minus-1 in 22:49 of ice time for Dougie Hamilton, who pretty much had a nothing game in a reminder to Bruins fans that they upgraded when they made Charlie McAvoy their No. 1 defenseman of the future. 

*No shots on net in 12:54 of ice time for Jake DeBrusk, who didn’t seem to have the same jump to his game on Monday that he did last weekend in Vancouver. He may have been saving it for Edmonton, where he grew up and certainly wants to put on a show on Tuesday night.

Karlsson's intriguing, but Bruins should just say no

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Karlsson's intriguing, but Bruins should just say no

With the Bruins possibly still window shopping for a long term, top-4 defenseman ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline, should they make a push for two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson? 

The dysfunctional soap opera continues in Ottawa with the Senators as owner Eugene Melnyk has taken over as club president, and now a CTV Ottawa report indicates that NHL teams “will be pitching” Ottawa this week with trade offers for the 27-year-old, game-changing defenseman. The catch is that any team looking for Karlsson also has to take on the contract of 30-year-old calcifying winger Bobby Ryan, who has a cap killer of a deal with four more years after this one at $7.25 million. 

That condition to a Karlsson trade is likely to knock many potential suitors out of the running, and with good reason. 

Ryan has 7 goals and 20 points in 39 games this season, and underachieved last year with 13 goals and 25 points in 62 games before getting his game together in Ottawa’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Karlsson has one more season at $6.5 million before unrestricted free agency, and the conventional wisdom is that trade talks have stirred because the Senators are balking at what’s sure to be a massive contract extension. It’s the same reason they shipped Kyle Turris to Nashville in the Matt Duchene deal when his big contract was coming due with the Senators as well. 

But Karlsson is so good at what he does that it might just be worth swallowing hard on the Ryan contract, and hoping that he’s got a few good seasons left in him. Like 2015-16, when he posted 22 goals and 56 points in 81 games. 

Karlsson is pace for another 60-point season from the back end, but is also a whopping minus-27 for a dreadful Senators bunch that’s slowly sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Clearly the numbers will be down from the 18 goals and 73 points Karlsson has averaged over his previous four seasons. Karlsson has also had some foot issues in his last few seasons, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be a dynamic, game-changing force for years to come. 

So should the Bruins give this heavy consideration given that they’re in the market for another frontline defenseman and a big, heavy experienced winger, and could get all of it done in one fell swoop? It might be intriguing to think about a right side of the defense in Boston where Karlsson and Charlie McAvoy could be dynamic D-men for the next decade, and if nothing else Ryan showed last spring that he’ll be one of those veterans that can rise to the occasion in the postseason even if he floats through the regular season. 

But in the end it’s simply too much money and too many prospects the Bruins would have to give up to secure both players when they could give up much less in both areas to chase after New York’s Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh in a similar combo deal. Chasing after Karlsson also doesn’t address Boston’s biggest need on the back end, which is a left shot top-4 D-man who can partner with McAvoy long term and potentially step in for 40-year-old Zdeno Chara when he eventually moves on. 

More realistically, Don Sweeney and the Bruins are still on course for a bigger, experienced veteran rental player on the wing now that they’ve addressed their back end depth with the trade for Rangers D-man Nick Holden. 

The Bruins might surprise everybody and beat a team like Tampa Bay to the punch for a blockbuster deal this month, but it doesn’t feel like that’s coming with a B’s team still poised to pass the Lightning for the top spot in the league all by themselves. 

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