BOSTON — With another win in the Bruins ledger after Tuesday night’s 2-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s time to take stock of the Black and Gold roughly two months into the regular season.
And any way you slice it, the Bruins have been impressive while looking and playing like the best team in the NHL. Once again they weren’t going to win any beauty awards in a game against Carolina that was scoreless for the first 55 minutes, but once again the B's pulled away at the end of the third period and scored twice in the last few minutes to win their eighth straight game while grinding through a tight-checking, competitive affair against a pretty good hockey team.
The win made it eight straight wins overall and continues a 16-game run to start the season where the Bruins have yet to lose in regulation at TD Garden with a sterling 12-0-4 record. The stretch of success on home ice is the best run since way back in the glory years of the Bobby Orr Era when the Bruins started the year 19-0-2 on home ice before losing their first regulation game at the friendly confines.
The separation the Bruins are getting in third periods — whether it’s recent comebacks or a game like Tuesday when they simply broke open a tie game — is a trait of truly great hockey teams that overwhelm their opponents with superior conditioning and depth that simply wears their opponent down over time.
“It shows that we’re conditioned, and we have will. We know how to play when the game is on the line. We’re still focusing on our start. I didn’t think it was poor [against the Hurricanes] by any means, so again, piecing together 60 minutes, but you’ve seen here, the home games, we’ve really stepped it up when we needed to,” said Bruce Cassidy. “It’s the sign of a good team. No team is going to have it together for 60 minutes every night, we’ve talked about that.
“We’re building like everyone else, but to be able to win games when you need to and to use everybody; we didn’t have to shorten the bench tonight. Certainly our top guys, they’re going to play their minutes, but I thought everyone was involved, did their job, and that’s why it was a great team victory.”
There’s also the poise and confidence that a seasoned group like the Bruins has in those tight, tense third period moments, and that’s something the B’s are feeling on the bench right now when it gets to winning time.
“It’s a good quality to have in a team and we’ve had that for a while now,” said Charlie Coyle of a Bruins team that’s scored 39 goals in the third period this season with a whopping plus-19 goal differential. “Sometimes you don’t score right away and you try to play solid defensively. But to have that in the third [period] where we have that confidence that we’re just going to win it? We just play with that, stick with the process and not force things. If we go to overtime then we go to overtime, but it’s going to work out for us more often that not.”
What does all this mean for a Bruins team that’s admittedly still not playing their best hockey, and has now been missing Patrice Bergeron for most of the few weeks while ripping off the season-high eight game winning streak?
It means the B’s have essentially wrapped up the Atlantic Division by the beginning of December similar to the way the Tampa Bay Lightning did it last season. The Bruins are now up 14 points in the Atlantic Division over Florida and Buffalo as their closest competitors and the B’s have 20 regulation/overtime wins, which is nearly as much as the Panthers (10) and Sabres (12) have combined to this point in the season.
Certainly teams like the Lightning and Maple Leafs could get hot and rip off the kind of winning streaks that could get them a little closer to the Bruins in the standings. There is plenty of time left over the next four-plus months of hockey on the regular season schedule, but it’s pretty much impossible to see the Bruins going into the kind of complete freefall it would take for anybody to pass them in the divisional standings.
The Bruins' goaltending is too strong with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak (the B’s lead all of the NHL with a 2.18 goals against average and .931 save percentage) for the team to fall into an extended funk this season, and that’s not going to give anybody else in the Atlantic Division the chance to close the 14-point gap they have on everybody else.
It’s a joyous exercise for Bruins fans to compile all the statistics that the Bruins have accumulated up to this point in the early season, and thump their chests about the B’s being the best team in the NHL this year. It’s a strong answer thus far to the bitterness of last spring’s Stanley Cup Final loss in Game 7 and it confirms that their Cup Final berth had nothing to do with luck.
But there’s also a couple of cautionary tales for the Bruins while things are going so swimmingly. There will be a time when the legs get heavy for their B’s and fatigue will creep into their game after playing 106 games (regular season and playoffs) last season into the middle of June. Expect that to come in the months of February and March when the finish line to the regular season is still in the distance, and it will be a challenge for the Bruins to regain this early season mojo when that inevitably happens.
There is also the cautionary tale of last year’s Lightning team. They were so dominant and built up such a giant cushion in the first few months of the regular season that they were never pushed hard, and never really tasted much in the way of adversity.
That smacked them right across the face in the playoffs when the No. 8-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets swept them in four games in the playoffs, and ended things before they could even get the engine started.
The good news is that the Bruins are still neck-and-neck with Washington for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and that St. Louis is just a few points behind in the West, as well. So the Bruins will have some competition for the Presidents' Trophy and aren’t quite on an island all by themselves at the top of the league.
But it’s the first week of December and it looks like the Bruins have already wrapped up the top seed in the division. That’s something not a lot of people would have envisioned coming into this season and it’s again raising expectations that the Bruins are the closest Boston sports team to a championship these days.
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