Bruins

The Bruins are making it clear that last year's run was no fluke

The Bruins are making it clear that last year's run was no fluke

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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NHL Top 10: Who are the league's best defensemen right now?

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USA TODAY Sports photo

NHL Top 10: Who are the league's best defensemen right now?

Being an NHL defenseman is not an easy task. There are the obvious responsibilities at the defensive end where these players must block shots, win battles, break pucks out cleanly and efficiently and keep the puck out of their net at all costs. 

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Then there are the requirements for the truly special D-man that also impacts the game at the offensive end. That's what separates John Carlson, Roman Josi and Alex Pietrangelo from the run-of-the-mill NHL defensemen. The top four or five names on this list should be the names you see on the Norris Trophy ballots as they check off just about every box and that makes them the league's best defensemen right now.

NHL trade targets: Four physical players Bruins could pursue before deadline

NHL trade targets: Four physical players Bruins could pursue before deadline

The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 24, so there's a little more than a month for the Boston Bruins and other contenders to make roster upgrades for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Bruins enter the weekend leading the Atlantic Division and rank among the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league. Despite having a deep roster loaded with postseason experience, the Bruins could certainly use a little more physicality in their lineup, particularly up front. The playoffs often are a grind, where the game slows down and physical play can really wear on players over a seven-game series.

With that theme in mind, here are four players the Bruins could target before the trade deadline to upgrade their physicality (All salary information via Cap Friendly, advanced stats via Natural Stat Trick).

Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
2019-20 stats
: 46 GP, 16 G, 15 A, 111 SOG
Contract: $4.625 million salary cap hit, UFA after 2019-20, modified no-trade clause

Kreider, in many ways, is the ideal target for the Bruins ahead of the trade deadline. He's a skilled offensive player, he plays a power forward kind of game, and he's a Massachusetts-born player who played at Boston College. Kreider has great hands, good speed, and plenty of effective dangles in front of the net. He's also not afraid to go to the dirty areas around the crease for rebound goals and to set screens. His offensive talents would upgrade Boston's power play, too.

The Rangers are six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and must soon decide if they'll become sellers at the trade deadline. Kreider is able to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and if there's a chance New York could lose him, it makes sense to deal him to a contender. Kreider would give the Bruins' top-six or third line an injection of speed, offensive skill and impressive size (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds).

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Miles Wood, LW, New Jersey Devils
2019-20 stats
: 46 GP, 7 G, 9 A, 94 SOG
Contract: $2.75 million cap hit through 2021-22

Wood is not a rental and signed through the 2021-22 campaign. The 24-year-old forward is capable of scoring between 25 and 30 points over a full season, while also throwing his weight around with a power forward-style of play. The best attribute of Wood's game is his fantastic speed, which would give the Bruins' bottom-six additional energy and another dimension for opponents to tackle.

Craig Smith, C, Nashville Predators
2019-20 stats
: 46 GP, 10 G, 10 A, 123 SOG
Contract: $4.25 million cap hit, UFA after 2019-20

Smith would add depth down the middle for the Bruins and give them a physical player who loves battling in front of the net. The 30-year-old center has 10 goals this season, and eight of them have come in the last 14 games. Smith has played his entire nine-year career in Nashville, but if the Predators don't feel like they can (or want to) re-sign him as a free agent this summer, getting some value for him ahead of the trade deadline would be the smart move. The Predators enter Friday six points out of the second wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.

Josh Manson, D, Anaheim Ducks
2019-20 stats
: 28 GP, 1 G, 4 A, 39 SOG
Contract: $4.1 million cap hit through 2021-22, also a modified no-trade clause

How tough is Manson? Well, he fought Milan Lucic during the preseason in 2015, a few weeks before his first full season with the Ducks.

Manson isn't going to provide a ton of offensive production, but his teams have established puck possession at a high rate most of his career. In four of his five pro seasons the Ducks have earned a Corsi-For percentage above 50 at even strength, and in the 2019-20 campaign, Anaheim has a plus-28 edge in shot attempts, a plus-10 advantage in shots on goal and a plus-15 margin in scoring chances at 5-on-5 when Manson has been on the ice. 

The 28-year-old defenseman also is fully capable of logging 20-plus minutes per night. He has experience filling a top-four role for Anaheim, but he probably would be a third-pairing defenseman on Boston's blue line. Manson's willingness to block shots and go into the corner to fight for pucks also would make him a valuable penalty killer for the B's. He's averaged 2:10 of shorthanded ice time per game for the Ducks this season.

The Ducks have the worst record in the Western Conference entering Friday. They should be sellers ahead of the deadline. Manson is not a rental, however, and he's on a pretty manageable contract for a 28-year-old defenseman. There's no rush to trade him from Anaheim's perspective, but he definitely is a good target for contenders that want to toughen up their blueline.

Side note: Manson already has an idea of Boston's hockey culture from his three seasons playing for Northeastern University.

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