The Boston Bruins are beginning to fire on all cylinders, and on Saturday night they wrapped up a very successful road trip through Western Canada.
The B's defeated the first-place Calgary Flames 4-2 to cap a trip that also included a win over the Edmonton Oilers and a shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Boston now has a five-game point streak -- its longest of the season so far.
Here are three takeaways from a solid road trip for the Bruins.
1) Goaltending has improved
The Bruins' goaltending has been mediocre (or slightly below) for a good chunk of the season. They've also ranked near the bottom of the league in 5-on-5 save percentage throughout the year.
The tide appears to be turning in Boston's favor, though.
Linus Ullmark, in particular, has improved his performance of late. He's 4-1-0 in his last five starts with a sparkling .941 save percentage and a 2.01 goals against average. The Swedish netminder played a pivotal role in Saturday night's road win at Calgary, stopping 40 of the 42 shots the Flames sent his way.
“(Ullmark) came up big, especially in the first two periods again where we were at times hemmed in our end zone a little bit too much,” Bruins assistant coach Joe Sacco told reporters in his postgame press conference. “He made the quality saves when we needed it.”
Ullmark has been given back-to-back starts against two of the most talented and high-scoring teams in the league -- the Oilers and Flames -- and he beat both on the road with impressive outings. There were stretches in both games where the B's were not playing well or allowing the opponent to tilt the ice in their favor, and Ullmark time and time again made clutch saves to keep the score tied or protect Boston's lead.
Rookie goalie Jeremy Swayman also has shined in his last three starts, posting a .961 save percentage and a 1.29 GAA.
From Opening Night through Nov. 27, the Bruins ranked 25th in the league with a lackluster .898 save percentage as a team. Fast forward a couple weeks and the B's save percentage is .915, good for fifth-best among all teams. It's a steep and much-needed improvement for a goaltending duo that wasn't playing well enough for the first quarter of the campaign.
The challenge for Ullmark and Swayman is maintaining this strong level of play and building consistency. With Tuukka Rask's return a possibility, these two netminders have all the motivation needed to continue their improved performance into the New Year and prove to the Bruins they are the right combo moving forward.
2) Secondary scoring is more consistent
Scoring depth has been a huge problem for the Bruins all season, but it's improved quite a bit during the team's five-game point streak.
Goals from the blue line have been hard to come by for Boston. The B's had nine goals from defensemen through the first 19 games. They've received four goals from d-men in the last five games. Connor Clifton and Charlie McAvoy both scored against the Flames. Matt Grzelcyk scored the winning goal versus the Oilers late in the third period Thursday, and Brandon Carlo scored in a win over the Predators last week.
It's not just the blue line contributing offensively.
Bottom-six forward Curtis Lazar has scored both of his goals this season over the last week, including a tally Saturday night in Calgary. Jake DeBrusk has played a lot better since submitting his trade request with two goals versus the Oilers and Predators over the last week. Charlie Coyle scored last weekend against the Lightning and is on pace for a career-high in goals.
Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are having elite seasons again. David Pastrnak has been good, but his shooting percentage of 7.4 is nearly half his career average. He's due for a rebound soon.
But the Bruins can't rely on their top line to produce every game, especially against good teams. One of the primary reasons why the B's beat two excellent teams in the Oilers and Flames is the depth players stepped up offensively. This has to be the blueprint for the Bruins to be a real contender in 2022 -- good goaltending and timely scoring from guys outside the first line.
3) Bruins marching up standings
The Bruins' five-game point streak has put them ahead of the Red Wings for fourth place in the Atlantic Division, even though Boston has played four fewer games than Detroit. They're also in a wild card playoff spot in the East as a result of Saturday's win versus the Flames.
The B's started the season 1-6-0 versus teams in a playoff spot. They are now 3-0-1 since then. Getting into the top three in the division is a realistic goal, but the margin for error still isn't very large.
The Bruins entered December facing a very tough schedule, with 10 of their 13 games against teams that reached the playoffs last season and/or currently occupy a playoff spot. So far, the B's have done well with a 3-0-2 record, but plenty of challenges remain.
They still have to play quality opponents such as the Vegas Golden Knights, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins before the month concludes. A positive end to the calendar year could springboard the team into a very successful start to 2022 and give the group a ton of confidence as the Olympic break in early February approaches.