Taking stock of the Bruins at the break
In what was billed as the most highly anticipated season for the Boston Bruins since the days of Cam Neely and Ray Bourque, the Black and Gold have failed to live up to the hype thus far as they head into the break sitting at 27-22-11, good for 65 points and 7th place.
Boston spent the majority of the first 75% of the season exchanging first place in the Northeast Division with Buffalo, settling into either 3rd or 5th in the conference. But a lackluster January in which the Bruins went 3-9-2 left Boston outside of the top 8 come Feb. 1 as both fans and players were searching for answers after a 10 game losing streak.
The Bruins won the final four games before the break -- all on the road -- to climb back inside the top 8. The formula that they used during the losing streak was not unlike the one they've been using during this winning streak -- shots on goal, aggressive forechecking and responsible defense. The problem was that the shots were not going in, as the Bruins averaged 1.5 goals per game. Now that the shots are finding the net (3.5 goals during the streak), they're winning. Funny how that works.
Another bright spot for the Bruins has been the play of 22 year old goaltender Tuukka Rask. Drafted 21st overall by Toronto in 2005, the Bruins acquired Rask for Andrew Raycroft in the summer of 2006. He spent 2007 and 2008 getting acclimated to the pro game in the AHL before making the final roster cut this year for Boston. He was expected to be the backup for reigning Vezina winner Tim Thomas, but Rask's stellar play combined with Thomas' pattern of giving up soft, back-breaking goals has vaulted the young Finn into the starting position. He currently stands second in the NHL in GAA and third in save %, and he has one more win than Thomas in 10 less starts. There is no doubting that the team in front of Rask plays with more confidence when he is in net, thanks in part to Rask's solid positional play and Thomas' continuous ability to sap all momentum by letting in a goal from the goal line.
But the news hasn't been all good for Boston. Besides Thomas, several Bruins are producing at a level that is far from what was expected of them coming into this season. Dennis Wideman has been one of the worst defensemen in the NHL, sitting at a well deserved -13 mark thanks to countless failed zone coverages and turnovers in his own end. David Krejci, who broke onto the scene with 73 points last season, sits at just 31 points through 57 games this year. Of course, it hasn't helped Krejci that his right wing, Michael Ryder, couldn't shoot a puck in a soccer net. Ryder has just 25 points (15-10) in 60 games after a 27-26 campaign last year. Zdeno Chara has been battling a finger injury throughout the season, and his play hasn't been close to last year's Norris caliber. Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Andrew Ference and Mark Stuart have missed significant chunks of time due to injury, and when Lucic has been in the lineup he hasn't been the same player that Boston fans fell in love with last season (5-5, -8 in 28 games).
If the Bruins want to keep their momentum going, the formula they've been using to win games needs to continue. The potential is there for the Bruins to not only remain inside the top 8, but improve on their current 7th place position. With 22 games remaining it is not out of the realm of possibilities to catch 5th place Ottawa, which stands at 74 points. With a fully healthy lineup and a solid goaltender like Rask, it is certain that nobody wants to face the Bruins in the first round.