Yes, things don't look great right now. The Black and Gold have lost five straight games and are a dismal 3-8-1 in January. They've dropped to 10th place in the Eastern Conference and hove just three games above .500. Things are certainly looking bleak. But take heart, New England, the season is far from over.
In fact, the Bruins will be getting a much-needed respite shortly. In two weeks, the NHL will break for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In addition to allowing non-participating players time to recover from nagging injuries, the two-week break will also serve as an important opportunity for the team to refocus and zero in on their goals for the remainder of the season.
The NHL playoff system being what it is, a team need not play perfect hockey for a shot at the coveted Stanley Cup. Granted, no team wants to back into the playoffs, but a system like the current one certainly offers some forgiveness to a team like the current Bruins, who have stumbled lately and could do with a bit of leeway, standings-wise.
And if we've learned anything in New England, it's that things aren't over until they are well and truly done. Many, many decades of classical conditioning have given way in recent years to glimmers of hope at the midpoint of a season.
There is, of course, the famous case of the 2004 Boston Red Sox, whose playoff resurgence and come-from-behind victory in the ALCS still stands as the greatest in professional sports history.
Or there's the inspiration the Celtics can provide. After going 24-58 in the 2006-07 season, they went 66-16 record during the 2007-08 season and won their 17th NBA championship. It was the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history.
But perhaps the best local example is the 2001 New England Patriots, who were 4-4 at Week 8 of their season and proceeded to ride a hot streak and an untested backup quarterback all the way to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVI over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.
So there is precedent for a turnaround, especially considering that none of the other teams had a two-week midseason vacation in which to regroup and heal. The Bruins are sending six players to Vancouver to compete for their respective countries: Tim Thomas (U.S.) Marco Sturm (Germany), Zdeno Chara and Miroslav Satan (Slovakia), Patrice Bergeron (Canada) and David Krejci (Czech Republic). While those six players will see considerably less down time than their non-competing teammates (depending on medal contention), the Olympics will still provide a chance for these players to see a different level of competition.
The Bruins also have been playing without a healthy team for the entirety of their season. The healthy returns of Milan Lucic, Marc Savard and Mark Stuart will unquestionably help the team in the long run. But since these players have not been playing together all season, it will take some time for them to jell and play consistently with each other.
In particular, the return of Savard will be a huge boost to the Bruins. The center has missed significant time with foot and knee injuries, a huge blow to the team's offense. Savard, whom the Bruins signed to a seven-year extension in December, still stands as the sixth leading goal scorer on the team, despite missing 23 games this season. An offensive as well as emotional leader, Savard is a key to Boston’s success.
Additionally, the standings in the Eastern Conference are so tight that the Bruins’ 54 points have them just one point behind a five-way tie for seventh place with Philadelphia, New York Rangers, Montreal and Florida. A few point shifts could reorder the standings in Boston’s favor. And with nearly half the season left to play, such a shift is more than possible. Finishing in third or fourth place in the conference is not out of the question if the team regroups during the Olympic break and comes back in March with a renewed focus.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said as much to ESPN.com. "It's so tight in the standings that if you win 4-5 in a row, you're back in it. That's exactly what Ottawa [winners of eight straight] has done."
Chiarelli also reiterated that coach Claude Julien's job is safe but that it falls to the coaches to get more from the players.
It's also possible that the Bruins could look for help through trades, though they'll want to be wary of giving up too much, such as in a trade for the Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk. While other players could be had at a discount, Boston likely will attempt to win with the players they have. Vice president Cam Neely claimed that the Bruins "still need time to evaluate the team" and that he understands fans' frustrations.
The bottom line is this: To make the playoffs and have any chance at extending their season, the Bruins need to play better as a team. Finishing strong on defense and finding ways to score are paramount.
For a struggling team, the Olympic break couldn't come at a better time. Provided the Bruins’ Olympic representatives remain healthy, the team stands a solid shot at coming back together strong and refocused.
Who knows? With the return of a healthy Marc Savard, a much-needed mental health break and a few lucky bounces, the Bruins could be right back in the thick of things. After all, we've seen it happen before.