Slowly but surely, the Bruins are starting to catch up to the rest of the league in terms of games played after a relatively “easy” start to the season. The worst of the schedule is still to come, but the Bruins cleared one of the early-season hurdles on Tuesday night in a big way.
With a 4-1 win over the Islanders, the Bruins put the finishing touches on their longest road trip of the season. While it wasn’t a road trip in the true sense of the term (the B’s did go home for a stretch), there’s no arguing it was a successful five-game swing.
The win over the Islanders allowed the B’s to return home with a 4-1-0 record on their longest stretch of games away from TD Garden, and they still find themselves among the league’s elite as the young season starts to age.
There are still things to work on, no doubt, but there was plenty to be happy about with the road trip. No one knows that better than B’s head coach Claude Julien. He spoke with NESN’s Naoko Funayama following Tuesday’s win, and while he was speaking mainly about the team’s win over New York, he might as well have been speaking about the trip in its entirety.
Let’s dive into that a little bit more, shall we? Here’s some of what the Boston bench boss had to say following the game.
“We found a way to win, and there were a lot of things that we probably didn’t like as coaches — they got a lot of scoring chances and probably too much space.”
First things first: It was a successful five-game stretch for the Bruins, a stretch that gives them their first four-game winning streak of the season while improving their road record to 8-1-1 on the season. However, Julien and his coaching staff expect a lot of this veteran-laden bunch. On Tuesday night and throughout the trip, there were instances when Boston could have been better in all three zones. A defensive breakdown on Tuesday night led to the lone Islanders goal. Of course, it was nothing compared to the slop show that the club displayed in a 4-2 loss to the Sabres to open the trip, a game in which Boston saw its lead evaporate as it was outscored 3-0 in an ugly, ugly third period. So while things may seem pretty darn good right now (and at 12-2-0, there’s not much to complain about), it’s clear that there is still work to be done.
“We found ways to score some big goals. We still had some great offensive chances. From our end defensively, being a picky coach, you’d like to see your team defensively be a little stronger than it was tonight, but overall a great trip and a great win over a pretty good hockey club.”
The Bruins’ offense certainly came alive in the trip. The B’s have been a little lackadaisical offensively through the first quarter of the season, but they’ve shown signs of coming around. The Bruins did score 17 goals during the five-game trip, which is even more impressive when you consider they scored just 30 goals in their first 11 games of the season. Can the defense be better? Again, of course it can. But you’re starting to pick some nits when you really get down to it. Plus, when you get goaltending like the Bruins have been getting so far this season, it goes a long way in erasing the occasional defensive lapse. Speaking of …
“We’ve had an easy schedule, so [Tuukka Rask's] not tired. In order for a goaltender to be good, he’s got to get himself into a bit of a groove, and we know the schedule is going to get hectic, and that’s where you’re going to see changes. You’re going to see [Anton Khudobin] once and a while, but right now to sit [Rask] out and not let him play a few days, a goaltender can lose his groove, and we’re trying to keep him in it.”
Tuukka Rask is certainly in a groove right now. The club’s No. 1 goaltender turned in one of his best games of the season Tuesday, and he’s going to continue to see the bulk of the action if he plays like this. In Rask’s last four appearances, he’s 4-0-0 with a 1.50 goals against average and a .950 save percentage. When the Bruins had some defensive hiccups on the trip (particularly Tuesday), Rask was there to pick them up. He backboned the defensive effort for much of the trip, and he seemed to get better as the games and the trip went on. He’s also the biggest reason the B’s haven’t allowed a third-period goal in their last four games, a stretch that not coincidentally has seen four Boston wins.
“I was looking at the stat sheet tonight, and you’d like to see a little more production from the third line, and that’s coming. Those guys are playing a lot better, and right now as a line, I think they had four goals coming into tonight and the fourth line had five, so you’d like to see that number be a little better, but the top two lines are doing their job, and the third line is still doing their job, and they’ve had a lot of opportunities. “
While the offense is starting to click, the Bruins could see a little more, at least offensively, from all four lines. However, as Julien pointed out, the top two lines have been fantastic. That’s exactly what the club needs until the third line comes along and starts cashing in on its opportunities. The Bruins are starting to see some of their dormant top-six players — like Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin — come around. Horton showed signs of breaking out with a two-goal game against Tampa Bay, while Seguin registered at least a point in all five games. Brad Marchand is on a 55-goal pace if this were an 82-game season. Patrice Bergeron has 4-1-5 totals in his last five games. Milan Lucic and David Krejci have taken turns as the best player on the ice at times.
But the Bruins pride themselves on depth, and for that to fully come to fruition, they’ll need to start converting their chances, particularly on the third line. They don’t have a ton of goal-scoring talent on that line, but they showed some real encouraging signs of promise on Tuesday in New York, and if they can start to get things going, it’s only going to make the Bruins a more dangerous offensive team.
While Julien may not have mentioned it, special teams also played a key part on the trip. The NHL’s top-ranked penalty kill has another eye-popping streak going (24 straight kills), and the unit was 15-for-15 on the trip. The power play showed signs of life, too, with three power-play goals during the five games as well.
There is still room for improvement. There always is, really. But the Bruins have to be happy with where they are right now, especially coming off their longest road trip of the season. Now they go home, where they’ll play seven of their next 10 as they begin a frantic stretch of the schedule, a gauntlet that will last for the rest of the season. After three breaks of at least two days in the early going, the Bruins don’t have another two-day break until March 28 and 29.
They have their work cut out for them, but it’s pretty difficult to be entering that stretch with more momentum than the Bruins have right now.