The Bruins stormed into the break by going 11-4-3 in their last 18 games, a stretch culminating in Wednesday night's 2-1 win over the hapless Florida Panthers at the Garden. It wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was good enough for two points and a firm hold on the Northeast Division lead at the break.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding this team, but the Bruins have to feel good about their first 50 games of the season.
Below is a breakdown of where the Black and Gold stand at the break.
We begin with D because that's where Claude Julien's system begins. Once again, Julien has a team that makes very few mistakes in its own zone. Fans occasionally get frustrated with this team, wanting it to attack more, but in the NHL, defense wins playoff series' and the Bruins are giving up the fewest goals per game in the league. They've actually improved on last year's league-leading defense, and are currently allowing a league-best 2.14 goals per game.
Every spring, Zdeno Chara becomes the brunt of Boston sports talk radio jokes, as the captain is annually accused of being unable to win the big game. But Big Z is the rock that the B's defense is built around and he owns a plus-22 rating while averaging a Ray Bourque-like 26:08 of ice time per game — third most in the league. The captain's play is the least of this team's worries.
If not for Tim Thomas, we wouldn't be talking about a league-leading defense. Thomas is the Comeback Player of the Year, returning from hip surgery to post an incredible 1.84 goals against average at the break. It's the best in the league … by a lot.
Thomas heard the grumblings over the summer when Bruins fans called for his trade. He kept his mouth shut, rehabbed his hip and is now the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy. The toughest part is getting playing time for 23-year-old Tuukka Rask. His numbers aren't bad — a 2.67 GAA and .923 save percentage would suffice on many teams — but he's only won four of the 15 games he's started.
Forget that talk about trading Thomas at the deadline. He's the team's MVP and is the B's best hope of making a deep playoff run.
This has been the biggest area of improvement for the Bruins. Last year's team finished dead last in scoring, averaging a mere 2.33 goals per game. Scoring is up dramatically in 2010-11, with Boston averaging 3.02 goals a game, good enough to tie them with the high-flying Penguins for sixth-best in the league.
That said, there's still no Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin or Steve Stamkos or either Sedin here. Patrice Bergeron's 40 points is the most on the team, which also ties him for 38th in the league. Milan Lucic — who's having a very nice bounce back season and has quieted the critics who sprang up last year — leads the team with 20 goals, and that's only 20th best in the league.
The biggest surprise has been the play of Brad Marchand, who is ninth in rookie scoring and leads the league with four short-handed goals. Who knew that last summer, while we all wondered if Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall would be Boston's Calder Trophy candidate, that the team's best rookie in 2010-11 would be a 22-year-old from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who had already played more than 100 games for the Providence Bruins?
The loss of Marc Savard is a blow to this team and the offense could struggle mightily without him. The Bruins will be on the lookout for scoring help as we approach the trade deadline, but so will 20 other teams.
Last summer, Peter Chiarelli thought he addressed the lack of scoring when he acquired Nathan Horton from Florida. Horton started hot with Boston, but 12 goals in 48 games isn't getting it done. It's time to find another player who can finish, and thanks to the gift that keeps on giving (also known Phil Kessel), the Bruins have an extra first-round draft pick to deal if they want to find a seasoned sniper.
After last year's unprecedented playoff collapse, the Bruins came into this season with great optimism. Over the past month, they have found their stride, but can they keep it going? Health will have a lot to do with it, and a season flashed before our eyes when David Krejci left the game momentarily after landing awkwardly on Wednesday night.
As we take a break from the season for a few days, it's okay to be optimistic about this team. It has the goaltending, the defense and just enough scoring to keep visions of June hockey dancing in our heads.
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