But it's not their quest to retain the Cup that has had attention focused on the Bruins this year. Instead, it's their style of play that has Boston under the microscope.
The Bruins play a physical brand of hockey. It's an approach that has won them games and won over fans. It's both effective and entertaining. It's also become a lightning rod for criticism from fans elsewhere in the league unaccustomed to seeing such an old-school approach in the new kinder, gentler NHL.
Outrage from opposing fans means little, though. If anything, that's just a little bonus to a job well done.
What is disconcerting is that the Bruins are also finding themselves facing increasing scrutiny from the league, both in the form of the on-ice officiating and with supplemental discipline. The latest example came on Monday when Milan Lucic was suspended one game for his hit from behind on Philadelphia's Zac Rinaldo.
The hit itself probably didn't warrant anything more than the five-minute major Lucic received on the play, but Lucic's past history played into NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan's decision to suspend him. Lucic was suspended for one game in the 2009 playoffs for a cross-check to the face of Montreal's Maxim Lapierre, was fined for a match penalty against Atlanta's Freddy Meyer last December and was let off with just a warning for his controversial hit on Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller last month.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was asked Monday if he was concerned that Lucic is being overly scrutinized for those past incidents and if it would affect his play, and Chiarelli responded by noting all the Bruins are under heavy scrutiny.
"Our team is watched very closely," Chiarelli said. "We've got a lot of physical players, and I know our team is watched very closely, so he's part of the team, and he's one of the physical players. Our guys are smart, generally, so it's not a concern. It's just something we have to keep our eye on."
Lucic was the first Bruin suspended this season, but he's not the only Boston player disciplined. Brad Marchand was fined $2,500 for a slew foot against Pittsburgh and Adam McQuaid $2,500 for a leg-on-leg check in Ottawa.
The fact that those incidents, as well as Lucic's hit on Miller and Zdeno Chara's hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty last March, did not result in suspensions, has left some fans outraged and accusing the league of a conspiracy in favor of the Bruins.
Chiarelli scoffed at that notion, pointing to rulings when the Bruins were on the opposite end of incidents. Matt Cooke was not suspended for his brutal cheap shot on Marc Savard, while Randy Jones got just two games for the hit that cost Patrice Bergeron almost the entire 2007-08 season.
"You know, that whole line of thinking -– and I've seen it on the record and stuff -– I mean, we've had our share of bumps along the way, with the Savard stuff and the Bergeron stuff, so I don't buy any of that stuff," Chiarelli said. "Usually I look at stuff independently, and I think any arbiter will, or should. But in this case, if that's what the rules are, you look at the body of work, and I understand that, then that's the case. We may go forward at times now with getting a suspension, and I may complain on a case-by-case [basis], but those are the rules that we play by, and I'm OK with it."
Playing by the rules has been difficult for the Bruins this season, or at least playing by the rules as they have been applied to Boston's games. The Bruins may have avoided a few suspensions prior to Lucic's one-game ban on Monday, but they have certainly picked up more than their fair share of penalties this year. Boston has been called for 505 total penalty minutes, an average of 15.8 a game. Only Philadelphia (529, 16.5 a game) has spent more time in the sin bin.
Some of that has been accounted for by the Bruins' willingness to drop the gloves. They're tied for the league lead in major penalties with 25, with 23 of those being matching majors for fighting. But Boston also leads the NHL with eight misconduct penalties and is one of just three teams with multiple game misconducts so far this season, as referees have shown they have a very short leash for the Bruins' aggressive tactics.
The Bruins don't have any individual players in the top 10 for penalty minutes, but four Bruins are in the top 25 with Lucic 11th (63 PIMs), Marchand tied for 15th (58), Shawn Thornton 22nd (49) and Chara tied for 25th (47).
The Bruins haven't been officially warned to curb their style of play, but the numbers show there is definitely a crackdown on teams trying to playing an intimidating, physical style like that employed by the Bruins.
"They're certainly not saying, 'Hey, we look at you more closely,'" Chiarelli said. "Just by the way we play, by the number of incidents for way of example that we're involved in, I put two and two together."
Don't expect the Bruins to change their ways, though. They've survived their many trips to the box with some of the best penalty killing in the league. Boston ranks third on the PK at 88.7 percent and is 18-for-18 over its last four games and 44-for-46 over the last 12.
The Bruins know that their physical play wears down opponents and forces mistakes, which leads to scoring opportunities. It's a style that has been fundamental to their success in recent years, and no amount of criticism or increased scrutiny will get the Bruins to abandon that approach.
"We went into the year with the new rule changes thinking that we were going to be a little more heavily scrutinized," Chiarelli said. "We might have even played a heavier game in the playoffs, and, again, people were clamoring that we got away with stuff, and maybe we did, maybe we didn't. But that's the way we built the team, and I'm going to continue to build it that way.
"I mean, hey, if I could find another Milan Lucic, I'd be very pleased," Chiarelli added. "I think everyone in the league would want a player like that. No, we won't stray from how we built it, and we'll continue to put the pieces in that have some character and have some toughness."
That's the philosophy that ended a 39-year championship drought last spring and has the Bruins atop the conference once again this season. The Bruins have proven a willingness to stand up to every challenge they've faced on the ice. Now they just have to stand up to a little extra scrutiny off the ice too.
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