When the Boston Bruins took to the Garden ice on Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks in a Stanley Cup Final rematch, they really didn't have a whole lot more to prove. After all, the Bruins were the ones who dominated Vancouver each and every time they stepped onto the ice in Boston last June, a domination that would lead the black and gold to their first title in 39 long years.
Nonetheless, it was the Canucks that prevailed—thanks to four goals, all via the power play—against the Bruins in game eight of this new-found, hostile rivalry. Boston saw both Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand receive game misconducts, and they yielded Vancouver's two fatal goal tallies during the five-minute major that Marchand was assessed for clipping Canucks defenseman Sami Salo.
Discipline was a problem for the B's in this rematch, and it will be something to work on moving forward. If nothing else, we learned that the 2011-12 version of the Boston Bruins is not a perfect juggernaut.
Still, here are a dozen reasons why Claude Julien still coaches the best team in the National Hockey League nearly seven months after hoisting the Stanley Cup.
If a team is planning to take down the Boston Bruins this season, it seems pretty clear that they are going to be required to grind out a full 60 minutes. If the game becomes a shootout, you might as well kiss your chances goodbye.
In games decided by three or more goals this season, the Bruins are a staggering 15-1. The 15 wins ties them for best in the league with the Detroit Red Wings, while their lone loss gives them the lowest total in the NHL when it comes to those blowout losses.
In 11 of their 38 games, they have won by six or more goals.
In games decided by fewer than three goals, the Bruins are a very mediocre 11-10. Rather than seeing this as a negative, consider this—no one is beating up on them, and they are beating up on most teams. With such a dominating record in the blowouts, it's impressive that they even sustain a winning record in the remainder of the circumstances.
Even after Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Canucks, the Bruins sport a league-best plus-68 goal differential.
Last year's Stanley Cup run was one that left many fans baffled in a few ways. One of those baffling enigmas was the concept that the Bruins could win a full seven-game series with a completely and totally dysfunctional power play.
Their power play was brutal, but hey—Boston hoisted the Stanley Cup at the end of the road.
This season, they have maintained their dominant five-on-five play while making improvements to that horrendous power play attack. The Bruins—hindered by on 0-for-7 showing on the power play against Vancouver—rank 12th in the NHL in both power play goals scored (26) and power play percentage (18.7 percent).
Their penalty killing has always been solid, and they find themselves near the top of the league once again. Boston ranks seventh in the league when it comes to killing man advantages, executing at an impressive 85.9 percent clip. Those numbers were even more impressive prior to the Canucks' 4-for-11 explosion on the man advantage against the Bruins on Saturday afternoon.
Ultimately, the Bruins' special teams units are very formidable. And when your team scores more than double the number of goals they allow in five-on-five play, a formidable special teams unit is all you really need.
Watching the Boston Bruins play the game does infinitely more justice than reading a box score or a recap. As this team moves the puck from end to end, you constantly see a wave of safe and secure decisions each time possession is transferred from one player to another.
This is the mold that Claude Julien has build for his team. Turnovers are sure to give you one thing as a player—a spot on the bench for a little while. As long as the B's make their opponent earn their scoring chances, they feel that they have a chance to win each and every night.
With goaltenders like Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, that strategy seems to be a pretty good one.
Among all other things, the Bruins are an incredibly versatile team. When you consider teams around the league, most of the time they have some sort of identity. The Red Wings are a team that focuses on puck possession and finesse control of the game. The Predators are a team built on defense. The Lightning control tempo with their speed and their skill.
What makes Boston so good is their ability to win a game in any of these very different styles. The Bruins—a team with a very tough and rugged history as the "Big Bad Bruins"—used to struggle to win games when their opponent neglected to engage with them in fights and physical battles.
With the additions they have made to their roster and the young talent they have groomed, the Bruins have created an extremely versatile team. They have speed, toughness, skill, grit and intelligence. They can win a defensive battle or they can win a high-scoring shootout.
They have a roster comprised of several different styles, and that unit has been meshing together as one.
Up until their Stanley Cup victory last June, the Bruins had their share of critics who doubted the defensive and conservative system of head coach Claude Julien. The championship has quieted those critics, and fans are starting to recognize the little things about that system which make Boston so successful.
Julien has made it a focal point to have another Bruin in close proximity to the puck carrier at all times. The idea goes hand-in-hand with the notion of minimizing turnovers—whenever a player is moving through the neutral zone with the puck, he should have a teammate close by to provide an outlet.
The passes remain short and sweet, with the Bruins rarely connecting on a two-line break-away bomb through the middle. By the same token, though, they avoid turnovers and maintain possession of the puck into the offensive zone. It has been a fantastic way for the B's to control the game and, as is their motive, make the game extremely difficult on the opposition.
With its loss to Vancouver on Saturday, Boston dropped to 11-9-1 when giving up the first goal this season.
Its 15-2-0 record when scoring the first goal is the second best margin the league, but its winning record when allowing the first goal is the truly impressive statistic that speaks to the resilience of this club.
The Bruins are the only team whose winning percentage ranks in the top five when it comes to both scoring first and trailing first. They don't make it a habit of getting behind early, as evidenced by their remarkable success when scoring the first goal. Still, they have allowed the first goal in more than half of their games this season.
Their resilience makes them a team that is difficult to knock out with an early blow. They will make you come at them for a full 60 minutes, bringing everything you've got each night.
It may be too soon to start talking like this, but isn't Claude Julien starting to develop that Bill Belichick type of persona?
After being heavily criticized last season by both fans and media in the Boston sports world, Julien has overcome the adversity and become one of the most trusted men in this city.
Personally, I don't even bother to question his decisions any more. Julien has a perfect mix of friendliness and discipline with his players that makes them constantly feel comfortable but still pushes them to improve their game each time they step on the ice. He isn't afraid to bench his inexperienced young stars when they make mistakes or develop bad habits—he has benched both Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin at times over the past two seasons.
Julien and his staff bring a level of consistency and structure that has carried over from a championship team and given that group of players the platform to make a run at repeating.
The Bruins lead the league in goals scored through 38 games of their schedule, but not a single player on their roster ranks in the top 20 in the NHL when it comes to scoring points. In fact, their leading scorer—second-year forward Tyler Seguin, who has racked up 37 points on the season—has just barely performed at a full point-per-game clip thus far.
It isn't necessarily that the Bruins don't have a player good enough to be a top-20 scorer, but rather it is a testament to the incredible depth this team possesses and its ability to roll three or four forward lines onto the ice each night. They have an impressive total of nine skaters with more than 20 points on the season, and among those skaters, four of them have 30 or more points.
Within their top six point-scorers, there is at least one player from each of their top three lines. Rich Peverley—their third-line winger—rounds out the top six with seven goals and 21 assists for 28 points. Peverley's total of 21 assists ties him with Seguin for second on the Bruins in that category.
Coach Julien can rely on any of his players to bury the puck and create chances, and that bodes well for both conditioning in the third period as well as depth to overcome injuries.
When Zdeno Chara signed a huge seven-year extension before last season, plenty of fans were questioning whether the transaction was the right move for the Bruins.
Ever since then, all Chara has done is play with loads of confidence and lead his squad to its first Stanley Cup title in 39 years.
There are few leaders across the league that carry the weight—literally and figuratively—that Boston's massive captain does. His teammates look up to him in every way, and they fully understand how valuable his presence is. He leads by example both on and off the ice. He is the style of player that the Bruins want as the cornerstone of their franchise.
His physical dominance aside, the leadership that Chara brings to his locker room is an immeasurable asset to the Bruins in their quest for another championship banner.
It seems like a superficial concept, but the chemistry of the Boston Bruins is something that cannot be taken lightly in deciding where they rank among the NHL's elite this season.
They brought the entire roster back—virtually untouched—with minimal adjustments from last year's Cup-winning unit. These guys have grown together and been through quite a bit over the past two seasons, and they put everything on the line for the guy next to them.
Whether it is jumping to a teammate's defense in a fight, defending their goaltender in the crease or simply helping another player through a tough time or a slump, the Bruins' players make one man's problem their own problem.
Given the time they have spent playing together, their forward lines and their defensive pairs have started to develop an uncanny awareness of where each other will be on the ice at all times. The result has been a surge of impressive goals and productive play in every area of the ice.
That trend should only continue as that chemistry grows tighter and tighter.
Last season, Tim Thomas put together one of the best seasons the league has ever seen out of a goaltender. By winning the Vezina Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup in rapid succession, his year went down as one of the greatest ever.
This season, Thomas has picked up where he left off. His 17-7-0 record is impressive by itself. When you add his .938 saves percentage and his 1.99 goals against average, it has been a stellar continuation of last year's historical campaign.
The scary part? His backup—24-year-old Tuukka Rask—is shattering those outstanding marks.
Rask, who has a record of 9-4-1, sports an eye-popping .949 saves percentage and a microscopic 1.49 goals against average. After a relative struggle last season, Rask has regained his form from two seasons ago, when he took over the starting job in Boston and topped the NHL ranks in goals against average and saves percentage by season's end.
Having two dominant goaltenders to turn to not only gives the Bruins insurance if something goes wrong, but it also allows them to keep each goalie fresh to provide the best chance at lasting health and success come playoff time.
If you look at the sports teams here in the city of Boston, there has been a common denominator when it comes to achieving the elite level in a team's respective sport. That denominator is a championship banner to hang at the team's home venue.
Whether it was the Patriots succeeding with two more rings, the Red Sox adding another ring or the Celtics returning to the finals and competing for the title each season, a championship in this city has always catapulted that franchise to the next level.
When it comes down to a critical game this postseason, the Bruins have the edge that every team in the league wishes it had. They have the swagger—the confidence, the belief that they can do anything—of a champion. They believe in their system, they believe in their teammates, and they know that they are capable of greatness. They do not doubt themselves, and their eyes are clear when it comes to the sight of the goal before them.
The Bruins have plenty of work to do if they wish to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. There is a reason that teams seldom achieve the feat. It requires the highest level of persistence, dedication, skill, resilience and even a little bit of luck.
Either way, all of these reasons combine to assure us—nearing the halfway mark, for whatever it is worth—that the Boston Bruins are still the NHL's team to beat.
Be sure to follow Derek Robinson on Twitter. @DRobMachine