The Boston Bruins will round out the first half of their 2013-14 regular season with Thursday night’s home bout against the Nashville Predators. With essentially one more ice chip left to drop in the first-half sample, now is a reasonable time to reassess the state of the club on five basic fronts.
Entering Thursday’s NHL action, the Bruins are seventh overall with 2.90 goals per game. Although they have slipped from their regal position on the defensive leaderboard, ceding that spot to Los Angeles, they are still a distant second from the rest of the competition with 2.10 goals-against per night.
In a key individual GAA column, goaltender Tuukka Rask is still south of an even two setbacks per start, though just barely. He boasts a 1.99 average through 32 games played.
A startling stat worth investigating in more depth is Boston’s 22 percent success rate on the power play, which presently ties it with Toronto for fifth in the league. Adding to the incomprehensibility of that ranking is the fact that the Bruins are slightly lower in terms of penalty killing. Their 84.8 percent efficiency when shorthanded is only good for sixth place.
The next five slides will explore the context of the numbers in all of these departments.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com and are through games of Wednesday, January 1.
Reilly Smith, of all people, leads the Bruins with 14 goals in the first 40 games. Of those 14 goals, 11 have come within the second quarter of the schedule and have included two in as many meetings with the Penguins plus two in a visit to Vancouver.
That, along with the rest of Smith’s assets, has been plenty to take people’s minds off of slumping and/or injured personnel.
So, too, has Ryan Spooner’s opportunism amidst his first protracted call-up from Providence. It has not translated to quite as steady a stream of points on his part, but it has yielded eight helpful assists in 13 overall appearances.
Accompanying those unexpected developments among the new faces, comparative veteran Brad Marchand is reformulating his chemistry with his second-line colleagues. (Incidentally, Smith has been his fellow winger flanking Patrice Bergeron.)
Per Chris Chirichiello of Bruins Daily, general manager Peter Chiarelli said this past Sunday of Marchand, “He’s skating better. He’s driving deeper when he’s rushing with the puck. I see him making plays.”
Likewise, Chirichiello quoted head coach Claude Julien as follows: “Brad is skating a lot better than he did earlier on when he was struggling and taking pucks to the net and he seems to be playing with a little bit more of an edge. More speed and everything else.”
Marchand’s revival coupled with Smith and Spooner’s first-time impact have alleviated the absences of, say, Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly. All the while, the top troika of Jarome Iginla, David Krejci and Milan Lucic continues to produce in accordance with their position on the depth chart.
It is only one player and only two games, but the way the Bruins have initially handled the loss of Dennis Seidenberg has been a tad suspect.
Prior to Saturday’s visit to Ottawa, the Bruins learned that Seidenberg will miss the remainder of 2013-14 with a knee injury. They proceeded to drop two straight by a cumulative score of 9-6, spilling a 3-1 lead and committing eight penalties against the Islanders.
Earlier in the quarter, they put themselves on the PK six times in a Dec. 21 game vs. Buffalo, seven times against Pittsburgh two weeks prior and five times while dealing with the Rangers on Black Friday. Although, with two exceptions against the Penguins, they bailed themselves out with sound killing, which will be analyzed in more depth a few slides from now.
To that point, Boston usually does not break, even when it bends. That is what matters most in a professional sport in which keeping the biscuit out of one’s basket is an integral fundamental task.
One need not read too much into the club’s latest outing, the five opposing goals and how those goals may have bloated a few players’ defensive stats. Just consider the overall state of the top three defensemen and top two centers alone―i.e. Bergeron, Johnny Boychuk, Zdeno Chara, Krejci and Seidenberg.
If you combine their even-strength and power-play minutes, their goals against in those situations and plug those into the goals-against average formula, you will find that all five still have a sub-2.00 GAA in non-shorthanded action.
Compared to the season’s first seven weeks, or even when not compared, Rask’s second quarter has been noticeably shaky. One might say the multitude of recent blemishes on his transcript offered a coincidental, yet timely representation of the seasonal stress that comes with the holidays.
First, he brooked a six-goal shellacking in Detroit the night before Thanksgiving. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he met Julien’s hook for the first time all season upon letting the Canucks score one disconcertingly long-distance goal too many.
Most recently, he was pulled once more in Ottawa and then followed that up with a five-goal drubbing via the lowly Islanders on New Year’s Eve.
None of that takes anything away from Rask’s many sparkling performances, but it does shove them into the back vaults of the memory bank. His truly outstanding form has been virtually nonexistent since Nov. 20, when he arm-wrestled St. Louis’ Jaroslav Halak all the way to a shootout.
Backup Chad Johnson will be trying to rinse out his own mouthful of vinegar whenever his next full-length appearance arrives. His last two decisions have been losses, including a 4-2 dud in Buffalo on Dec. 19, which docked him the brownie points he picked up 11 nights prior when he stamped a statement victory in Toronto.
One mild knock on Boston’s man-advantage brigade is the fact that it has bulked up its productivity rate against a lower-tier caliber of competition. In turn, it cannot crack the "A" range at this time.
Since the start of the second quarter, the Bruins have buried one opportunity in a Nov. 25 game against Pittsburgh, which is second in penalty killing with 88.1 percent efficiency. The other 13 of their last 14 conversions have come against middleweight or lightweight shorthanded brigades, the highest-ranking being No. 14-slotted Calgary.
With that said, they are at least taking advantage of their opportunities and establishing a rhythm among various power-play units. Since Nov. 21, the result has been 14 goals on 52 segments for 26.9 percent success, upping their season total to 22 percent via 24 goals on 109 chances.
Owing in part to the insertion and acclimation of other key elements, the off-and-on practice of placing Chara on the porch was the story of late November/early December. As Julien told the Boston Globe’s Barbara Matson in the Dec. 18 paper, “He’s reading off guys pretty well. It’s been an adjustment for him, going from the back end to the front end, but he seems to be getting more and more comfortable.”
Incidentally, in the six games since that story ran, Chara has gone completely dry in man-up production. However, the confidence he implicitly helped to instill in his teammates has not evaporated.
Rather, the Boston power play is 6-for-15 in the last five games. In that time, the likes of Smith, Carl Soderberg and Spooner have assumed the co-pilots’ position and helped the Bruins flaunt a little depth.
As with its power play, Boston’s penalty kill has not met the most rigorous succession of challenges lately. Nonetheless, it has likewise made the most of its depth and established relative consistency.
The Bruins were particularly sharp over the three weeks from Dec. 8 through 28, warding off 29 out of 31 opposing power plays before submitting what seems to be a quarterly stinker. Just as they did in late October against the Devils, the Bruins authorized four power-play conversions on eight segments vs. the Islanders this past Tuesday.
But before that, their performances prompted NESN’s Andy Brickley to highlight the shorthanded brigade during last Friday’s bout with Ottawa. As the color analyst stated in the video linked here, “It’s about structure. It’s about decision-making. It’s about commitment.”
The week prior, the Bruins made headlines by improvising amidst the rapid loss of key personnel to keep the adversary’s power play at bay.
After his pupils withstood a lengthy two-man disadvantage against the Sabres on Dec. 21, Julien told CSNNE.com reporter Joe Haggerty the following:
I think we got to a point there when (Chris) Kelly is injured, (Daniel) Paille—another penalty killer—is injured, then you got just Campbell and Bergeron in the box…You have to be a little creative sometimes, and you have to be on your toes, and go with what your gut feeling.
Moments like that pose one cause for optimism in the second half, whether it hints at greater, more seasoned depth once everyone is healthy or just the emergence of a new wave.