Why Are the Boston Bruins Having an Unusually Successful Month of March?

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Why Are the Boston Bruins Having an Unusually Successful Month of March?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Paradoxically, key Bruins who competed and rested during the Olympics are relaying newfound energy to the team this month.

The 2013-14 Boston Bruins needed less than 60 percent of the month to secure their winningest March under Claude Julien. Tuesday’s 4-2 final in New Jersey augmented their streak to 10 wins, their third double-digit tear since Julien’s arrival in 2007-08.

With that, they have eclipsed their previous March marks of nine victories in both 2012 and 2013. With their 10-1-0 start to this month, they need one more point to ensure their highest winning percentage in what is traditionally a sour stretch.

In chronological order, from 2008 to 2013, the Bruins have posted March records of 6-5-5, 7-5-1, 8-7-1, 7-4-4, 9-7-1 and 9-6-2. Of those six, the only time their winning percentage struck .600 was in 2011.

This year, several variables have sustained Boston’s lionesque persona on the cusp of the vernal equinox. Likewise, hindrances that previously plastered temporary lamb masks over the Spoked-Bs are absent as this winter transitions to spring.

Or, at least, those hindrances have had a harder time spearing their psyche. That is a testament to the coaching staff and veteran core’s collective rise in maturity over seven years or less.

Injuries to seasoned defensemen Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg could have been the foundation for Boston to hit its annual nadir. The Bruins have defied that logic with a two-way commitment by all skaters of every position and an overachieving goaltending tandem.

The skaters, from 37-year-old captain Zdeno Chara to all forwards to the youthful supplementary blueliners, are sharing mutual confidence with backup netminder Chad Johnson. The 27-year-old journeyman reiterated that notion Tuesday night when he did enough to stamp his fourth straight winning decision.

Translation: Johnson has credit for 40 percent of Boston’s 10-game tear.

Johnson’s reliability has allotted workhorse Tuukka Rask four sets of three full calendar days without extramural engagement. That includes the middle of this week, separating Monday’s win over Minnesota and this Friday’s excursion to Colorado.

So far, when coming off those mini-respites, Rask has blanked Washington on March 6, confined the Canadiens to one goal last Wednesday and stymied the Wild.

Monday’s outing saw him break 50 in the games-played column for the first time in his NHL career. He marked the milestone by improving his record to 31-14-4, coupled with a 2.07 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

Andy Marlin/Getty Images
Supplementary scoring and dependable backup goaltending are two of many keys to storing emotional and physical energy for the postseason.

Despite the similar numbers, this year’s Rask is not the rookie Rask who finished 2009-10 with a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage. He has earned the starting slot and mutual trust with his skipper and skating mates.

Despite the discrepancy in talent, Johnson is in a better position than most of his predecessors as the Boston backup. He is not the oft-injured and inconsistent ilk of Manny Fernandez from 2009. He is not the pre-resurgence Tim Thomas from 2010.

Johnson is not the sophomore-slumping Rask who finished 2010-11 at 11-14-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .919 save percentage. He is not the emergency resort that Marty Turco was in 2012 when second- and third-stringers Rask and Anton Khudobin were both injured.

Rather, he is seizing the majority of his opportunities and collaborating with a good-enough group of praetorian guards. The result has been six goals on 100 shots-against in his last four appearances, which only punctuates the relief Rask is receiving.

Every minor breather Rask can get is serving to stoke a competitive flame that he clearly ignited while backstopping Finland to Olympic bronze in February. He has company in that regard among fellow Bruins in forward Loui Eriksson, a key to sculpting offensive support for both goalies.

The top import in last summer’s blockbuster swap with Dallas endured multiple concussions en route to an unflattering start in Boston. Upon garnering a Team Sweden roster spot, however, he rekindled his touch overseas.

Eriksson, originally a top-sixer, has since evoked delayed gratification for his new employers in the form of invaluable depth. His chemistry with fellow Swede Carl Soderberg and center Chris Kelly has spawned a third-line resurgence.

A similar formula is percolating similar results between starting pivot David Krejci and his two rested wingers, Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic. The same goes for Canadian Olympian Patrice Bergeron and his wingers, Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith.

Following Tuesday's victory, Bruins radio announcer Dave Goucher spoke of the depth with 98.5 The Sports Hub host Adam Jones  as follows:

The Bruins have had 16 different goal scorers during this 10-game winning streak and it presents just a heck of a matchup problem for other teams. You can’t really key on any line, especially the emergence of that Soderberg-Kelly-Eriksson line and how big that potentially could be for the Bruins down the stretch.

Four individual goal-getters and eight individual playmakers pitched in against the Devils. Bergeron was the lone skater to pick up one apiece, and eight of the top nine forwards claimed credit for a point.

Bergeron became the fourth Bruin to break the 20-goal plateau this season. All four have reached that range amidst the current winning streak with Iginla swelling his team-leading total to 26.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Iginla’s presence and performance have marked a key upgrade in the top six. That change has been most noticeable this month on account of past March mediocrity.

As it happens, barely a full year has passed since ESPNBoston.com’s Joe McDonald posted this column to underscore the collective slumping of Krejci, Lucic and Nathan Horton. The top troika was simply slumping on schedule at that point.

Fast-forward 52 weeks and Iginla, Horton’s replacement, has points in eight different games with an aggregate 8-4-12 scoring log this month. Three of his six goals over the last four ventures have constituted the clincher.

Besides that, consider how nesn.com’s Mike Cole quoted Julien after Monday’s game. Of Iginla, Julien told Cole, “He brings us the same thing the other guy did with his size and his scoring ability. He’s done a great job. And again, we’re talking about a veteran here who has tremendous leadership qualities.”

Those qualities, as well as last month’s Olympic respite, have helped the 36-year-old Iginla and his associates saturate scoresheets. When it is not his line, it can easily be someone else, like it was in a come-from-behind 4-3 shootout win at Tampa Bay on March 8.

In turn, the balance between each offensive rung of the depth chart has virtually matched that of the goaltending tandem. A symbiotic cycle has formed, allowing scorers and stoppers alike to earn and capitalize on the coach’s trust and to trade cool-downs for confidence amongst one another.

As a result, the top minute-munchers in each position, with the possible exception of Chara on defense, are not overloading. Under suitable circumstances, the backup and the bottom-sixers can sweep the scraps.

Those elements have not worked in tandem for Julien’s pupils at this time of year before. The Bruins warrant credit for pouncing on those boons and all but clouding the shortage of quality seasoning on the blue line.

Mediocre Marches of the past have preceded everything from April evaporations (2012) to mid-May meltdowns (2009 and 2010) to journeys into June (2011 and 2013). Whether this March sticks to any memory banks in the long term has yet to be determined.

If nothing else, the active throttle is underlining two prerequisites to playoff fulfillment, those being a rejuvenated Rask and a rotating strike force following Iginla’s hungry lead.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com

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