(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )
The Bruins played their 43rd game of the season on Thursday against Chicago in Boston, officially moving past the halfway point of the 2009-'10 season. As it stands right now, the Bs rank fifth in the Eastern Conference with 51 points.
They find themselves in second place in the Northeast Division, seven points behind the surprising Buffalo Sabres. While expectations were high for the Bruins heading into this campaign after a resurgent ’08-’09 season, injuries and a somewhat preordained lack of scoring have held the Black and Gold back.
Any team which plays the first half of its season without two-thirds of its top line is going to struggle, and that is what the Bruins did.
Removing Marc Savard from the Bruins’ lineup is like removing hair product from the Jersey Shore house. Sure, you have something there, but the sizzle and substance are gone.
Milan Lucic was expected to take on a big role up front for the Bruins and two injuries have limited him to just 10 games so far. Marco Sturm has picked up some of the slack and Mark Recchi, Blake Wheeler, and Michael Ryder have all pitched in as well. They've helped replace some of the offense lost due to injury and the trade of last-year’s leading goal-scorer, Phil Kessel.
Still, the team ranks near the bottom of the league in scoring—something that needs to change for the Bs to become the contender they envisioned themselves as before the first puck dropped.
With the offense struggling, the bulk of the success has come from the goaltending and defense. Tim Thomas took a while to get his game under him, but has a goals-against average in the top-10.
His backup, Tuukka Rask is 10-4-2 in 17 games with a 1.92 GAA and a .934 save percentage. Those two numbers would be the best in the league if he had enough games played to qualify.
The reason a team scoring only 2.5 goals a game is competing for home-ice in the playoffs is because its defense and goaltending are only allowing 2.2 goals per game.
General Manager Peter Chiarelli has not let injuries be an excuse for this team. When Savard and Lucic went down, he traded away potential sniper Chuck Kobasew and brought in Daniel Paille. The ex-Sabre has been a revelation for the Bs, stabilizing a penalty kill which had been struggling and pitching in on offense as well.
Last week, even with Lucic returning, Chiarelli took a flyer on Miroslav Satan, bringing in the consistent 20-plus goal producer to see if he had anything left. Most people around hockey expect the Bruins to be big players at the trade deadline in March because they have some cap room (not much, but some), plenty of high draft picks, and prospects to deal. The key will be if Chiarelli feels his team is one player away from a serious run, or if he needs one more offseason of retooling to truly make that run.
Here is my report card of the Bruins so far, halfway through the 2009-'10 season. In keeping with the technology of the day, I have limited myself to 140 characters. Feel free to Tweet all your friends.
Offense—C+: Bs have the lowest goals-for of any team in playoffs. At best when playing puck possession and keeping D on toes. Need to stretch play more.
Patrice Bergeron—A: Leads Bs in pts. after fully returning from concussion. Plays in all situations and showed enough to make CAN Olympic team. Heart and soul.
Marco Sturm—B+: 14G leads team. Showing he can be wingman Savard needs while bringing passion to every game. Sturm Face could use more success on PP—1G.
Daniel Paille—B+: Nice pickup has given good PK minutes while pushing to net every time in offensive zone. Would like to see more goals, but does other things.
Mark Recchi—B: 9G and 25 pts from 41-yr old is more than you could ask. Leads team in PPG and doesn't appear to be slowing down. Olympic break will help.
David Krejci—B: Becoming force on PP with puck skills and is showing some more grit in danger areas. Often makes D look silly in attack zone with moves.
Marc Savard—B: Slowed by injury and lack of go-to linemate. Finding chemistry with Sturm and looking like old self. Needs to stop disappearing for games.
Steve Begin—B: Better than expected on 4th line and PK. Filled in well with 1st line. Could set career high in points. Hasn't been asked to fight too much.
Shawn Thornton—B: Does everything you ask. Good for hard work and full effort every shift. On pace for career-high in pts and is in the plus—all good things.
Blake Wheeler—B-: Quiet 10G and appears to be coming out of slump. Needs to keep this intensity all season and into playoffs. Plays all 3 situations well.
Michael Ryder—C+: Streaky as they come. Has 10G but 33 gms without a goal. Could be in danger of benching when Lucic comes back if he isn’t more consistent.
Vladimir Sobotka—C+: Career high in pts. already and will play most games of his career. Developing player who can disappear for some games. Better at C than LW.
Byron Bitz—C: Gave his all when asked to skate 1st line, but is 4th liner. Willing to drop gloves and play his role. All heart player with limits to game.
Milan Lucic : 5 pts. In 10 gms. Around two injuries, could be huge factor in stretch run.
Brad Marchand : Up and down first call-up to big club over 12 games. May be hard to find role in NHL despite big AHL numbers.
Trent Whitfield : Veteran filled in admirably when needed for seven games.
Guillaume Lefebvre : Played one game, not much doing.
Mikko Lehtonen: Only one game so far, but leads Providence in scoring and could see time if injuries need a short-term fix.
Chuck Kobasew : Slow start sent him packing to free up cap space and ice time/wake the Bruins the (expletive) up.
Defense—B+: Allowed 4+ goals only 9 times, only 5 since Oct. can have trouble with outlet pass but they give goalies best chance to make stop and clear.
Zdeno Chara—A-: 2nd in pts on team and leads in +/-. Not as big a monster as last year, but still top-10 in league. Could use more PPG but assists aren’t bad.
Derek Morris—B: On pace for 2nd best season ever. Has been big part of what little success PP has seen. Makes good passes in all 3 zones to start attack.
Matt Hunwick—B: Jumping into play more and showing confidence. Rebounded from benching to play better allaround game. Could help struggling PP is allowed to.
Mark Stuart—B: Maybe toughest guy on team played 2 periods with broken sternum. Nothing flashy but will knock you out if you cross into his zone.
Andrew Ferrence—B: Would have been F after first 2 weeks. Rebounded to play safe and sound D and help along young players. Out 6 weeks which could be big blow.
Johnny Boychuk—B-: Under the radar player has fit right in. Need to see it for whole season, but could be top 4 defender with offensive skill. Throws a big hit.
Dennis Wideman—B-: Struggled in own end this year after +32 last season. Seems to be fighting the puck when clearing zone or keeping puck in. Nagged by injury.
Adam McQuaid: Played three okay games earlier and could see increased role with Ferrence out if team doesn’t seek trade. Adds toughness as a stay-at-home defenseman.
Andy Wozniewski: Played two unmemorable games, which is all he was asked to do as emergency fill-in.
Goaltending—A-: Best tandem in the league has 6 shutouts and 3rd best GAA. Rask would be rookie of year candidate if not behind Thomas who is better of late.
Tuukka Rask—A-: Carried Bs when Thomas was hurt. Would start on 20 teams in NHL and is an under the radar key to Bruins' success down the stretch after OLY.
Tim Thomas—B: Top10 in GAA and sv% yet feels underwhelming. Perhaps taken for granted but has settled down and played better. Team loves playing for him.
Special Teams—B: Best PK in league and one of worst PP units for most of season. Return of Savard has helped PP, but B's need more PPGs to win big games.
Penalty Kill—A: Went from worst to 1st over course of season. Can roll 3 good pairs and put pressure on teams to make plays. GKs and Chara backstop group.
Power Play—B-: Starting to come around with better possession and more shots—all things missing most of the year. Would be nice to get Lucic involved.
Coaching/Management—B+: Julien pulls the right strings at the right times and players respond. Chiarelli holds key to this team’s ultimate success with next moves
Claude Julien—A-: Not afraid to hold icetime over heads and mix lines up. Called Bs out on Monday and they responded. Would like to see more given to young D.
Peter Chiarelli—B+: Willing to make trades to spark team rather than let excuses reign. If he feels team is in contention, will he make the big deal or wait?
What does the second half hold for the Bruins? Will they surpass Buffalo for first place in the division and get home ice in the playoffs? What will Chiarelli do with the juicy first-round picks he has in his pocket? Will Lucic come back and be the emotional and physical force he is accustomed to being? Will any of the Bruins Olympians suffer from fatigue after the Olympics?
There are plenty of storylines to follow with the Bs over the next four months as they close the regular season and march toward the playoffs.
What are your thoughts on the grades? Agree? Disagree? Think I wouldn’t know a hockey puck if it banged off my teeth? Let me know in the comments section.