- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The Boston Bruins are having a special sort of season.
It’s a season with historic potential. And one that’s way off-script.
The Bruins weren’t supposed to be a powerhouse, with an NHL-leading 83 points and jaw-dropping 39-7-5 record. Boston didn’t figure to be so dominant, sitting second overall in goals (3.73) and first in goals-against (2.12) with the league’s best penalty kill (85.8%) and a top-five power play (25.1%) through 51 games.
No, Boston was predicted to be in trouble.
Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy would miss the start of the season following hip and shoulder surgery, respectively. Patrice Bergeron’s future was in question, with talk he might retire. The team as a whole was aging. And after a first-round playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, it was hard to say in what direction the Bruins were headed.
Straight to the top, it turned out.
The Bruins have been high-stepping their way through the competition to reach unprecedented heights.
Boston set a league mark right out of the gate with the most home wins to start a season (14 straight) and became the first club to win 16 of its opening 18 games since the 1929-30 Bruins. When Boston beat Montreal on Jan. 24, it became the fastest team to collect 80 points, doing so in just 47 games.
The 1976-77 Canadiens hold the record for most points in a season at 132. Can Boston top that? Anything — and everything — feels possible.
The Bruins have been so consistent, they didn’t suffer back-to-back losses until game No. 49, going 0-2-1 before rebounding with a win prior to their All-Star break and bye week.
Speaking of All-Stars, Boston has them in spades (and not just David Pastrnak and Linus Ullmark, who were voted to be part of the league’s annual festivities earlier this month). This team’s talent runs deep — something that’s new this season.
What has made the Bruins so good? Can their success be sustained through the second half? And do they have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup?
We’re breaking down all things Bruins before Boston resumes its schedule Saturday in a meeting with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC and the ESPN App).
How the Bruins were built
Marchand’s red-rimmed eyes spoke volumes. His emotionally hushed voice did the rest.
It was eight months ago when the Bruins’ top-line winger met the media following Boston’s 3-2 loss to Carolina in Game 7 of their opening-round playoff series. Marchand was still processing the crushing defeat — and the uncertainty that lay ahead for Bergeron and the rest of the team — when he spoke frankly about the Bruins’ window beginning to close.
“You only get a few opportunities like these throughout your career, where you have a legit chance at going far,” Marchand said. “And we thought we had that this year. It hurts.”
That postseason exodus launched a summer of speculation about the club’s future and endlessly circuitous debates that arrived back at the same question: Had the Bruins’ era as a perennial Stanley Cup contender come to an end?
Last May, it was easy to say yes.
Today? Not so much.
Boston didn’t need a rebuild to become the NHL’s best team. The Bruins just had to strategically enhance a foundation that was already firm.
Marchand and McAvoy would resurface in due time from their rehabilitations. Until then, Boston had superstar Pastrnak to lead the way for presumably another standout season — the last of his current contract — and he has excelled well past expectations with 38 goals and 72 points through 51 games.
Jake DeBrusk was back as well, trade request forgotten and two-year extension in hand, to contribute 30 points in 36 games before fracturing a fibula in the Winter Classic. (He should be back in the next week or so.) Taylor Hall remains a top-six stalwart, good for 20-plus goals. (He entered the break with 15.)
The Bruins had previously upgraded their back end, trading with Anaheim for Hampus Lindholm in March, and finalizing an eight-year, $52 million extension to lock him up long term. In goal, the Bruins transitioned last season from a recently retired Tuukka Rask to the full-time, one-two punch of Ullmark (who signed a four-year, $20 million free agent contract in July 2021) and Jeremy Swayman (whom the Bruins’ drafted 111th overall in 2017).
Boston had good bones, regardless of the outcome against Carolina. But it was fair to wonder if time was running out. Bergeron’s fate was still to be determined by late last spring. So general manager Don Sweeney got to work on other things.
The first domino to fall came behind the bench when Sweeney fired coach Bruce Cassidy on June 6. Cassidy had held the position since February 2017, a span of 399 games, and posted a 245-108-46 record, six consecutive playoff appearances and a run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Sweeney replaced Cassidy on July 3 with Jim Montgomery, giving the veteran coach his first head role since being let go by Dallas in December 2019 for unprofessional conduct. Montgomery subsequently revealed he sought counseling for alcohol abuse and checked in to an in-patient residential program.
Sweeney then turned his attention to the roster. He targeted depth upfront in a July 13 trade that sent Erik Haula to the New Jersey Devils for Pavel Zacha. The versatile Zacha was a seamless fit, playing at center or on either wing, on every line and any situation. His 11 goals and 35 points already are approaching career highs. And Zacha is sticking around with the Bruins, who inked him to a four-year, $19 million contract in January.
The same day Boston grabbed Zacha, Sweeney added forward A.J. Greer on a two-year, $1.525 million deal. The 26-year-old has been a valuable bottom-six presence in his best pro season with five goals and nine points in 36 games.
It was a good start. But Boston would soon add bigger building blocks.
On Aug. 8, the Bruins announced Bergeron would return on a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The 37-year-old hasn’t missed a beat in his 19th season, emerging as the runaway Selke Trophy favorite (again) and putting up strong numbers (38 points).
The same day Boston signed Bergeron, David Krejci, who spent the 2021-22 season playing in his native Czech Republic, made his NHL comeback official on a one-year, $1 million contract. As expected, Krejci has anchored Boston’s second line with a rotating crop of wingers and generated impressive results (42 points in 46 games).
All that incoming depth meant players already in the fold — such as Trent Frederic — had to step up or risk being left behind. The Bruins’ first-round pick in 2016 had underwhelmed in previous seasons. Under Montgomery, Frederic has thrived in a bottom-six spot and already has produced career-best totals with 10 goals (all at 5-on-5) and 19 points in 48 games.
Frederic’s breakout season was a long time coming. It’s also one of many Boston has enjoyed all at once.
Lindholm has been a revelation, from filling in for McAvoy early on to garnering Norris Trophy buzz for his continued excellence. In what’s shaping up to be the best season of his career (with 33 points in 51 games), he has brought an added dimension to Boston’s blue line that complements the top pairing of McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk.
And then there’s Ullmark.
Boston’s goaltender is having the season of his life, leading the NHL in wins (26), save percentage (.937) and goals-against average (1.90). Ullmark has called the success “overwhelming” while pointedly avoiding potential complacency to ensure it keeps going. That has helped make him arguably the most dominant No. 1 netminder in the league. And Swayman has been solid behind Ullmark at 12-3-4 with a .914 SV%.
Frankly, it’s hard to find any gaps in Boston’s current roster construction. Montgomery has brought a fresh voice and perspective that has rejuvenated Bruins old and new. Multiple players are producing at levels they haven’t touched in past seasons. It’s everything Boston could ask for.
Does the Bruins’ success to this point mean the building is done? Will Sweeney add before the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline? Can he risk messing with an incomparable team chemistry? Or would the Bruins come to regret standing pat while others improve?
Only time will tell. — Kristen Shilton
What the numbers say
The Boston Bruins’ dominance can be quantified. No matter if it’s through traditional stats or advanced analytics, they all tell the same story: The Bruins are on another level this season.
“If there’s a performance-based metric, they’re right near the very top of it without fail,” said Dimitri Filipovic, an analytics analyst who hosts “The Hockey PDOcast” on Sportsnet. “Whether it’s specifically during 5-on-5 play or across all situations, no one concedes fewer goals against than they do. But they also score goals themselves at the second-highest rate in both game states. The same trends apply to special teams.”
Entering Thursday night’s action, the Bruins had a goal differential of plus-81. That was 37 goals better than the second-best team in the NHL in that category, the Dallas Stars at plus-44.
The Bruins’ defense is the catalyst for that. Boston has given up 111 goals in 51 games, which was 24 fewer than the New Jersey Devils. Their 2.12 goals-against per game leads the NHL; if that holds, it will make the Bruins the best defensive team in nine seasons, at a time when goal scoring continues to increase in the NHL year over year.
Boston has caught that offensive wave too. Its 3.73 goals per game ranks second in the NHL to a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. If that average holds, this would be the highest-scoring Bruins team since the 1992-93 edition (3.95 goals per game) that saw center Adam Oates amass 142 points.
The Bruins were a middling offensive team last season, ranking 15th in goals per game (3.09). So what changed?
According to Stathletes, the Bruins have altered their system slightly in the attacking zone. Last season at 5-on-5, only 23% of their shot attempts came off weakside passes; this season, it’s at 29.3%, as they are attempting and completing more cross-ice passes in the offensive zone.
Another change, per Stathletes: The Bruins are using their one-timers more. Last season, they averaged 8.0 one-timer shot attempts per game; this season, that number has climbed to 13.2.
“They attack the middle of the ice with regularity,” Filipovic said. “They have one of the very best goal scorers in the league. They also get contributions from pretty much everyone. They can create a healthy supply of chances from a variety of sources, whether it be off the rush, following a cycle sequence or creating a turnover with their forecheck. It’s a well-oiled machine right now to say the least.”
On special teams, it’s more of the same. The Bruins have the fifth-best power play in the NHL (25.1%) and the No. 1 penalty kill (85.8%). Pastrnak (28 points) and Marchand (23 points) have provided the biggest spark with the man advantage, but McAvoy has been great in his second season as the primary point man (16 points in 38 games), and is on track to set a career high in power-play efficiency.
But the leap from last season’s 15th-ranked power play (21.2%) to this season’s success is also a tribute to Boston’s renewed depth. Lindholm has chipped in nine points. Krejci has 10 points. One NHL veteran said the simple function of having three right-handed centers in Bergeron, Krejci and Charlie Coyle makes their power play more effective. “They don’t have to spend that extra split-second to make a play. The angles are already there on the power play,” he said.
As for the penalty kill … hey, it’s what the Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins do. Since Bergeron entered the NHL in 2003-04, the Bruins are tied with the St. Louis Blues for the best penalty kill over that 1,455-game stretch at 83.1%.
They’re just as dominant at even strength. The Bruins lead all teams with a .945 EV save percentage and are third behind the Seattle Kraken and San Jose Sharks in shooting percentage (7.7%).
As good as their goaltending numbers are, it’s the Bruins’ 5-on-5 defense that has the analytics community dumbstruck.
“Honestly, I suspect the public numbers are underrating them a bit defensively,” Filipovic said.
He notes there are some disparities in “goals saved above expected” by Ullmark on sites such as Evolving Hockey (25.1), Sportlogiq (14.1) and Money Puck (19.2). Filipovic thinks the Bruins’ goaltending probably nets out on the lower end of that scale, based on everything else the numbers tell us about their defense, including where they give up shots.
Micah Blake McCurdy of Hockey Viz creates shot heat maps for every team. The Bruins’ show them as getting great goaltending, but also creating a great defensive environment for the netminders to thrive in.
“They basically choke off everything around the net and through the middle of the ice,” Filipovic said, while wanting to take nothing away from Ullmark’s season. “Even when you occasionally break through that shell and get into a good spot to shoot from, they’re so quick to contest with active sticks in lanes that the quality of the shot itself has largely been neutralized. It’s about as good of a defensive environment as you can get to play in as a goalie.”
The Bruins are a hard team to score against. They’re a team that can score at will. There’s a reason they’re a Stanley Cup favorite — just ask their opponents. — Greg Wyshynski
What opposing players, coaches say
With what he has accomplished in his career, Sidney Crosby doesn’t impress easily. But even the Pittsburgh Penguins captain couldn’t help but call the Bruins “amazing” when asked about Boston’s dominance this season.
“To see the league as tight as it is, and to see what they’re doing, is even more impressive,” Crosby said. “It’s just their depth at every position, and obviously the leadership core they have there goes a long way too. It’s a combination of all of those things and staying healthy. They deserve a lot of credit. It’s not easy what they’re doing.”
The last team to make it look this easy was the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning. That Lightning team was in position for a while to challenge the regular-season wins and points records, finishing with 62 wins (to match the 1995-96 Red Wings) and 128 points (four shy of the 1976-77 Canadiens).
“They’re clearly the best team in the league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the Bruins. “The thing that stands out for me is that they don’t beat themselves. I think you can probably look at the other 31 teams around the league and there are times when you stumble over your own toes and beat yourselves. I would say that’s one thing Boston doesn’t do. That’s why they’re miles ahead of everyone else.”
The players we spoke with seem to be in awe of what the Bruins have accomplished, marveling at their machine-like efficiency.
“They show why they’ve been at the top of the league all year,” Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. “They’re an elite hockey team. You have to be dialed in to every little detail. They defend well, their goalie is having a great year and you have to work for your offense.”
As New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba put it: “They don’t cheat the game. They’re a good team and play a good game.”
One of the common themes in opponents’ praise is the way the Bruins remain confident in what they do through success and adversity.
“They don’t change their game if they’re down or up. They play the same way for a full 60 minutes and that’s been consistent for them,” Lightning forward Corey Perry said.
“We played them last year in the playoffs when I was in Carolina, and that was a battle,” said defenseman Ian Cole, a teammate of Perry. “I think what makes them even more successful this year is their willingness and ability to stick to their game.
“They play this patient but aggressive defensive game where they can create a ton of turnovers, transition pucks and use their skill and go score. They’ve done that better than any team in the league thus far and they’re the best team in our league because of it. It’s a standard that everyone in the league tries to emulate.”
But emulating the Bruins is easier said than done. It’s not just the way they play, but it’s who is playing.
“They’re one of the really well-built teams,” Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki said. “They’ve got a lot of veteran guys that play the right way. They play their system perfectly. You can’t make any mistakes. You have to make as much opportunity for yourself as you can. They play so well together as five-man units out there on the ice that there’s not much room.”
Perry believes the ascension of Ullmark to Vezina Trophy contender is another critical factor.
“He is having a tremendous year. You have to get those garbage goals and make sure you put them away,” Perry said. “That’s a [testament] to what the Bruins have got. He’s put it all together.”
Others pointed to the arrival of Montgomery.
“I mean, they’ve had a fairly good run before he got there,” one NHL veteran said, noting that the Bruins have only missed the playoffs twice in the past 15 seasons. “But sometimes when you bring a new coach in, it gets everyone’s attention a little bit. Not to say the other guy was doing a bad job, but everyone gets reenergized and refocused.”
Cooper noted that even with a new voice behind the bench, the Bruins are still doing some of the same things they did in the past.
“They still play the exact same D-zone that they played before,” he said. “But I know the new coach is a hell of a coach — what he’s done in junior, what he’s done in college. Am I surprised the team is having the success they’re having? I’m not.” — Shilton and Wyshynksi
Why Boston will win the Stanley Cup
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room:
The Bruins have, at this moment, the NHL’s best record. That puts them on track to earn the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team. Only two clubs in the salary-cap era — the 2007-08 Red Wings and 2012-13 Blackhawks — have won both a Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup. Only eight teams have ever accomplished the feat. And, most shockingly, only one of the past nine Presidents’ Trophy winners has advanced past the second round of the postseason.
So history wouldn’t be on Boston’s side if it were to finish atop the standings. And yet, so much about these Bruins has already defied the odds and puzzled pundits. Who’s to say Boston can’t overcome any so-called curse associated with dominating for 82 games?
The Bruins steamrolling their way through (almost) all comers is no accident. They are that good. Collecting the 16 playoff victories required to hoist a Cup is never easy. All things being equal (and with an intact, healthy lineup), Boston has the ability to do it.
The Bruins are no longer a one-line show. In the past, Boston was guilty of being top-heavy and that held them back in the postseason, when depth is at a premium. Sweeney has made moves to correct that, and — perhaps more critically — invested in a coach unafraid of change.
Montgomery makes adjustments where his predecessors relied on staying the course. Boston had leaned on the dominant top unit of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak to its own detriment; even three exceptional players can’t always perform like a cheat code.
Boston’s new coach seems to get that, and appreciates how this season’s Bruins can ebb and flow over 60 minutes. When Montgomery pivoted from the standard Bergeron line to linking Pastrnak with Zacha and Krejci in a recent game against the Maple Leafs, it sparked a commanding performance from the aptly nicknamed Czech line, including two goals by Zacha. Montgomery said afterward it was the trio’s creativity that made it effective. But he seems to know when and how to push the right buttons.
There’s a trust and buy-in from the Bruins to Montgomery’s system that allowed them to start this season counter to how they finished last season. During the Carolina series, the Bruins struggled on the road, failed to recover when they fell behind and lacked the kind of spark that ultimately propelled the Hurricanes forward. This season, Boston has rallied with the best of them and is tied for the fewest losses (five) when trailing after two periods. There’s no panic. The Bruins don’t try to be something they aren’t. What they are is more than enough.
Then there are elements that are impossible to quantify. Boston wants to win one more Cup for Bergeron. Marchand said as much after the Bruins’ ouster last spring. The stars have aligned to this point and put the team in prime position to deliver.
And even if you can’t measure heart, you can put weight behind statistics. This isn’t a smoke-and-mirrors situation, where the Bruins’ success in one aspect of the game hides their deficiencies somewhere else. Boston is elite in every offensive, defensive and special teams category. (And did we mention the goaltending?) No sleight of hand, no pulling the wool over your eyes. The figures speak for themselves.
The Bruins were bitter after last season. They’ve turned that into something sweet. Sometimes the easiest, most obvious answer actually is the right one. The Bruins can win the Stanley Cup this season. That’s the only outcome that can — and should — satisfy them. — Shilton
Why Boston won’t win the Stanley Cup
It was April 16, 2019. Lightning coach Jon Cooper had just witnessed his team — statistically one of the best in the history of NHL regular seasons — get swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.
The Jackets had been playing a playoff game every night just to make the cut. The Lightning had been on cruise control for the better part of two months.
“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality,” Cooper said after Game 4. “That’s how it goes: You have a historic regular season, and we had a historic playoff.”
The Bruins are having one of those seasons. Barring a significant collapse, they’re likely to win both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference in a walk. There have been more stories about Bergeron’s load management down the stretch than any threat to the Bruins’ place in the standings.
So that’s the first concern: that they’ll stroll across the finish line in first place and face some wild-card team that has streaked into the postseason with belief in their game and a hot goaltender. The Lightning can be a cautionary tale for the Bruins’ veteran leaders to share with the group. But the Stanley Cup playoffs are defined by upsets. Boston knows this.
But even if a team catches the Bruins slightly flat-footed, there’s still that whole “finding a way to dismantle a hockey machine” thing.
Let’s begin with the premise that stopping the Boston offense will be easier than penetrating its defense. One area of focus would be the way the Bruins use their defensemen on offense, which is a major change under Montgomery.
The Bruins are eighth in scoring chances per game from defensemen as a team this season (15.1), which is up from 12th last season (13.9), according to ESPN Stats & Information. They’re seventh in total points from defensemen this season (118) after finishing 25th last season. Lindholm got the green light to create early in the season, which led to his offensive breakout. That was Montgomery.
It’s no secret that the Stanley Cup playoffs are where “little things” aren’t whistled as often as they are in the previous 82 games. Some light interference to slow down those blueliners could impact the Boston offense.
If there’s a weakness for the Bruins’ defense, it might be defending opponents off the rush. According to Stathletes, the Bruins give up more scoring chances off the rush than the NHL average per game. The trick is that their goaltenders are both very good against the rush — in the top 10 in goals saved above expected in those situations.
It’s what the Bruins do after those initial shot attempts that separates them from the pack: They allow the second-fewest shot attempts against following a rebound. Their zone coverage after a rush attempt is suffocating.
In other words, teams can enter the zone but the Bruins are controlling what happens after that initial shot attempt. Even the high-danger chances they surrender are defended well. Obviously step one to breaking through that defense is to increase zone time and get high-danger chances that are unencumbered. Again, easier said than done.
There’s no easy path to beating this team. But there’s also no easy path to the Stanley Cup. They’ll be tested. They’ll be pushed. But if the Bruins follow this regular season with a postseason that ends with a Stanley Cup skate around the rink, they could go down as one of the most dominant teams in the history of not only the NHL but all of pro sports. — Wyshynski
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