Report Card for the Boston Bruins at the Quarter Mark of the 2013-14 Season
After another 30 minutes of play, they stamped a 2-1 victory that pole-vaulted them into first place in the Atlantic Division. They now boast a 14-6-1 record with 21 games down and 61 yet to come.
Their 29 points also constitute the biggest bushel in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, although a whopping eight Western Conference teams have already broken the 30-point plateau.
Boston’s regal position in the conference standings shares a critical link with their No. 1 netminder, Tuukka Rask. Among qualified league leaders, Rask is third with a 1.61 goals-against average and second with a .946 save percentage.
Not only do those numbers, much like his team’s record, exceed expectations, but they also go heavily hand-in-hand with the record given that, discounting empty-netters, the Bruins have been involved in 12 one-goal decisions.
Furthermore, if you remove empty-netters, overtime strikes and shootouts from the equation, Boston has scored twice or less in 13 games.
The skaters have combined for plenty of plus points, which has also been vital to the winning causes, but Rask bears the fewest follies at the quarter mark of 2013-14. Accordingly, Boston’s goaltending sits a cut above all other fundamental aspects of its game on the grading scale.
Here is a more detailed capsule of the Bruins’ first-quarter performances in the way of offense, defense, goaltending and both sides of the special teams spectrum.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com and are through games of Tuesday, Nov. 19.
Team Offense: B-
To start with a can’t-miss positive, offseason acquisition Jarome Iginla has functioned as an instantaneous spark plug on Boston’s first forward line.
As Boston Globe beat reporter Fluto Shinzawa penned in Tuesday’s paper, “Iginla’s north-south, shoot-first approach has made him a good replacement for Nathan Horton alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic.”
There is also sufficient cause to believe that the presence of a long-tenured, not-quite-fulfilled veteran is giving Lucic, in particular, the stabilizer he needs to retain a consistent compete level. Plays like his shot block-turned-overtime clincher last Thursday have come to define Lucic’s team-leading stat of nine goals and his 25.7 percent shooting accuracy.
The top troika’s clutch aptitude was on similarly striking display Oct. 24 when Krejci polished off a winning rush with a last-second goal.
Another key top-six summer import, Loui Eriksson is beginning to catch on after a fairly frostbitten start. His first nine games as a Bruin yielded three points, whereas he has cultivated seven in his last seven.
The same, however, cannot be said about fellow winger Brad Marchand, who has tumbled into a rut of futility.
In October, the player who should be Eriksson and Patrice Bergeron’s linemate was demoted to the third line. In the first week of November, Dan Cagen of the MetroWest Daily News quoted head coach Claude Julien as saying, “Brad is a good skater, and I don’t think he’s skating as well as he can. He’s obviously much better with the puck at managing it, and he hasn’t been great at that either.”
Among the most leaned-on depth forwards, Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg have had both hot and cold production spells, while Reilly Smith has been a pleasantly versatile surprise, already with 13 points.
Team Defense: B+
The Bruins entered Wednesday night’s action in a comfortable first-place slot on the NHL’s team goals-against average leaderboard. Their nightly median of 1.76 defensive setbacks is the only team average south of 2.00 at the moment.
Because of the short summer that followed an arduous run last year and the heavy presence of young defensemen, that output is an overachievement.
Julien has openly observed the improvement in professional sophomore Dougie Hamilton, who typically works with the lately solid Dennis Seidenberg. Meanwhile, not unlike Johnson in net, reserve rearguard Matt Bartkowski has generally filled in as needed with no major glitches, even if he has sat for a protracted period.
On no fewer than two occasions, namely Nov. 9 and this past Tuesday, the Bruins have limited their opponents to a single goal to preserve a victory despite playing the bulk of the game with five defenders after an injury to a veteran.
The blue-line brigade, however, has not been without its jutting drawbacks for its rookies and ripest members alike. The undersized Torey Krug has 10 giveaways on his tab, while captain Zdeno Chara is subject to scrutiny as a combination of aging and fatigue appear to be taking a gradual toll.
Chara, the team’s topmost minute muncher, has been on the ice for 19 of the 37 goals the Bruins have authorized. That puts him on pace to share the accountability for half or more than half of Boston’s goals against for the first time in his tenure.
The Bruins will need to address that last trend one way or another if they want to ensure these early results last for the long run. For the moment, though, they are recompensing with defensive depth, sound assistance on the home front from most forwards and reliable goaltending.
Boston has confronted three sets of back-to-back games, starting Rask in five of those six contests.
When scraping the blue paint for an extramural engagement after doing so just 24 hours prior, Rask is an infallible 2-0-0.
He most recently backstopped both Monday night’s win in Carolina and then bolstered his skating mates against the Rangers on Tuesday. Beforehand, after a so-so performance in a 3-2 loss to the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins Oct. 30, Rask turned around and put up a winning performance to claim a shootout against the Anaheim Ducks.
Rask’s first-quarter transcript is a few strides short of perfect. His topmost blemish is easily this past Friday’s 4-2 falter in Ottawa, which is the chief reason why he gets an “A” as opposed to an “A+.”
Apart from the three aforementioned “drubbings” and a 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Columbus Day, Rask has habitually confined the adversary to two goals or fewer. The most impressive testament to his stinginess is the fact that he has already thrice faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, stamping a 3-1 win on opening night and shutting them out the other two times.
While Rask has fended off the consequences of excessive labor, his backup is sufficiently resisting rust. Chad Johnson’s three starts have come 10 and 12 days apart, yet he has blinked a respectable seven times en route to a 2-1-0 record.
Power Play: B
With an 18.2 percent conversion rate at the 21-game mark, the Bruins power play is two full percentage points better than where it finished in 2010-11, one full point better than 2011-12 and 3.4 points better than last year.
Results-wise, that is still nowhere near elite status but doubtlessly trending upward. The notion of improvement is further supported by the new tools Boston’s man-up squadron has been utilizing.
The aforementioned Krug, first and foremost, has joined the likes of Hamilton and Bartkowski as go-to point-patrollers. Their positional elder, Chara, is keeping at least one positive in his 2013-14 log with his work on and around the porch of the cage during the extra-man attack.
Krug and Chara currently share the team lead with three conversions each coming off their stick. Hamilton has supplied two, while Bergeron and Smith have buried one apiece. In the playmaking department, the Iginla-Krejci-Lucic unit has amassed a combined 10 assists with the man advantage.
Over the next three quarters, the forwards would be wise to start seeking and burying more chances themselves. If and when opposing goalies and penalty-killers learn to stifle the young point men, deliberate shooting for rebounds from a distance and opportunistic garbage collection up front will be the logical second resort.
Penalty Kill: B+
Their aforementioned loss to New Jersey on Oct. 26 saw the Bruins give up four opposing power-play conversions out of seven opportunities. That one outing alone is responsible for docking Boston’s penalty kill by five full percentage points and three slots on the league leaderboard.
Overall, the Bruins have warded off the opposing power play 58 times out of 67 for an 86.6 percent killing rate. In the 20 games other than that one uncharacteristic performance, they have killed 55 out of 60 shorthanded sequences for 91.6 percent success.
Even before the New Jersey game, Boston had escaped 21 of its first 24 numerical disadvantages. Nonetheless, that massive meltdown prompted a little soul-searching in the PK department, helping to precipitate an efficient first two-thirds of November.
All along, Rask has been lending some merit to the adage about the value of a team’s best penalty-killer being its goaltender. In addition, as Mike Cole of NESN.com observed following Monday’s win at Carolina, “While the Bruins struggled to clear the puck out of their own zone on the PK early in the year, they have done a much better job of getting the puck out of their own end during the streak.”
The “streak” that Cole speaks of was a succession of 33 straight successful kills, which spanned all or part of 11 games. It began during the Oct. 30 visit to Pittsburgh and ended when the Rangers converted their second of three chances on Tuesday.
That helps to sweep aside the shards of that late-October implosion, but October was still recent enough to keep the PK below the “A” range for now.