Are the Boston Bruins Peaking Too Soon?
The Boston Bruins are on a streak of epic, historical proportions, having recorded at least one point in 18 consecutive contests (14-0-4) as they emerge from the All-Star break.
Eighteen. As in, the Bruins’ point streak can buy itself a pack of Marlboro and join the Marine Corps.
Ok, so it hasn’t been quite that long. Please excuse the cutesy, opportunistic numerical correlation. But it feels like it’s been that long, doesn’t it? With 47 days having transpired since Boston was last vanquished in regulation (versus the Washington Capitals, because of course), you’ll have to excuse folks around New England and Bruins Nation for having come down with a ferocious case of Stanley Cup Fever.
And it’s not even as though this streak were a harsh departure from what preceded it. Prior to this 18-game stretch of near perfection, the Bruins had won nine of their previous 11 contests. That’s a record of 23-2-4 in a period of time that spans more than one-third of an entire NHL season.
Though the results are encouraging (to the say the least) and the cushion they’re building in the standings can only benefit them down the road, it begs the question:
Are the Boston Bruins peaking too soon?
Cause for Concern
To be completely candid, the Bruins are not supposed to be this good. At least not yet.
When Don Sweeney took over as general manager less than three years ago, his primary focus was to undo the organization’s precarious positioning as it pertained to bloated contracts and a depleted pipeline and to build for the future.
A flurry of trades involving established roster players for futures followed, and the “retool” and youth movement was officially underway.
In the aftermath, the 2015-16 Bruins missed the playoffs by way of tiebreaker. The 2016-17 Bruins erased a two-year playoff drought but lasted just six injury-plagued games. This season, the Bruins have the third-best record in the NHL with more than half of the season under their belts.
Unexpected, to say the least.
In August, the oddsmakers in Las Vegas gave Boston the 16th-best odds of claiming Lord Stanley, effectively considering them a “bubble team” as far as the playoffs were concerned; hardly a legitimate Cup contender.
Yes, Bruce Cassidy has shown in less than 82 games that he’s a maestro of sorts, pushing all the right buttons at all the right times. And the Bruins’ rookies have, virtually to a man, shown they’re ready to produce in primetime.
But being this dominant after being so mediocre over the previous three seasons, with so many first or second-year players in the lineup as well as veterans having a resurgence (if not a career year) must mean that a downturn is on the horizon, right?
Winning Streak Begets Losing Streak
All too frequently in sports, a winning streak gives way to a losing streak. As the wins pile up so too do bad habits. Teams get on a roll, the gods smile favorably upon them, granting them good bounce after bounce and the attention to detail inevitably wanes in the wake of continued success.
Basically, a team is playing with house money as its winning streak draws to a close. And when it closes, it does so with a thud.
Last season, the Philadelphia Flyers enjoyed a 10-game winning streak from late November through mid-December. Once it came to a close the club lost 24 of its next 36 contests and eventually missed the playoffs. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ even more impressive (and nearly historic) 16-game streak was followed by 32 games of .500 hockey; a drastic departure from the dominance they’d previously displayed, prior to their first-round exit.
The Bruins cannot sustain their current pace. A regulation loss is coming, most likely soon, and there’s a great chance it will be followed by another shortly thereafter. Does this Bruins team have the structure, leadership, and fortitude to buck the recent trends and avoid a losing streak?
Depth & Balance Their Saving Grace
Boston’s blend of veteran experience/leadership, youthful exuberance/speed, offensive firepower and defensive excellence would suggest that this team is more than a flash in the pan. This current stretch, though admittedly unsustainable, does appear to be more indicative of their overall aptitude than an exciting and uncharacteristic aberration.
This is an extremely deep and dangerous team.
They’re giving up the fewest goals per game in the NHL while scoring the fourth-most; only division foe Tampa Bay has a better goal differential than the Bruins. They boast the league’s third-best penalty kill and seventh-best power play.
They have the best all-around forward line in the NHL leading the way, but they also have seven additional players scoring at a rate of 45 points (or better) per 82 games, including two defensemen. During their current 18-game point streak, all four forward lines are a net-positive in scoring:
During the streak
Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak
5.1 goals/60, 1.0 goals allowed/60
Krejci, DeBrusk, Spooner
4.6 goals/60, 1.7 goals allowed/60
Heinen, Nash, Backes
3.0 goals/60, 1.5 goals allowed/60
Kuraly, Schaller, Acciari
1.3 goals/60, 0.9 goals allowed/60
— Bruins Stats (@bruins_stats) January 21, 2018
The blue line has more competent players than spots in the starting lineup, with Matt Grzelcyk’s ascent every bit as surprising as Charlie McAvoy’s excellence and shocking readiness.
Both of Boston’s goaltenders are giving the club a chance to win nightly, even when the skaters don’t bring their best game to the rink. Tuukka Rask has seemingly reclaimed his Vezina-winning form while Anton Khudobin is providing the B’s with the depth at the position they so dearly lacked from 2014 until last February.
It’s not a matter of the Bruins being too good in general to avoid a letdown in the coming days or weeks, but rather that they’re good in too many ways to suggest that a precipitous decline is inevitable.
At some point, the Bruins will drop a contest in regulation. Furthermore, history suggests that a losing streak (or at least a period of .500 hockey) will follow Boston’s current run of dominance.
There will most likely be additional injuries to key players down the stretch, perhaps even of the season-altering kind.
But this team has been too good in too many ways over too long a stretch (two-plus months) to suggest that the wheels are going to fall off on their own, or that this team has “peaked.”
The Bruins share a division with the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning and a Toronto Maple Leafs squad that Boston hasn’t beaten since 2016. They share a conference with the Washington Capitals, whom they haven’t beaten in 12 chances.
The road through the playoffs figures to be an arduous one. A first-round exit seems just as likely as a seventh Stanley Cup for the franchise, regardless of how hot or cold the Bruins are come playoff time.
But whether this is Boston’s peak or merely the tip of the iceberg, it’s a safe assumption that no one in the NHL will want to draw these Bruins in the playoffs.
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