By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
Entering the New Year and returning to as close as they have been to full health since the start of the season, the Bruins are beginning to hit their stride that led them to finish fourth in the NHL last season with 112 points. Given the fact that they finished only a point behind the Eastern Conference the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lighting, it was widely assumed that the rebuild on the fly the Bruins brass were undertaking was well ahead of schedule.
The unexpected elevation in their level of play last year led to an elevation in expectations for the team that calls TD Garden home, and until recently, they have fallen short of delivering on the promise they showed before getting pummeled by the aforementioned Bolts in the second round of the playoffs last April.
And while many fans of the Black and Gold will take solace in the fact that their hopes for their favorite team were not misplaced as the stretch drive to the NHL’s second season heats up as the winter cold settles in. The fact remains if Butch Cassidy’s club hopes to postpone their tee times until May – or perhaps June – general manager Don Sweeney is going to have to add to the options that the B’s bench boss has to go to when he puts together his lineup.
So, here’s the rub.
For as much as the five-game win streak against quality opponents – if the season ended today, the Sabres (who they beat twice), Flames, and Wild would qualify for the playoffs – that should not fool anyone that the Bruins are any closer than they were 15 months ago to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup this spring.
Here’s what one should take from this recent surge.
For starters, if – and that’s a huge IF – the Bruins backline can remain healthy – don’t be afraid to knock on wood – they have a more than a competent group of defensemen to rely on entering the playoffs. They arguably have the best goaltending tandem in the NHL – insert Tuukka Rask rant here – and it is easy to assume that if the team can bring the same type of defensive play that they have shown as healthy bodies continue to return, either of Cassidy’s options in the cage are capable of keeping pucks out of the Bruins goal.
Secondly, there is no better line in hockey right now than Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. While they may not always be paired together, no other coach in the NHL has a more reliable parachute cord to pull on any given night when things aren’t going great for their team. And it is hard not to notice the uptick in play from David Krejci – who along with Pastrnak are the only two Bruins to suit up for all 43 games this season – who was called upon to help carry the team when Bergeron was sidelined earlier in the season.
That being said, there is still a wide margin between the surging B’s and the seemingly unbeatable division-leading Lightning, who are pretty much lapping the rest of the league, dropping only eight of their 43 games played in regulation this season.
Bottom line is, in the NHL division based playoff system, the Bruins will have to go through the team that Phil Esposito gave birth to if they have any hopes of playing beyond April this season. And the fact of the matter, as it stands now, Tampa Bay is the windshield and the Bruins are the bug.
Period. End of sentence.
So, while those who wear black and gold glasses are beginning to believe in this team that seemingly never quits under Cassidy, what Sweeney does between now and the NHL trade deadline at the end of February will mean more when it comes to their chances of becoming a true Cup contender this spring.
That will mean adding a significant piece to his team in season – in this case, a real scoring threat on offense to play with Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on the second line – something the fourth-year GM has not shown he is capable of during his tenure.
While it is exciting to see that the team is returning to health and regular season form, it should be just as sobering for Bruins fans to know that as currently constructed, the ceiling for this team is whatever round they meeting the Lighting in this spring.
For all that he has done in bailing the Bruins out of salary cap jail when he took over for his predecessor Peter “Payday Pete” Chiarelli, now is where the rubber meets the road for Sweeney. How effective he is to adding to his team over the next six weeks will likely determine how deep this B’s squad plays into the spring.