Zdeno Chara is still arguably the best defenseman in the National Hockey League and Tuukka Rask is a favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this season. Toss in enviable forward depth and a solid defense corps behind Chara along with a seasoned coaching staff, and there are plenty of reasons why the Boston Bruins are the first team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season.
The Bruins punched a ticket to the playoffs Friday night by winning their 11th straight game, fittingly with a near-flawless defensive performance in a 2-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center.
Chara has been his usual minute-munching, forward-crunching self this season. He once again plays nearly 25 minutes per game and always faces the toughest matchups, and Chara, who turned 37 earlier this week, should again be up among the top candidates for the Norris Trophy. He won the trophy in 2009.
Rask, another mainstay in Boston, is proving to be worth the eight-year, $56 million contract he signed last July. He is among the League's leaders in all four major statistical categories for goaltenders. Rask is third in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.929), fifth in wins (31) and first in shutouts (6).
With Chara and Rask it's no wonder the Bruins are once again the top contender in the Eastern Conference after reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season. But they're only part of Boston's success story this season.
Here are five more reasons the Bruins are heading back to the playoffs:
1. No tinkering
While many coaches will change lines mid-game to try to give their team a spark or jumpstart the offense, Bruins coach Claude Julien prefers a more consistent approach with his forward lines. He clearly knows what he's doing.
Save for injury, Boston's forward lines have remained virtually the same for the bulk of the season because, well, they work.
David Krejci has centered Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla since the start of the season. Iginla replaced Nathan Horton on that line and has fit in seamlessly. The line has combined for 168 points. Krejci leads the Bruins with 60 points, Iginla is second with 56 and Lucic is third with 52. Iginla leads the team with 26 goals. They are Boston's top three scorers and make up arguably the best line in the NHL, or at least the Eastern Conference.
Patrice Bergeron consistently plays in between Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith. Bergeron is having another season worthy of the Selke Trophy, if not the Hart. Smith, who was originally projected as a bottom-six forward, has been Boston's most surprising contributor after being considered the other guy in the Tyler Seguin trade during the summer that also brought Loui Eriksson to Boston.
Marchand has rebounded after a tough start to surpass 20 goals for the third time in his career.
The third and fourth lines have been subject to more adversity than the top two because of injuries and suspensions, but when Julien has his preferred bottom-six available he typically goes back to the same alignment, with Chris Kelly, Carl Soderberg and Eriksson on a dangerous, scoring third line and Gregory Campbell in between Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille on the fourth line.
Soderberg has chipped in with the secondary scoring Boston needs. He has 41 points and averages nearly 14 minutes of ice time per game. Eriksson has had a tough season because of concussions, but he still has 28 points in 49 games.
2. Young 'D' coming along
The Bruins started the season with a plan to use their three young defensemen a lot, thinking that Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski would be part of a top-seven led by Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid.
Injuries to Seidenberg and McQuaid forced Julien to alter those plans and even add Kevan Miller to the group after he started the season with the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League. Krug, Hamilton, Bartkowski and Miller have fared well despite some intense circumstances, so much so that Boston's defense has barely taken a hit without Seidenberg and McQuaid in the lineup.
Krug leads all Boston defenseman with 37 points in 69 games, but he's also the most sheltered of the defense corps as he typically starts his shifts in the offensive zone. Hamilton, who has lately gotten some time as Chara's defense partner, has 21 points and is a plus-20 in 52 games. Bartkowski has 15 points, all assists, and is a plus-21 in 54 games. Miller has five points and is plus-15 in 37 games.
They have helped the Bruins drive possession, and Boston's group of defensively-abled forwards, particularly Bergeron and Kelly, haven't had to alter their games much to make up for the loss of Seidenberg and McQuaid. It's been a seamless transition.
3. Mr. Everything
The advanced stats community has helped bring Bergeron's impact to light. In fact, if the Hart Trophy were awarded based on advanced stats (zone starts, quality of competition, Corsi, etc.) Bergeron would be one of the leading candidates. He probably should be anyway.
Bergeron faces the toughest competition on a game-to-game basis and starts more shifts in the defensive zone than in the offensive zone, yet he's one of the top players in the League at driving possession and ending his shifts in the offensive zone.
The Bruins possess the puck more because of Bergeron, who wins nearly 60 percent of his faceoffs and also contributes offensively. He has 49 points in 70 games this season.
4. Iggy's still got it, and he's the perfect fit
Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli thought he had acquired Iginla before the NHL Trade Deadline last season, only to find out that the former Calgary Flames captain decided he wanted to go play with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins instead. He was put on the left wing in Pittsburgh and never quite seemed to fit.
Chiarelli finally got his man on July 5, signing Iginla to a one-year, bonus-based $6 million contract that has proven to be arguably the shrewdest free-agent signing of the offseason. Iginla has been the perfect fit as a right wing, his natural position, in Boston.
Julien didn't really have to think too hard or long before putting Iginla on the right wing of the top line with Krejci and Lucic. Horton was playing there before signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Horton, Iginla is a goal-scoring power forward with a right-handed shot and was a natural replacement.
Nobody, though, could have predicted that the Lucic-Krejci-Iginla line would stick from Day 1. It has and Iginla is on his way to his 12th season with 30 or more goals. He leads the Bruins with 26 and has 12 games to play.
5. Smith's unexpected impact
As mentioned above, Smith came to Boston in the summer blockbuster trade that sent Seguin to the Dallas Stars. Smith was a bottom-six player for the Stars, but the Bruins haven't shielded him because he's proven that they don't need to.
Smith has played regularly on the second line with Bergeron and Marchand and is fifth on the team with 47 points, including 19 goals, through 70 games. Julien let him fight through a scoring slump that lasted from Jan. 30 through mid-March, but he's started to create more and heat up lately.
Chiarelli said earlier in the season that he wanted Smith in that trade because he had shown an ability to be a solid two-way player. What has surprised the Bruins is Smith's strength on the boards. Chiarelli said he didn't know that was one of his strongest attributes, but it is.
Julien admitted last month during a visit to Madison Square Garden that Smith has been a surprising contributor, and suggested the best part of his game is how he has consistently been a factor. Smith lost that consistency in February but Julien stuck with him, mostly because he didn't want to tinker with the other lines that were working. It appears his faith is paying off.