The Bruins — whose 3.9 goals per game rank No. 1 in the NHL — may not have a 50-goal scorer, but they do have plenty of hard-working offensive players who can shoulder the load in tandem and make it difficult for defenders to compete.
“I think our scoring has been spread out pretty good throughout our lineup, and that’s important,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien following Monday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena. “You can get a 50-goal scorer on the team — then everybody else drops to 12 or 15 goals — or you can have a bunch of guys that you hope can score at least 20 for you and spread it through the lineup.
“I think that’s a lot harder to play against, when [opponents] don’t know who to check. So I like the fact that we have our scoring spread around.”
Still, through the first month of the 2015-16 season, two players in particular have taken it upon themselves to shoulder much of the offensive load, and on Monday, they were rewarded for it by the league.
The NHL announced on Monday that forward David Krejci has been named the third star of the month, while forward Brad Marchand has been named the first star of the week.
Krejci has long insisted that what matters most to him is whether the team is winning. If the team is winning, he isn’t too concerned about his own offensive output.
For the last few weeks, however, Krejci has gotten the best of both worlds: Boston has gone 6-0-1 in its last seven games, and his 15 points are the third-most in the NHL.
“I feel good, on and off the ice, and the team’s doing really well,” Krejci said. “Obviously, we didn’t start the season the way we wanted to, but we’ve bounced back, and I think the last few games we’ve been playing really strong — and we’ve been winning the games, so that’s the most important thing.”
Krejci, perhaps, entered this season particularly motivated to do some damage. He was limited to just 47 games last season due to two major injuries — one sustained in Boston’s final preseason game of the year, and other, a partially torn MCL, sustained in February.
When the team needed a hero — particularly down the stretch, in a neck-and-neck playoff race — he wasn’t able to help, and it wore on him.
“He’s certainly in a much better position than he was at this time last year, health-wise,” Julien said. “I think that’s exciting. I think he was really disappointed that he basically played half a season last year, and he saw where we were at crucial times and didn’t feel like he was able to help us as much as he would have liked to.
“A good athlete comes back motivated to want to make a difference, and that’s what I think he’s done so far.”
Marchand, too, has been motivated ever since being forced to sit out two games earlier this year in accordance with the league’s concussion protocol after taking an elbow to the head in the waning minutes of a game against Montreal on Oct. 10. Last week, Marchand registered four goals and two assists in three games, including the game-winner against Florida on Friday night.
He, in Julien’s eyes, is playing the right way. Not only is he doing what he needs to do in order to be successful personally, but he is doing the right things in order to enable team success as well.
“Brad is a good player when Brad plays the game the right way,” Julien said. “The right way means, I’ve seen him backcheck, I’ve seen him block shots, I’ve seen him, even down in our own end, be low. When he does have struggles, he’s playing up high and he’s not coming deep or low enough, and by the time he gets the puck, he’s by himself; he can’t do much with it and gets frustrated. So it’s about playing the game the right way.”
Like Krejci, Marchand was hesitant to accept much personal praise. He, too, is happy the team seems to have rediscovered its identity and its winning ways. Marchand has been a key component of this team for long enough now — five-plus seasons, to be exact — and he is wise enough to know the difference between a Bruins team that can win and one that can’t seem to put it together.
“I think we know that we’re a hard-working team, and we have skill in the room, and when we work hard and we play defense first, then we’re able to just create some opportunities and capitalize on them,” he said. “We’re not a good enough team to be able to cheat offensively and not think about defense first. When we do, we’re a really good team, and when we don’t, then we get in trouble.
“I think if you look at the last number of games, we’ve really focused on doing that, and it’s helped us a lot.”
Goaltending Comes Up Big
Boston’s back-to-back wins this past weekend over Florida and Tampa Bay were statement wins. They entered the weekend below both teams in the Atlantic Division standings; they finished it in third place.
The Bruins were successful in many areas during those two days in Florida, but they were certainly aided by stellar goaltending from both Tuukka Rask and Jonas Gustavsson, who split the games.
On Friday night in Sunrise, Rask was spectacular, particularly in the third period, when the Bruins committed three penalties in the final five minutes of play. On Saturday night in Tampa Bay, Gustavsson followed his lead, earning his third consecutive win in Black & Gold.
“I think we work hand in hand,” Rask said on Monday. “When guys play good defense, it makes our job easier, and when we’re not playing our best, it makes their job tougher. So I think [the weekend] was a good combination of everybody doing their job.”
Rask admitted that Boston’s defensive effort has been much improved over the last handful of games, and he admitted that when the defense is cleaned up, it makes everybody’s job easier.
But Rask, too, has been much improved over the last week or so. He followed up his first shutout of the season with Friday night’s effort, which was arguably his best of the season.
“With those back to back games, it allowed us an opportunity to at least have a fresh body in there, and that was our goaltender,” Julien said. “Both of them played extremely well — Tuukka, I thought, was outstanding in Florida, and Jonas was extremely good, too, in Tampa, especially early on when they really put a lot of pressure on us. He made the big saves when he had to.
“I think it makes a big difference in our game, and not only that, but in the confidence of the players in front, knowing that no matter who you put in there, they’re giving us a chance to win.”
The Bruins looked strong for the most part in both games this past weekend, but during the stretches in which they struggled, the goalies were there to clean up. And Boston needed that.
“Anytime you go into games now, you know that there’s somebody behind you to stop the puck who can make some unbelievable saves,” Krejci said. “That’s what we’ve needed the last two games. It just gives you so much confidence to just go out there — if we don’t worry about what’s behind us, we just go out and play our game, and the rest will take care of itself.”
And not that Rask had any doubt, but it’s nice to know — particularly coming off a season in which he had to play a whopping 70 games — that Gustavsson is ready and able to carry his share of the load, particularly in the midst of a tough back-to-back.
“I’m just happy to see him play good hockey and help us win some games,” Rask said. “I don’t know if he takes any pressure off me or not, but definitely good to see him play good and help us win games.”
The Bruins make no bones about the fact that they didn’t start off the 2015-16 season the way they would have liked to.
But they have also made no bones about the fact that, in some regards, a tough start was expected, given the abundance of new players populating a roster that had been relatively stable over the last several years.
“I think the first couple of games, we were just kind of roaming around the ice and we didn’t really have much of a system at all,” Marchand said. “We had a lot of new guys, [and it’s] expected to have a little bit of a feel-out process. I think now, we all worked on what we had to, and we’re committed to playing within the system, and it’s working.”
For the bulk of Julien’s tenure at the helm of the Bruins, this team’s success has revolved around a commitment to a defense-first system. Last year, there were long stretches of time in which the B’s struggled to adhere to that system, and it showed the final regular-season standings. For the first three games of this season, too, they seemed to struggle with it.
Now, though, the commitment to the system is back. By no coincidence, the Bruins are 6-0-1 in their last seven games. They have outscored opponents 32-15 during that stretch.
They have figured out what works, and for now, the goal is to stick to it.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about throughout the years, and even this year,” Rask said. “You kind of go through some tough times, and even during the games, you just have to keep battling and trusting your system — that it’s going to give you a chance to win. That’s what happened last game. We looked a little sluggish in the first period, but we battled through it and stuck with it, and it paid off.
“So I think it says a lot about our mental strength and what kind of a team we have here. We just know that when we do our jobs and stick with the system, it’s going to pay off.”
The Bruins, to their credit, never panicked when things didn’t pan out the way they wanted or expected through the first three games of this season.
“I think we all thought we deserved a little better in the first few games,” Marchand said. “I thought we played better than what our outcome was in the first few games. I thought we could have won any of those games; we just seemed to panic a bit once we got scored on. But it was a little nerve-racking; you never know how it’s going to turn around after that, but luckily, we found a lot of character, and that’s what we’ve been known for in the past, so it’s good that we have a lot of that in the room and we were able to turn things around.”
No, the Bruins never lost their confidence. But after seven strong performances, it seems to be at an all-time high.
“I think you’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit because they stuck with it,” Julien said. “They didn’t get discouraged; if anything, I saw them working even harder in practice to make sure things turned around. They were very resilient, and I know that word’s been used a lot about our group, but I think it fits it well. So it was nice to see those guys get rewarded eventually, and right now, I think they’re feeling pretty good about their game.
“At the same time, I think we also feel that there’s still lots of room for improvement. We’ve got to keep plugging away here throughout the whole season and hope that you’re playing your best hockey at the right time.”
Monday’s Practice Lineup
Gold Jerseys: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Brett Connolly
White Jerseys: Loui Eriksson, David Krejci, David Pastrnak
Gray Jerseys: Matt Beleskey, Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes
Red Jerseys: Zac Rinaldo, Chris Kelly, Joonas Kemppainen, Tyler Randell
Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller, Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Joe Morrow, Colin Miller, Zach Trotman
Goaltenders: Tuukka Rask, Jonas Gustavsson