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Bruins' resurgence is among top midseason stories

by John McGourty

"Peter Chiarelli has done a great job bringing people in to do the job and he's really had a goal since Day 1. It's starting to come to fruition right now. We're proving it on the ice."
-- Marc Savard

Boston's first-half numbers are almost as unexpected as they are stunning.

Through the first 41 games, Boston was 30-7-4 for 64 points, one point ahead of the San Jose Sharks in the race for the Presidents' Trophy for best regular-season record. Naturally, they also sat first, by a healthy margin, in the races for the Eastern Conference and Northeast Divisions crowns, as well.

The Bruins led the NHL with 3.58 goals-per-game average, while allowing only 2.17 goals per game. Their 1.65 to 1 goals-per-game ratio in five-on-five situations also led the NHL.

While there are many reasons for the team's success this year, much of the credit has to go to General Manager Peter Chiarelli for developing a master plan that has worked.

Chiarelli has signed five major free agents since taking over the team in July
2006 -- captain Zdeno Chara on defense, first-line center Marc Savard,
second-line right wing Blake Wheeler, second-line left winger Michael Ryder and
rugged fourth-line forward Shawn Thornton. Chiarelli has also traded for goalie
Manny Fernandez, defensemen Dennis Wideman, Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference,
forwards Petteri Nokelaninen and Chuck Kobasew, and centers Martin St. Pierre
and Stephane Yelle during this time.

Chiarelli was hired from the Ottawa Senators following the completion of the 2005-06 season in which the Bruins finished 29-27-16 for 74 points, fifth in the Northeast Division and 26th in the NHL.

The Bruins improved slightly in 2006-07, but Chiarelli wasn't pleased and dismissed his first coach, Dave Lewis, replacing him with Claude Julien, former coach of the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils and a resounding success as a junior coach with Hull.

The Bruins improved more quickly under Julien, going 49-29-12 for 94 points and making the postseason. Just as importantly, the team developed a defense-first, goals-off-transition, hard-forechecking system that has carried them to success this season.

This season, all systems are working at capacity.

Boston is the NHL's third-best team on the power play and 10th-best at penalty killing.

In all situations, though, there is much reliance on their goaltending tandem of holdover Tim Thomas and Fernandez. Only eight teams allowed more shots on net than the Bruins.

Thomas may not have been in Chiarelli's long-term plan; but he has outplayed Andrew Raycroft, Hannu Toivonen, Joey MacDonald and Tuukka Rask the past three years while also shutting the door on the aspirations of young goalies Brian Finley, Jordan Sigalet and Philippe Sauve.

Thomas and Fernandez, who struggled with injuries last year in his first Boston season, have teamed to be the NHL's best goalie tandem. In the first half, Fernandez was 14-3-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average, second in the NHL, and a .928 save percentage, fifth-best. Thomas was 16-4-3 with a 2.13 GAA, fourth-best, and a .932 save percentage, third-best.

The Bruins have also supplemented their renaissance through the Entry Draft.

Right winger Phil Kessel, the team's first pick in 2006, had 24 goals to rank fourth in NHL scoring. Right winger Milan Lucic was the team's third pick in 2006. Matt Lashoff and Vladimir Sobotka, the first and fifth picks in 2005, have done well in reserve roles this season. Second-line center David Krejci, a first-round pick in 2004, was tied for 13th in NHL scoring with 43 points from 15 goals and 28 assists. Matt Hunwick, the Bruins' sixth-round pick in 2004, led all NHL rookie defenseman with a plus-14 rating and was second in rookie defenseman scoring with 12 assists and 15 points.

Big defenseman Mark Stuart, the first pick in 2003, was plus-9 in his second full season. The second pick in 2003, Patrice Bergeron, was off to a brilliant start to his career before suffering the first of his two concussions last season. He was hurt again last month and his return date is uncertain.

Savard and Kessel have meshed brilliantly on the first line while Krejci, Ryder and Wheeler formed the NHL's best line in December. Ryder led the NHL with seven game-winning goals while Wheeler led all NHL rookies with a plus-25 rating and was tied for the NHL rookie lead with 13 goals when the first half drew to a close earlier this week.

Savard, a fourth-round pick of the New York Rangers in 1995, is having the best season of his 11-year career. In his third Bruins' season, Savard had 14 goals and 38 assists for 52 points and was a League-leading plus-28. Kessel, his linemate, added 16 assists for 40 points.

"Marc's playing good two-way hockey which you can see because he's up there as the plus-minus leader," Kessel said. "He's still putting up points, right up there with the leaders. He's playing really well this year.

"I think we're getting a pretty good feel for each other on the ice. We've been playing together for most of the year. We just have to keep it going."

Savard is equally enthused about playing with Kessel.

"Phil's got that great shot and every great scorer I've played with -- whether it's Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk, Glenn Murray -- they've all got that release and he's no different," Savard said. "He's got that speed that not too many guys have. I've played with a lot of fast guys, but he's one of the quickest ones. I'm able to hit him in stride and he's got that snap. We're trying to get more down low and that's a little bit where we'd like to work to. A lot of it comes off the rush, but that's the way it's been working out so far."

Savard has seen the light under Julien's direction. He has long been a force as an NHL assist specialist but his defensive work was criticized in the past. Not now. Savard was minus-74 entering the season.

"We're all having a great season because we're all working hard and we're all trying to achieve the same goal," Savard said. "I've been here for three years now and it's been amazing how we've come along and taken such huge steps. But we know what we've been doing to get there. We've been working hard and the coach has put in a system and we've really taken off since then and it's been a whole team affair ever since.

"Peter Chiarelli has done a great job bringing people in to do the job and he's really had a goal since Day 1. It's starting to come to fruition right now. We're proving it on the ice."

Only Thomas, Axelsson and Bergeron played for the Bruins before the work stoppage and 17 current players have less than two full seasons with the Bruins.
Boston is also returning to its previous incarnations, re-introducing a physical element as a foundation of the team's play.

At the halfway point, Lucic led the NHL with 154 hits. He tied for 14th with 84 penalty minutes and Thornton had 81. Chara is the strongest player in the NHL. While he rarely fights, it takes only mild encouragement and a little push from him to clear space in front of his net. Ward and Ference are quick to stand up for teammates and Shane Hnidy is in the lineup against teams that scrap.
"It's always about the small picture, because the small picture is not as scary as the big picture." -- Claude Julien
Julien's role in all of this can't be underestimated. He installed a hard forecheck, executed by well-conditioned athletes, that tires opponents. Boston leads the NHL in coming back from first-period deficits. They were also the best team in the NHL after surrendering the game's first goal and fifth-best when scoring first.

"The plan is to be good defensively and create offense," Savard said. "You always have the respect for defense in your head and you always want to get back on every play and clog up the neutral zone. It's pretty simple, but (Julien) works on it, day in and day out, and that's why we're pretty good at it."

In the end, Julien says the turnaround this season, and the vast improvement since he took control, can be an attention to details and hard work.

"It's always about the small picture, because the small picture is not as scary as the big picture," Julien said. "When you take care of the small details, the bigger things take care of themselves."

The big things are taking care of themselves.
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