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Commitment to defense, consistency key for Bruins

by Dan Rosen /

The improved two-way play of center Marc Savard has been key for the Bruins, who have been without top forward Patrice Bergeron since late October.
When hockey pundits discuss the Boston Bruins this season, the conversations quickly turn to concussions. Everyone plays doctor as they give opinions of what concussed center Patrice Bergeron should do, when he could return, etc., etc.

While these conversations are warranted and somewhat interesting for the debates they spark, we have two questions to ask in regards to them:

Has everyone gone blind to what actually is transpiring on the ice in Beantown? Have they all not realized just how far this Bruins team has come this season even without Bergeron, their talented 22-year-old center, who has been out since Oct. 27?

The Bruins are returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since their remarkable 104-point season in 2003-04, and they don’t even have a single 30-goal or 80-point scorer.

Nevertheless, Boston still won 41 games to earn the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round date with the Montreal Canadiens.

One of the key reasons for the Bruins’ stark turnaround from the last two seasons, in which they finished 13th in the Eastern Conference in both, has been the defensive focus instilled by first-year coach Claude Julien.

It has been most evident in the two-way play of first-line center Marc Savard, who is expected to return for the playoffs from a back injury that kept him out of the final seven games of the regular season.

Savard has been one of the League’s best assist men since 2005, but was knocked for his lack of concentration and attention to detail on the other side of the red line. Julien changed all that, and Savard went from minus-19 a season ago to a plus-3 rating this season.

He didn’t lose anything on the offensive end either. Savard, one of three Bruins to play in the 2008 All-Star Game (along with Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas), finished with 63 assists and 78 points in 74 games.

“I bought in right away at the beginning of the season,” said Savard, who was a career minus-77 in nine previous NHL seasons. “Being a leader on the team, it has helped everyone else realize this is what we have to do to win hockey games.”

Thomas has been a gem as well, finding his game after an up-and-down 2006-07 that saw him win 30 of his 66 games, but post a 3.13 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. This season, he has cut his GAA by more than half a goal per game, while his save percentage went up about 15 points.

Thomas also has been fresher this season as a result of having Alex Auld as a capable backup.

“You can never get comfortable or relax in this game,” Thomas said. “If you don’t work harder than everybody else during the summer, there will be a young kid that will beat you out.”

Julien’s focus on defense also was a boom for Marco Sturm. He was the Bruins’ leading goal scorer this season, but also has seen a major turnaround in his plus-minus rating, going from minus -24 last season to plus-12 entering the final weekend of this season.

Another key to the Bruins clinching their playoff berth was the impressive late season play of 21-year-old David Krejci.

When Savard went down, Julien slotted Krejci between Glen Murray and Sturm on the Bruins’ top line, and Krejci responded with three straight multi-point games in helping the B’s to a pair of wins over Toronto and a 4-0 drubbing of Ottawa. His play earned mention as the NHL’s Third Star of the Week.

Glen Metropolit, who came to training camp unsigned, turned into a find as Boston’s checking-line center. P.J. Axelsson continued to earn his reputation as one of the League’s best checking forwards. Rookie winger Milan Lucic had a positive development year. Chuck Kobasew also put together a fine season before going down with a fractured left tibia March 25.

On the back end, Dennis Wideman turned into a reliable defense partner for Chara, the B’s No. 1 blue-liner who had his best offensive season. Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward, Shane Hnidy and Mark Stuart all were reliable and even provided some offensive pop at the end of the season.

As a result, the Bruins remained consistent throughout the season. December was their only sub-.500 month (6-8-2). Their longest losing streak was six in a row, from Dec. 18-29. They also won six straight, from Feb. 19-March 1.

However, other than that it was an impressive string of consistent play thanks to their newfound focus on defense, instilled by Julien.

Just imagine if Bergeron were healthy, too.

Wait – then what would everyone talk about?

“He’s such a big part of our team and I wish he was with us right now, but when you get a big guy going down like that, it’s a whole team effort to pick it up,” Metropolit said of Bergeron. “I think everyone’s game really picked up.”

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