BOSTON (CBS) – Regardless of your opinion on the legality of Milan Lucic’s bone-rattling check of Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller Saturday night – and I know finding a Bruins fan would give it a thumbs down would be harder than finding a John Lackey fan in Boston – there’s one undeniable truth about play from the Bruins’ dramatic fifth straight win.
That is, the resurgent Bruins are not only emerging as the dominant force in the Northeast Division. Like almost every successful Bruins team since the inception of the franchise, these black-and-gold-clad skaters plan to bully their way to the top as much as they’re going to pass and shoot their way there.
The Bruins’ five-game winning streak has included convincing wins over division rivals from Buffalo, Ottawa and Toronto by a combined score of 18-5. Even with their recent hot spurt, the Bruins are still fourth in the division with 16 points. But they hold at least one game in hand on the three teams ahead of them, including two games in hand on the first-place Maple Leafs, who have 21 points.
Boston is 4-2-0 against divisional foes, with both losses coming at the hands of hated Montreal. The Bruins, who get another shot at Montreal Nov. 21, two nights before their rematch with the Sabres, are clearly not the same team that dropped back-to-back games to the Canadiens two weeks ago.
The Bruins are now second in the NHL in 5-on-5 goal differential, third in overall goals for, eighth in overall goals against, eighth in penalty kill and, be still my heart, they’re up to 13th on their power play. It wasn’t that long ago that just cracking the top half of the league in man-advantage success rate seemed as unlikely as Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta ever dropping the gloves with any member of the Bruins, senior-aged alumni and front-office personnel included (Johnny Bucyk would drop him in a second).
They’re clicking on all cylinders since those losses to the Habs, and don’t look now but Tyler Seguin is within four points and one goal of Phil Kessel for the league lead in those departments. That will just add even more intrigue as the Bruins battle the Leafs for the top spot in the division. To envision the Leafs actually having a shot to hold off the Bruins is to believe that goaltender James Reimer will be able to return from his shrouded-in-mystery injury and that there’s enough secondary scoring to carry Toronto for more than just a month of the season.
If you’re picturing Montreal on top of the division, you think Andrei Markov is finally going to swoop in like Superman to save the day for a team that has always lacked back-end depth and just doesn’t have the size and consistency up front needed to win a division.
Ottawa’s proven to be a pretender now that its schedule has gotten tougher. The young Senators will be a threat to win the Northeast Division crown – in 2014. For now, the Sens are the type of team that can catch you taking them lightly. However, they’re headed toward another veteran-player selloff come February and the trade deadline.
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The biggest threat to the Bruins’ claim to the division title coming into this season – Buffalo – still is the only real rival Boston has for that crown. And we saw how that played out Saturday. Sure, Ryan Miller might get healthy and find his game. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Robyn Regehr and Jason Pominville are a solid core. And Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff, Buffalo’s two multi-million-dollar imports from the summer, might start playing like more than just the two biggest busts in recent free-agent history. Until those two turn their seasons around, Tyler Myers finds some semblance of his rookie-year form and the Sabres can consistently find the structure that’s made them successful the last couple seasons, they’re going to be just another team that spent like the apocalypse was coming and found out there are no lemon laws in the NHL.
We’re only a little more than a month into the Bruins’ season, and the historically slow start (for a defending Stanley Cup champion) isn’t that too far back in the rearview mirror. Nonetheless, the last couple weeks have proven that while finishing atop the East and making a long postseason might be a longshot for these Bruins, plowing their way into the division title should be the equivalent of bowling over an opposing goaltender playing the puck.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com. He operatesTheBruinsBlog.net and also contributes coverage to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on twitter @TheBruinsBlog.