BOSTON (CBS) — There are no nights off for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Each and every night, 82 times from October through April, the defending champs know that in the opposing locker room, the coach is telling his players that they have a chance to beat the best there is in the entire league. As a result, the Bruins never got anything less than a complete, 60-minute effort from their opponents (maybe a few games with Toronto can be excluded).
The dynamic is interesting in that as the defending champions serve as other team’s measuring stick, it becomes a test in and of itself for the champs. Some teams fold under the pressure, and others rise to it. And after clinching the No. 2 seed in the East with a win over the top-seeded Rangers on Sunday night, it’s evident that the Bruins have answered the bell in a big way.
“It was a nice way to do it, actually,” head coach Claude Julien said of the team’s clinching victory, as noted by BostonBruins.com. “It was a heavy game and, you know, for once we got some breaks and instead of the other way around.”
Julien’s explanation for how his team overcame a bad break early on that put them in a deficit could be applied to the entire season.
“Our guys stuck with it,” he said.
Indeed, the road to the No. 2 seed wasn’t always pretty, and it was at times downright ugly. They started 1-3 and would finish the month of October with just a 3-7-0 record, capped off with consecutive losses to Montreal in a home-and-home. The words “Stanley,” “Cup” and “hangover” started finding themselves in dozens of headlines in the Boston media as the calendar turned toward November, but the Bruins, still having much of that championship roster intact, simply stuck with it.
“I believe in this team,” captain Zdeno Chara told NHL.com after the second loss to Montreal in three days. “I know what we have. I know we are in a deep hole, but if anybody can get out of it, it’s this team.”
“When we all get on the same page and start trusting each other, that’s when things will get better,” Julien said that same night.
He was correct, and things got better rather quickly. A 10-game winning streak was stopped briefly only for a shootout loss, before four more wins were rattled off. From Nov. 1 until Dec. 30, the Bruins went 21-2-1, outscoring opponents 97-38 and stating their case as the best team in hockey.
Julien’s comments after that win on Dec. 28 were a bit of a harbinger of things to come.
“Confidence grows with each game … however, we know there will be challenges ahead, so we have to guard against overconfidence,” he said.
Whether it was overconfidence, fatigue, or again, simply the burden that comes with being the defending champs, the next three months were difficult for the Bruins. They essentially played .500 hockey and went from mid-January to early March without winning back-to-back games, leading to a stretch of six losses in eight games. A less experienced team with players who didn’t believe in their system, their coach or each other may have let such a stretch submarine their season, but again, the Bruins stuck with it.
After Sunday’s win, the Bruins have now won nine of their last 11 games and earned at least a point in 10 of those 11. And they’ve done it the same way they won the Cup last June — as a team.
The Bruins have scored 259 goals, second in the entire NHL only to the Penguins. They’ve allowed 193, good enough for second in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the NHL. Not surprisingly, those figures have the Bruins with a plus-66 goal differential, which is far and away the best in the NHL (the Penguins are next with a plus-54, and no other team tops plus-48).
Just as unsurprisingly, the Bruins own that distinction without a single player in the top 10 in scoring. Or top 20. Or even top 30. Tyler Seguin’s 27 goals and 38 assists give him 65 points — good enough for 31st-best in the NHL. Alternate captain Patrice Bergeron’s 61 points tied him for 42nd in the league, and David Krejci, with 59 points, is the only other Bruin in the top 50 in points.
Where the Bruins do dominate the league statistically is a perfect indication of Julien’s system and the goaltending of Tim Thomas and, until recently, Tuukka Rask. That plus-66 goal differential as a team shakes out to the top six players in the entire NHL in plus-minus being members of the Bruins, with Bergeron leading the way at plus-36 (Bergeron also leads the league in faceoff percentage, winning 59.5 percent of his 1,601 draws).
And, because these are after all the Big, Bad, Bruins, you’ll note that they rank second in the NHL with 59 fighting majors, including Shawn Thornton’s 19, which tie him for the league lead with Brandon Prust. (Hockeyfights.com gives Thornton a 12-4-3 record, compared to Prust’s 10-7-2 mark.)
Put it all together, and you’ve got a complete, balanced team. The roster boasts six players with 20 or more goals and another four players with more than 10. By comparison, the conference-leading Rangers and Canucks each have just three players with 20 or more goals.
You’ve also got a team that’s coming together and getting hot just in time for another playoff run.
The No. 2 seed is a fine accomplishment for a very good hockey team, but everyone is aware that a division title is far from the team’s ultimate goal for the season. It’s impossible to guess how far into the playoffs they will make it, but it’s safe to guess based on the past seven months of evidence that when they find themselves face-to-face with adversity, the Bruins are just going to stick with it.