BOSTON (CBS) —- Chris Kelly’s return on Tuesday against the Florida Panthers provided the Bruins the final piece of their puzzle.
The Bruins were finally completely healthy up front and able to put together their four lines the way they wanted when the season opened, with the exception of Reilly Smith and Loui Eriksson swapping spots on the right-winger depth chart.
Even when injuries knocked Eriksson and Kelly out for an extended period, and a suspension cost Shawn Thornton 15 games, Bruins coach Claude Julien had the luxury of keeping at least two of his lines together for an extended period. Once Thornton came back, that number increased to three.
If you’re looking for reasons why in the face of several injuries the Bruins still have a solid hold on the Atlantic Division lead and are second in the Eastern Conference with just a handful of games remaining before the Olympic break, stability in line combinations that have produced at a scorching clip has to be near the top of the list.
“We feel, especially this year, that we have enough players that can give us at least three really good scoring lines and it’s just a matter of them producing,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said before his team disposed of the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon. “Our fourth line has been together for quite a long time but it doesn’t mean they are necessarily playing together on a nightly basis. I think up front we have been pretty fortunate.”
Those fortunes start with line of David Krejci center Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla. That trio has been together from the first day of training camp and has given the Bruins a talented scoring line with one thing that it lacked in the days of Nathan Horton: consistency. Even when there aren’t goals on the board, Krejci’s line is a constant threat and has had few nights when it didn’t at least make the opposition work to keep it off the score sheet. Krejci leads the team in scoring with 46 points in 54 games, while Iginla and Lucic are third and fourth, respectively on the chart.
Next on the Bruins’ depth chart is Patrice Bergeron’s line, which has benefited from Smith’s breakout season. Smith, Bergeron and Brad Marchand have played together since Eriksson’s second concussion knocked him out of the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 7. There are many ways to divide up Marchand’s uneven season, but it’s not a coincidence that 12 of Marchand’s 17 goals (one fewer than Smith for the team lead) have come in the 25 games since Marchand, Bergeron and Smith got together and stayed together.
Bergeron and Marchand recently saw their six-game point streaks end, while Smith had a seven-game streak snapped. The trio has cooled off a bit the past two games, but all three players have had chances to start another streak.
Obviously, the Bruins’ organizational depth helped stem the tide during their rash of injuries. It’s also helped that they’re getting more offense from their defensemen and receiving a contribution from their power play for the first time in years. Carl Soderberg and Daniel Paille’s versatility has helped as well.
Line juggling can be an effective tool when a team’s slumping. However, most players worth keeping on a consistent line will tell you that familiarity breeds success. Players have to produce together, though, to stick together.
When the Bruins were at their thinnest, Julien was able to count on Krejci and Bergeron’s lines to carry the load. Without having to shuffle the lineup, the Bruins were able to stay calm and continue to accumulate standings points. Now they’re whole, up front, and in a great position in the standings.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.