The Bruins aren't just a good possession team right now; they're one of the best in the NHL. (Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports)

Bruins' strong puck possession provides reason for optimism

Scott McLaughlin
November 20, 2016 - 1:21 pm

To state the obvious, the Bruins totally dominated Winnipeg Saturday night. They won 4-1 and outshot the Jets 38-12, including an astounding 29-5 margin at 5-on-5. It was the fewest shots on goal allowed by the Bruins since 2001.

The B’s won’t have too many more games like that because, well, no one has too many games like that. But their complete command of the game presents an opportunity to look at the fact that strong puck possession in general is not a one-off occurrence for this year’s team.

These Bruins have been not just a good possession team, but one of the best in the NHL. They currently rank second in the NHL in Corsi at 53.81 percent, trailing only the Blues, with Saturday’s effort moving them just ahead of the perennial Corsi Kings from LA. That’s a pretty significant turnaround from last season when they were 17th at 49.55 percent.

The biggest improvement has come on defense, where the B’s have lowered their shots on goal allowed per game from 30.4 last year to 27.2 this season (even before Saturday’s 12-shot suffocation, they were at a stellar 28.1), putting them fifth in the NHL in that category.

Zdeno Chara and rookie Brandon Carlo have given the Bruins a legitimate top pairing that handles the toughest assignments every game. Torey Krug has recovered nicely after a slow start, improving his defensive-zone play while continuing to help create offensive chances. John-Michael Liles has been a sturdy anchor on the third pairing, Adam McQuaid has been fine since his return, and youngsters Colin Miller and Joe Morrow have looked like players deserving of regular playing time.

One of the biggest changes on defense has been a shift toward more aggressive play and closing quicker on the puck-carrier.

"We’ve become a little bit more aggressive and we have, I think the people, good skaters, that can close quicker, and I think those kind of tweaks have really paid off in our game," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "The pace of our game, as I mentioned at the beginning of the year, it’s not about having a bunch of good guys that skate at 100 miles an hour, it’s about having a bunch of guys that can play at a quicker pace and our guys have done just that fairly well."

Then there’s the forward group, which has struggled to score at times this season (not Saturday night obviously), but has created chances and helped with the defensive turnaround. While the Bruins’ 2.44 goals per game this season are still well behind last year’s 2.88 pace (which put them fifth in the league), they’re still getting their shots on goal -- right now they’re third in the NHL with 32.5 per game, up slightly from last year’s 32. In terms of 5-on-5 shot attempts, they’ve jumped from 55.84 per 60 minutes to 60.54.

So the problem isn’t getting chances; it’s finishing them. The Bruins currently have the sixth-lowest shooting percentage in the NHL at 7.52 percent. Some of that is just bad look, as evidenced by a number of Bruins having shooting percentages well below their career marks, including Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug, David Krejci and Jimmy Hayes, who still has zero goals despite putting 29 shots on net.

But some of it is also within the Bruins’ control, and Saturday night gave us a good example to use. The Bruins dominated the first period in terms of possession, but didn’t create too many grade-A chances and didn’t score. They continued to dominate in the second period, but they started getting to the net more and creating more dangerous chances, and wound up scoring three goals in the period as a result.

"We had to do a better job around the net area and we responded well in the second and got rewarded for it," Julien said after Saturday’s game. "So sometimes you got to get your nose dirty and plug away and you saw we had two, even three players sometimes in front of that net, jamming away at pucks. This league is a tough league and sometimes it can’t always be highlight goals, they have to be ones you have to grind out."

One other thing worth noting when it comes to the Bruins’ offense is that Bergeron’s line is getting more offensive zone starts than previous years. Since 2007, when these stats started being tracked, Bergeron has never had a season with an offensive zone start percentage over 49 percent. This year he’s at 61.5 percent, the highest mark on the team.

That, perhaps more than anything else, tells you just how much faith Julien has in his depth players. In previous years, Bergeron’s line was often the top scoring line while also serving as the line that got the toughest defensive assignments, in part because, 1) the Bruins didn’t have other lines that were all that good in their own end, 2) their defense needed all the help it could get, and 3) Bergeron and Brad Marchand are so good that they can handle the dual responsibility.

Bergeron and Marchand are still facing opponents’ top lines every night, but now they’re doing it with more favorable zone starts, which should free them up a little bit. Julien is able to do this because, circling back to that whole being-a-really-good-possession-team thing, the Bruins as a team aren’t spending as much time in their own zone. They have defensemen who are winning the puck back and getting it up ice and something of a defensive zone specialist in their bottom six in Dominic Moore, who has proven himself capable of handling lots of d-zone shifts without making a lot of mistakes throughout his career.

"I think we’ve got some other lines that have been much better in our own end, and you can ... when I say trust, feel confident, you can put them out there and they’re doing the job," Julien said when asked about Bergeron’s usage. "So it’s a combination of a couple things here and that’s just part of, to me, that’s coaching and you adjust to what you have and what they do."

Strong possession numbers are generally a good predictor of future success, especially if you’re also getting good goaltending, which the Bruins certainly are. So when you combine the Bruins’ possession, Tuukka Rask’s excellent play and the room for improvement in terms of finishing chances, there’s reason to believe this Bruins team is better than most of us thought going into the season, and will be better than their current eighth-place standing in the Eastern Conference.

All stats courtesy of corsica.hockey, hockey-reference.com and NHL.com.

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