Can the Bruins make a deep run this year?
This is actually a pretty good place to stop and explore the question. Schedule-wise, the B’s are pretty much equidistant between the trade deadline and the end of the regular season (they’ve played 12 of their 22 post-deadline games). This is the point of the season where the new guys have had enough time to at least make an impression, while the team has played enough games to show whether or not it’s legitimate.
At this time last season, it was hard to tell. After all, the Chris Kelly trade wasn’t looking too great for the Bruins (he had two points, both assists, through 14 games for Boston by March 23), and the team was in a slide of its own (2-3-3 over the previous eight games). The Bruins looked like they could make a deep run thanks to their superior goaltending, but they’d had superior goaltending in the previous two seasons. As is often the case, Boston fans needed to see it to believe it when it came to the Bruins actually getting past the second round.
Last year, they did see it. They saw what it takes to win a championship, and it’s a lengthy list that includes elite goaltending, a shutdown defensive pairing, offensive depth, some grit, a coach who handled his lineup and scratches impeccably. Last but certainly not least, it took luck. The Bruins needed a big save from Michael Ryder, and they needed Carey Price to misplay the puck. They needed Roberto Luongo to melt down in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals.
Obviously, you can’t measure at this point how good a team’s postseason luck will be. Without sounding like a bad commercial for the NHL, that’s why playoff hockey is better than any other sport’s postseason.
What you can measure is the rest of the picture. The Bruins have the same coach and most of the same roster. They have some injury concerns, but their biggest problem is with consistency. Thursday’s loss to the Sharks dropped them to 18-19-2 since Dec. 31, an extended stretch of mediocrity that followed a dominant showing in November and December. Their play has been better of late, but their inability to string positive performances together is why they are still in a battle for the Northeast Division with the Senators.
On paper, the biggest question mark remains the health of Nathan Horton, as the 26-year-old forward was arguably the Bruins’ most clutch forward last postseason. The most recent update from the Bruins came Tuesday, when Claude Julien said there has been no change in the concussed Horton’s status, meaning he was working out but not yet skating.
With Horton this season, the Bruins were 31-13-2. Without him, they’ve been 11-14-1. That isn’t to say that the B’s can’t win without No. 18. After all, they picked up all four of their victories in the Stanley Cup finals without Horton, though they did so with Rich Peverley, whom the team has been without in recent weeks but is expecting back soon.
If the Bruins can figure it out (and that might be a bigger “if” than initially suspected), and get healthy, they actually should be in good shape come the postseason. After all, after watching last postseason, is there any center you’d rather have in the playoffs than David Krejci? Plus, with the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg pairing reunited, the Bruins should have their shutdown pairing, one that helped them deal with the likes of James van Riemsdyk, Steven Stamkos and the Sedin twins last spring.
If there’s one positive you take from Thursday’s loss to the Sharks, it’s that Tim Thomas was on his game for the third contest (if you can count the Maple Leafs game) in a row. That means that while the Bruins are still looking to figure it out, Thomas may be ahead of them in turning that corner. That’s not a bad thing, as the Bruins’ chances at repeating as Cup champs begin and end with the 37-year-old.
If Thomas is, as he seems to be, getting back to the vintage Tim Thomas who’s capable of taking over games, the Bruins are in business. If not, the Bruins would probably still be able to get past a team like Ottawa in the first round, but the road to the Stanley Cup would be much more of an uphill climb.
Offensively, the Bruins need to get Peverley back, which it seems will happen soon. Horton is much more of a wild card, but Peverley, who has been out since Feb. 15 with a right knee sprain, has been practicing with the team and joined the B’s on their west coast road trip.
Once Peverley’s in the lineup, the B’s will have less than 10 games to try to find lines that work. Jordan Caron has earned a spot in the lineup, and it showed when his removal from Krejci’s line led to a Sharks goal with Krejci, Milan Lucic and Tyler Seguin on the ice. The odd man out could be Brian Rolston or Benoit Pouliot, but the trio of Rolston, Pouliot and Chris Kelly was Boston’s best line against the Sharks. Regardless of who Julien removes from the lineup, he needs to find lines that work quickly. Could Peverley go back to playing with Krejci and Lucic like he has when Horton’s been hurt, or would Julien want to reunite the Pouliot-Kelly-Peverley trio that was going so well for the B’s in late November?
Then there’s the Bruins’ toughness, an advantage they hold over most other teams thanks to the likes of Shawn Thornton, Adam McQuaid, Gregory Campbell and others. The Bruins’ grit is unquestioned, but as much as the hockey world might want to remember the 2011 Cup finals as the Big Bad Bruins manhandling the weaker Canucks (which they did), it wasn't the main reason they won it. For all of the Bruins' grit and the lack of it from the Canucks, Vancouver came a mentally stable goaltender away from winning the Cup despite being tough.
At the end of the day, this is a Bruins team that is capable of going deep in the playoffs again, but there’s something to be said for a squad hitting its stride prior to the postseason. The 2011-12 Bruins season has been full of incredible highs and treacherous lows, but the highs have shown that when the B’s are at their best, nobody can keep up with them. With a healthy roster, the Bruins could once again be unstoppable, but their biggest struggle may be with their ability to tap into their potential on command.