Toronto and Boston both won on Saturday in their respective last games before the Christmas break.
That positioned the Leafs two points ahead of the Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, but the Leafs have also played three additional games. And the way things are going for Boston right now, with only two regulation losses in 11 games in December, maybe we have to accept something that seemed a little unrealistic at the start of the season: This Bruins team might be pretty damn good.
That might be a bit difficult to accept for a lot of reasons. On paper, their defense is pretty underwhelming even if it has a few bright spots. On paper, their forward group has like five guys who look to be difference-makers (even if you rightly believe that first line is among the best in hockey). On paper, Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin might not seem like anything resembling a great goaltending tandem any more.
And on paper, when they started out 6-7-4 due largely to a raft of injuries to important players, you would have been well within your rights to take a pass on the Bruins’ playoff chances. They’re 12-3-1 since that time, though, and while that has obviously required some serious luck (their PDO is 102.7 in that time, fourth-highest in the league) they’ve been very good foundationally as well. Their possession numbers over the last 16 games rank fifth in the NHL. Their numbers have, in fact, been very good all season — they were also fourth in possession over their first 17 games, but had a 98.6 PDO, so that’s hockey.
It’s hard to overstate how important that top line is, though. Injuries and other issues forced Bruce Cassidy — who by the way has now coached the Bruins for 61 games and has 80 points and some really good underlying numbers since he took over behind the bench — to separate the incredible trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak for a good chunk of the season, and while those guys were all still good apart, together they’ve been dynamite.
How about this: The Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line has now played almost 200 minutes together at 5-on-5 and haven’t been on the ice for a goal against. They’ve also scored 10 times, which isn’t a huge number given the TOI, but it’s at least respectable, and the result of an on-ice shooting percentage of just 8.1. Maybe you’d expect a higher that standard they’ve been a little lucky this season.
But even when those guys — with their 60-plus Corsi, shot, and expected-goal shares — are off the ice, the Bruins are still very good (though that obviously ignores the fact that they were being sprinkled throughout the lineup earlier in the year). But let’s take, for instance, David Backes, who might be out for quite a while still, and looked Very Done last year and early in this season as well. Despite looking like he was going to be a huge drag on the Bruins all year, his underlying numbers are elite just about any way you want to look at them. And that’s with the majority of his minutes being played with the basically no-name duo of mediocre veteran Riley Nash and promising-but-not-highly-touted rookie Danton Heinen. When you can get anyone to get David Backes’s underlying numbers to look respectable, there’s something good going on. When they’re all north of 55? That’s incredible.
A lot of the credit has to go to Cassidy: He was handed the keys to a franchise with too many older, broken-down, overpaid players and too many guys on ELCs. There were elite contributors throughout the lineup, but seemingly not enough to get things turned around. Not only does he have the Bruins playing at a roughly 108-point pace since he took over, but every number is great at 5-on-5; third in xGF and goals, first in Corsi, and all with a manageable PDO. And this season, both the power play and penalty kill are better than league average as well.
But so too must we credit a lot of the lower-pair contributors. Heinen has 22 points in 30 games thanks in large part to an unsustainable shooting percentage, but his underlyings are phenomenal as well. Frank Vatrano is having another good season. Anders Bjork was good until he wasn’t. Jake DeBrusk has been pretty good as well. And obviously the crown jewel in the Bruins’ stable of youngsters is Charlie McAvoy, whose performance has been above and beyond anything anyone had any right to expect this season. He has 19 points, which is a good total for any defenseman (tied for 26th in the league), but his performance at 5-on-5 is Chara-in-his-prime good in terms of the underlying numbers.
Obviously McAvoy doesn’t have the all-encompassing presence his pairing partner once did and to some extent still does, but he’s making everyone he’s on the ice with look better to an extent that no one could have anticipated, no matter how high on him they might have been. If this kid, playing his first full season of pro hockey, as a teenager, getting No. 1, tough-assignment minutes, hits 40ish points this year and has possession of 55ish percent at year’s end, then it’s as easy a Calder decision as we’ve had in recent years.
And Chara is still playing very good hockey, by the way. So is Torey Krug (despite the occasional grumble from locals in Boston). These were the three guys the Bruins needed to have going all year to be competitive, and they’re all doing it. But here’s how well things are going for the Bruins right now: Kevan Miller is having a dynamite season with positive relative numbers at 5-on-5 pretty much across the board.
If the D can keep this up — i.e. if McAvoy can avoid hitting the wall Brandon Carlo did last season — then there’s no reason to think the Bruins will slow down.
While they probably were never as bad as they were to start the year, they also aren’t as good as they’ve been in recent weeks. But the middle ground there is, of course, what puts them comfortably in contention for the second playoff spot in the division, and given both the way things have gone and the quality of the team in first, that feels just about right.
Kinda surprising, but hey, here we are.
What We Learned
Chicago Blackhawks: One wonders if this team has any post-Christmas shakeup plans. They’ve been playing very well lately but lost their last two games by a combined scored of 8-1 and still not in a playoff spot.
Play of the Weekend
Good lord, Jonathan Huberdeau.
Gold Star Award
Matt Barzal might be the guy that keeps Charlie McAvoy from winning the Calder, but I won’t accept that! Especially because, from what I understand, the Bruins could have drafted Barzal but, from what I understand, didn’t.
Minus of the Weekend
Zac Rinaldo is still in the league, huh?
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “King in Glory” is getting creative.
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)