What we have here, one quarter of the way into the NHL season, is a Bruins team that has drastically outperformed expectations. The question now becomes, can they keep it going for another 61 games, and then a couple of months of grueling, often torturous, Stanley Cup play?
For that answer, please see this space when the playoffs begin at the start of May, albeit with this one caveat: This is the same space that in September had the Bruins slotting in again as a No. 7-8 wild-card contender. Which is why spiked eggnog is a holiday staple in your faithful puck chronicler’s hydration care kit.
Through the first 21 games, including Friday’s 3-2 win over the Hurricanes, the Bruins have scored more than anyone, including their new bench boss, figured possible — both in terms of goals and roster depth and breadth. They also own the league’s widest positive goal differential (plus-38).
Linus Ullmark, now in his eighth season and still with fewer than 200 NHL games on his résumé, has shimmied his way among the league’s tiny group of elite backstops (a group that can change year to year). Up until his injury on Friday, Ullmark, 29, had looked every bit the franchise netminder that the Sabres, who selected him as the 17th goalie in the 2012 draft, believed they were cultivating before he bolted to Boston as a free agent in July 2021.
A year ago, a vocal group of fans and media deemed Ullmark a grandiose waste of money, tossing him high on the heap of what they defined as the front office’s profound faux pas. Now he’s front and center in the Vezina Trophy conversation.
Worth noting that the Bruins in 2012 used their first-round pick (No. 24) on Malcolm Subban, the second goalie taken in that draft. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the top tender taken that year, five stops ahead of Subban.
Hand up, please, if you’d like a touch or two of that eggnog.
Hampus Lindholm, the Bruins’ leading scorer (4-14–18) on the back end for the first quarter, has produced far beyond his curriculum vitae. The big, smooth-skating Swede never popped for more than 34 points in his nearly nine seasons with the Ducks. Now he’s tracking upward of 70 points and, at age 28, looks like he could be the David Krejci to Charlie McAvoy’s Patrice Bergeron on the back end for the remainder of this decade.
Rick Nash was 33 when he arrived in Boston as the key get at the 2018 trade deadline, just as Lindholm was the top dog at the trade deadline when general manager Don Sweeney landed him last March. The move for Nash quickly went south when he sustained what he felt was the last bad knock his brain, and well-being, could risk.
Nonetheless, Sweeney and team president Cam Neely should be accorded due credit for connecting on bold swings. Both were costly deals, typically the case when acquiring game-changing talent. No risk, no reward. If/when bad things happen to good trades (see: Joe Juneau for Al Iafrate, March 1994), the unforeseen downside can be the unfortunate cost of doing business.
Of those three big gets (Iafrate, Nash, and now Lindholm), the most recent has the makings of the greatest success. Just as no one had the equal of a Ray Bourque-Iafrate defense duo in ‘94 (and a tiny bit later), no one in today’s Original 32 can pony up a Lindholm-McAvoy combo, and thus far, coach Jim Montgomery most nights has chosen not to pair them. Keep in mind: Future circumstances could dictate otherwise.
As for up front, the agents of change have not been as significant or unexpected as Ullmark and Lindholm. Yes, Jake DeBrusk again has some zip and pop in his game, and Nick Foligno, after a year spent framing a case to be bought out, survived a brief trip to the October waiver wire and is providing near par value on that two-year, $7.6 million free agent deal he signed in July 2021.
Rather than outsized individual performances, though, the greatest difference up front has been the Montgomery method, perhaps best summed up by pace and positioning across the four lines. Montgomery preached pace on Day One — standard practice in today’s bench bossing — but he delivered the message with an underlying demand for positioning and anticipation.
To oversimplify, Montgomery has the forwards in perpetual skate-and-shoot mode, and of at least equal importance, the defensemen are eager to do the same. The forwards have to be alert, and quick to cover for those blue-liner forays.
This approach does not exactly make the Bruins the early-1980s Oilers reincarnate. Those teams never will be replicated (see the fine print of the salary cap for verification). But there is no denying this a more mobile, synchronized offense than what we saw under Bruce Cassidy, or perhaps any coach since Harry Sinden inherited the gifts of Bobby Orr, John Bucyk, Pit Martin et al in the fall of 1966. Even then, it took Milt Schmidt’s acquisition of Phil Esposito the following spring for all that Big Bad Bruins magic to begin.
“It’s much different,” said Montgomery, asked earlier this month to compare his perception of the team he inherited over the summer to the one he’s come to know on the ice. “I think we’re really good and I didn’t know we were this good. Like, I’ve come here, the D corps is better, the goalies are better, the forwards are better. We have depth at every position.”
Following his summation during a stop in Buffalo, the Bruins that night improved to 13-2-0. As of Friday night, they had won five of their next six for a league-best 18-3-0. Pace, scoring breadth, and consistency have been the trademark.
Per Montgomery, he has felt “blessed” to take command of “the roster Don Sweeney built.” In turn, he’s helped it deliver at a pace that as of Friday morning was tracking toward 141 points, a quantum leap over the franchise record of 121 (57-14-7) set in the 78-game season of 1970-71.
“I can roll out Bergeron’s line, offensively or defensively, to close out games,” said Montgomery, noting just one aspect of the good fortune he assumed over the summer. “And I can roll out Hampus Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy.”
A quarter of the way into a new season and the embarrassment of riches is piled high — almost matching the embarrassment of those among us who never saw this start coming.
Young Devils have found stride
The Bruins owned a blistering .857 points percentage after Friday’s win, then saw New Jersey tag a 3-1 loss on Buffalo, increasing the Devils’ mark to .810. No one has turned it around as dramatically as the 17-4-0 Devils, who awoke Saturday only 2 points behind the Bruins in the overall standings.
“People are asking, ‘Are you guys going to be buyers at the deadline?’ ” said their GM, ex-Bruin Tom Fitzgerald, who was at the Garden for Friday’s matinee. “I mean, come one, settle down, there’s a long way to go.”
What’s happening in Newark is no fluke. No one has about-faced like the Devils, who earned only 46 wins over the last two seasons. They have found their stride, and it’s decidedly up-tempo. Lindy Ruff, much like Jim Montgomery with the Bruins, has his club buzzing, led by three young scorers, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes.
Among the many keys to the reversal: Fitzgerald’s acquisition of ex-Capital Vitek Vanecek to be the anchor in net. Vanecek has delivered (9-2-0), perhaps beyond expectations, and now has a rookie partner, Swiss-born Akira Schmid (4-0-0), matching him nearly save for save. A far cry from last season, when Schmid was among a chorus line of seven goalies who failed miserably.
“Last year, I hated the game,” said the blunt Fitzgerald, who began his executive career in the Penguins front office. “Easy goals going through arms. We had a game against Chicago, we’re up, 3-0, and then it’s tied, it ends up 8-7. I’m like, ‘Come on, this is bizarre.’ Just give me average goaltending. That’s all, just average. We didn’t have it.”
By late last season, the thinning crowd at the Prudential Center was chanting, “Fire Lindy.” Now they’re yelling, “Sorry, Lindy!”
Page 1 of the GM’s Official Guide & Handbook reads, “When in doubt, sack the coach.” Fitzgerald skipped over that page and kept to his blueprint.
“Yeah, it can be hard, but I don’t listen to anybody,” said Fitzgerald, 54, who grew up in Billerica and played two seasons at Providence College. “I had a pretty good feel of where our team was, why I brought [Ruff] in. I didn’t bring him in to win a Stanley Cup. I brought him in to develop young talent to get to play to their highest potential, offensively. And he’s doing it.”
Exhibit A: center Yegor Sharangovich, the 141st pick in the 2018 draft, who had played two seasons at AHL Binghamton prior to Ruff’s arrival.
“You look at [Ruff’s] first year, didn’t know if Sharangovich was even going to play in the NHL,” noted Fitzgerald. “Look how he came along. Look what he did with [Dawson] Mercer last year, what he did with Jack and Nicoand [Bratt]. They’ve just taken off.”
By Fitzgerald’s eye, much of that is because of the pace of play Ruff has demanded, along with the 62-year-old coach’s contemporary communication skills.
“He’s just off the charts with that,” noted Fitzgerald. “He cares. He gets young people. He’s got kids who are the same age as our guys. He knows, they don’t answer the phone, you have to text them, and he’s fine with that. They love it.”
In the middle of extolling Ruff’s virtues, Fitzgerald again bounced back to the netminding of last season.
“How do you evaluate your team properly when you have the worst [expletive] goaltending in the league?” he mused, “and you go through seven goalies. How do you evaluate that? But status quo wasn’t happening. We weren’t going through that again.”
The Devils now, said Fitzgerald, are “competitive, committed, and connected” throughout the organization. He kids, too, that he’s picked up a “drive-through business degree at Harvard,” reshaping a hockey team more into a streamlined corporate entity, one in which he has five department heads reporting to him directly.
“I’ve got a guy, a British guy,” said an animated Fitzgerald, referring to Angus Mugford, his senior vice president of player development and performance. “He’s awesome. He’s more than just [his title]. He’s a culture builder, he’s into process. I’m lucky.”
A PhD and mental performance specialist, Mugford worked for years with the Toronto Blue Jays and landed in Newark via a executive search company.
“When his name crossed my desk,” said Fitzgerald, “I was like, ‘This guy’s going to make me better.’ We are not old school.”
The Bruins face the new-age, vastly improved Devils twice next month, Dec. 23 and 28, in Newark. What in October might have looked like a pair of ho-hum matchups between clubs likely to be scrapping to keep a .500 pace in the East, now looks like a potential preview for an Eastern Conference finals.
Grand moment for Bergeron
Prior to faceoff against the visiting the Blue Jackets on Dec. 17, the Bruins will honor Patrice Bergeron for recording his 1,000th career point, a secondary assist on Brad Marchand’s goal last Monday in Tampa Bay.
In the moment, with Marchand’s shot tucked behind goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bergeron couldn’t be certain his name would be on the goal, despite a jubilant Marchand instantly partying like it was 1999.
“I wasn’t sure, but when I saw Brad’s reaction I thought, ‘I must have one, I guess,’ " recalled Bergeron. “I remembered I passed to him on the entry, and then it bounced around, but I wasn’t sure. There was no turning back, I guess. Kind of hard to take it away with the whole team on the ice.”
Ceremonies to commemorate such events are fine and proper, but nothing can come close to witnessing an entire bench empty to celebrate spontaneously. It was a truly touching, endearing moment in team history.
Bergeron, 37, became the 94th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 points. What is likely to set him apart from the vast majority of those to hit 1,000 is the presumption that, upon his retirement, every point next to Bergeron’s name will have been recorded with one franchise. Ray Bourque, John Bucyk, and Phil Esposito, his three predecessors to garner 1,000-plus in Black and Gold, all spent time with other NHL clubs.
Of the 93 other 1,000-point scorers, only 18 started and finished their careers with one team. Bergeron, who Tuesday night is expected to suit up for regular-season game No. 1,238, also is among a half-dozen active players, including good pal Sidney Crosby, who’ve hit the mark while still employed with the club that drafted them.
Bowman’s methods coming in handy
For all his success this season, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery, 53, has been a bench boss for but 135 NHL games. Which is to say he has a long way to catch the dean of NHL coaches, Scotty Bowman, who called it a day in Detroit after a 2,141-game tour of duty.
Montgomery was a kid in Montreal when Bowman directed the Canadiens through four of their Stanley Cup titles, 1976-79. Some of Bowman’s ways, especially a willingness to change line combinations and defense pairings during a game, rubbed off on the eager-to-learn Montgomery.
Decades later, Montgomery and Bowman connect with each other occasionally, as recently as a couple of weeks ago.
“I had the privilege to meet him at a young age and ask him a lot of questions,” noted Montgomery after a recent practice. “I was [age] 6-10 when they won four in a row, so it had a big impact on me.”
One summer, while watching video of those great Habs teams in the playoffs, Montgomery was struck by one power-play sequence where Bowman had star defenseman Serge Savard at the net front, another stellar D-man, Guy Lapointe, in the middle [as a forward], and Larry Robinson at the customary point position.
“So I called [Bowman] up and just asked him why he did it,” recalled Montgomery. “And he said, ‘They weren’t paying the price.’ And those are three elite defensemen. So thinking outside the box like that is beneficial, because we can do it ourselves.”
One example, noted Montgomery, his opting to roll out a power-play unit comprised of five forwards. Another is using three forwards and one defenseman in four-on-four situations.
Montgomery was 8 years old when he first met Bowman. His uncle ran a hockey school and Bowman attended as a guest speaker.
As for changing his lines and defense pairings, Montgomery freely acknowledges that he “learned it from” Bowman.
“He did it more to keep people on their toes. I go more for the purpose of rewarding players.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.