NEWARK, N.J. — If this NHL season were a swimming race, the Bruins were expected to tread water in the first few months, stick with the pack, and finish with a furious second-half kick.
They woke up Thursday at 28-4-3. They have been Michael Phelps in his prime.
“When you take care of the process, the results follow,” Patrice Bergeron said after Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Devils at the Prudential Center. “For me, it’s all about process and details. That’s who we are. That’s our identity.
“More often than not, if you do the right things, you get the results. Guys are really putting the emphasis on that. As I’ve said many times, there’s no ego. Everyone’s contributing.”
Entering the new year, the Bruins have remained clear of their closest competition in the standings.
Since losing to the Bruins in overtime on Black Friday, the Hurricanes are 13-0-1. They were 7 points back of the Bruins on Thursday morning.
The Maple Leafs are 18-3-4 since Halloween, including a win over the Bruins. They were 9 points back.
Everyone else in the East might be losing hope of earning the top playoff seed. As 2023 dawns, the back half of the conference is a good race.
After two losses to the Bruins Christmas week, the Devils were 13 points behind them. New Jersey sat in second place in the Metropolitan Division, with 4 points separating five teams.
The Devils (46 points) were 2 clear of the Penguins and Capitals, 3 ahead of the Rangers, and 4 up on the Islanders.
The Atlantic Division wasn’t as close. The third-place Lightning (43 points) had a sizable gap on the Red Wings (37), with the Sabres and Panthers (34) in great danger of missing the playoffs.
The Bruins can play well under .500 hockey and still get to 100 points. They are on pace to go 66-9-7 and earn 139 points, which would smash the league records for wins (62) and points (132).
Or: the best regular season in the NHL’s modern era, by a good amount.
That would also match the 2007-08 Celtics (66-16), who might agree that these Bruins have a similar Ubuntu.
Living in the moment
The Boston media, having talked with him extensively in training camp about his future, have mostly left Bergeron alone on the subject since. He was probed by a New Jersey reporter after Wednesday’s game.
The 37-year-old captain had just scored the winner with 4:09 left, executing a chest-high redirect that left coach Jim Montgomery in awe, and did some extra work in the gym.
You’re playing some of the best hockey of your career, he was told. Why is there talk of you retiring?
Bergeron repeated his standard answers.
“I don’t know. It’s a good question,” he said. “At some point, you do this for such a long time, you have to take a step back. That’s what I did this past summer. Now I’m just focusing on this year and trying to help my team as best as possible.”
How much longer does he want to play?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m taking it a day at a time. I’m not focused on that right now. As I said, this is a special group and you want to enjoy the moment.
“That’s something I say to the guys a lot: As you get older, you want to soak everything in and be in the moment. That’s one thing I’m trying to teach the young guys, to not wait too long for that.”
The supporting cast is keeping Bergeron fresh. The Bruins’ depth has let Montgomery spread out the minutes, even in tight games.
In the New Jersey rematch, their second road game in two nights, everyone was under 20 minutes except Hampus Lindholm (22:24).
Bergeron has played north of 20 minutes just six times in 35 games.
“I guess it’s been a little bit of a challenge because the games have been tight,” Montgomery said of managing Bergeron’s usage. “When the games are tight, you tend to rely on him a lot more than when you have a little bit of a comfortable lead.
“But he’s really smart about how he manages his own ice time. He never overextends himself. He never puts himself in situations where he’s going to get overtaxed.”
Penguins are sliding
The Penguins fell flat Wednesday against the Red Wings, blowing a four-goal lead in a 5-4 overtime loss at home. Mike Sullivan’s group has lost four of five (1-2-2) after winning 14 of 18 (14-2-2). They face the Devils at home Friday before traveling to Boston for the Winter Classic Monday afternoon … David Pastrnak, leading the league in shot attempts (322) and shots on goal (175), put one on net Wednesday. The last time Pastrnak recorded zero SOG was Dec. 14, 2021. It has happened 28 times in his 545-game regular-season career. He was tied for fourth in goals (24) entering Thursday … The Bruins went 6-1-0 without Brad Marchand before his Oct. 27 debut, and 11-2-0 without Charlie McAvoy (Nov. 10) … Eight Bruins — Bergeron, Pastrnak, Lindholm, Taylor Hall, Charlie Coyle, Nick Foligno, Pavel Zacha, and Connor Clifton — have played in every game … Bruce Cassidy’s Golden Knights (50 points) remain tops in the West. They are 9 points behind the Bruins.