Patrice Bergeron is one of the best players in the NHL. The Bruins' power play has been aces all season (25.9 efficiency rate, No. 2 overall).
These facts are related.
The Bruins are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break. Their situation could be far more uncomfortable without the banner work of their alternate captain.
Through 49 games, the No. 1 center is delivering a season worthy of Hart Trophy consideration. He has 19 goals and 25 assists for a team-high 44 points. He is on pace for a career-high 74 points. Considering his job definition and the difficulty of scoring in the NHL, it would be a terrific achievement. Bergeron and Brad Marchand are among the league's best 200-foot tandems.
During five-on-five play, when he goes up against the toughest players every game, Bergeron is a horse. He is clicking at a 54.8 percent Corsi For percentage, indicating the Bruins are possessing the puck and attempting shots at a higher pace than the competition when he is on the ice.
Bergeron's production spikes even more on the man advantage. He is the bumper on the No. 1 power-play unit, responsible for simultaneously playing the roles of quarterback and safety valve. Bergeron is the group's most important component. He has 20 man-up points, third-most in the league after Patrick Kane (25) and Evgeni Malkin (21).
Bergeron's reward for his 49-game dossier of excellence is a trip to Nashville for the All-Star Game. But it's more of a punishment. The organization would be better served depositing Bergeron beachside for the weekend to help keep low-power mode from becoming a second-half possibility. Bergeron is averaging a career-high 20:04 of ice time per game.
Barring injury, Bergeron's production and that of the power play are sustainable for the rest of the season. He does not take nights off. That's a good thing for the Bruins. They'd be in trouble if either takes a downturn.
Bergeron, the power play, and the last two months of Tuukka Rask's goaltending have been good enough to overcome the team's blights: unreliability at right wing, an invisible third line, and a defense under construction. Whether coach Claude Julien and general manager Don Sweeney can address these shortcomings will dictate the Bruins' destination after 82 games: the postseason or the golf course.
Julien has never questioned the play of Bergeron and Marchand, outside of the latter's three-game suspension. But the coach has had a nightly fit trying to wedge a productive wing onto Bergeron's right flank.
Brett Connolly has been the best option. That's not saying much.
To the eye, Connolly is doing the right things: keeping pace with his linemates, making strong plays on the walls, rotating to serve as the third man high, and getting to the front of the net. Connolly's numbers, however, are not first-line quality: seven goals, nine assists, three healthy scratches.
Connolly has had company. Aside from Loui Eriksson, who's also played the left side, the Bruins don't have a dependable right wing. Whenever he scores, Jimmy Hayes (11-11—22) goes missing for the next five games. David Pastrnak (5-4—9) is fighting through injury trouble and a downturn in confidence. Landon Ferraro and Tyler Randell are what they are: fourth-liners or healthy scratches.
Julien has become so desperate for top-six presence that he's played Ryan Spooner out of position. The natural center has played well at both left and right wing. He's still creative on the flanks. Playing alongside Bergeron or David Krejci papers over Spooner's defensive shortcomings. Spooner, once a power-play specialist early in the season, has grown into a dangerous five-on-five player.
But shifting Spooner into a top-six position causes the third line to crater. Joonas Kemppainen (1-2—3) is a fourth-line center. When Spooner has moved up, so has Kemppainen. It's probably not a coincidence that the third line has not done much with Kemppainen in the middle.
Matt Beleskey has been a good left wing next to Krejci and Spooner. But in the stretches when he's skated with Kemppainen and Pastrnak on the third line, Beleskey's usually rambunctious game has gone down in volume.
When Beleskey's played a top-six role, Julien has had a good idea of what he'll bring. Beleskey's been one of the Bruins' six reliable forwards, along with Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, Eriksson, and Spooner. That has not been the case when Beleskey and Kemppainen are together on the No. 3 line.
Around the league, third lines are difference-making units. In the East, Washington's Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, and Tom Wilson set the standard. On Tuesday, the Bruins didn't enjoy playing against Anaheim's Patrick Maroon, Rickard Rakell, and Corey Perry, which is among the better No. 3 groups in the West.
Sweeney's hope is that Pastrnak (who was assigned to Providence to play in Friday's game against Springfield) will find traction in the second half. If the 19-year-old can be dependable defensively and dangerous offensively, Spooner can go down to stabilize the third line. Otherwise, Sweeney's priority will be to target right-wing help, especially if the Bruins believe they are best served trading Eriksson instead of re-signing the pending unrestricted free agent.
Sweeney's other deficiency is on the blue line. It's not as pressing to find a Band-Aid solution there. The defense has stabilized after a rotten start. Colin Miller and Joe Morrow are in a game-to-game fight to stay out of the press box. Adam McQuaid has missed 11 games because of a concussion. The addition of a young top-four defenseman is more realistic during the summer than before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
The Bruins are not an elite team. But in the East, only Washington deserves such classification. With improvements, the Bruins can rip off a run.