The Bruins begin January as one of the best teams in the NHL, but the path to June is thorny and twisted.
So far, they should be prideful of their record (24-7-10), their 9-point lead on the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division, and the fact that they’re one of three teams (Capitals, Blues) to snatch points in more than 70 percent of their games. They have proven good enough to beat most opponents with a less-than-perfect game, but have relied on timely saves and power-play weaponry to win a bunch of games. We have yet to see extended stretches of the every-man-in hockey that nearly took them all the way last year.
Taking stock of the Bruins after Game 41 by doling out some first-half superlatives:
Brad Marchand wasn’t an All-Star, because even the teams that are tanking get a rep. So we’ll cast our ballot for the brilliant, edgy winger, who sits 20-39—59 at the break. Only Bobby Orr (five times) and Adam Oates (twice) have had 80-assist seasons in Boston. We could see a third.
Like Marchand, David Pastrnak could flirt with 120 points unless he cools significantly. He leads the league in goals (29) halfway through. The only Bruin to score 60 is Phil Esposito, who did it four times in five years (1970-75). If we’re aiming lower, Pastrnak (29-30—59) could be the sixth Bruin to score 50 (last: Cam Neely in 1993-94).
Patrice Bergeron missed nine games and has still put up a 17-18—35 line, has had four multiple-goal games, and was the NHL’s pick (over Marchand) for the Bruins in the “Last Man In” All-Star vote. He could hit the 80-point mark for the first time if he stays healthy.
The two-headed goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask (All-Star) and Jaroslav Halak (All-Star Backup). Not sure Bruins fans appreciate how good they’ve been.
The Bruins are still looking for a right-side triggerman for David Krejci. Maybe it’s Charlie Coyle, with a third-line center arriving via trade (more likely) or I-95 (less likely). Maybe it’s Karson Kuhlman or Zach Senyshyn, both sidelined for much of the first half. Maybe Danton Heinen, a healthy scratch to end 2019, puts it together.
We can know that neither David Backes nor Brett Ritchie is the answer. The trade deadline (Feb. 24) won’t be a time to stand pat.
He has plenty of room to grow, but Anders Bjork has finally established himself as an NHL winger after shoulder injuries wrecked his first two pro seasons. Ideally, general manager Don Sweeney would find that missing piece higher in the order, and a Bjork-Coyle-Heinen line would find its rhythm.
The Bruins’ middle six, in general. There are flashes of speed and finish on the wings, some puck possession and playmaking in the middle, but it’s too often missing on most nights. Coach Bruce Cassidy uses his first and fourth lines for the most important situations of the game. He’s constantly shuffling chairs in the middle of the lineup.
The fourth line lost one of its rotating cast members in Noel Acciari, who put up a stunning 13 first-half goals in Florida. That would rank him fourth on the Bruins. But the physical element he brings also has been missing, with Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom dealing with first-half injuries.
Iron man award
Zdeno Chara is 42, plays 20-22 minutes most nights, and is top-30 among heavy-use defensemen in on-ice goals against (21). The only game he missed in the first half was because of jaw surgery. They’ll need even more from him in the coming weeks, with Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy, and Connor Clifton on the shelf.
Quietest major story line
Since training camp, Krug hasn’t said much about his contract status. The Bruins remain interested in a long-term extension, and will not deal him at the deadline, barring a shift in thinking. Jake DeBrusk, Bjork, Matt Grzelcyk — all RFAs-to-be — will have their hands out come June, but we’ve yet to hear much of substance.
Worst matchup I
Though they certainly can hang with the Capitals — going 1-1-1 so far, including a 7-3 win — the Bruins don’t look like they’ll be up for slugging it out with them in a seven-game series. Can they outskate and out-skill them? Better hope Tom Wilson reverts to his old line-crossing ways.
Worst matchup II
The only team to beat Boston twice in the first half was Colorado, which scored four goals each on Rask and Halak and allowed a total of three (five, if you count the pair taken off the board Oct. 10).
Tempted to say Wilson — ideally, he’d DOPS himself out of Game 1 — but it has to be the league’s offside reviews. Fire that rule into the sun.
Best home cooking
The Bruins lost just once at home in the first half (14-1-8), taking points from 22 of 23 games. The latter figure is critical. They were at home for 56 percent of the first half, so they’ll do the reverse from here. Their playoff push will be particularly taxing: 14 of the final 23 on the road, including trips to Western Canada and California.
The Bruins were 0 for 6 in shootouts in the first half, the most feeble mark in the league. Their top six forwards were a combined 1 for 15 on attempts. I dunno. You tell me.
Gotta hand it to Rask, who gave Buffalo’s Evan Rodrigues nightmares with his palm.
Kevan Miller’s comeback is on hold, his twice-broken kneecap keeping him off skates after a brief early-fall return. Tough guy. Tough run for him.
Rask has calmed down over the years. Halak is still raging.
On Nov. 4, after hometown boy John Marino (North Easton) scored a late-period goal for the Penguins, the netminder let his stick feel his wrath.
Punting the Canadiens around their own building, 8-1, on Nov. 26. Not too often you win by a touchdown in Montreal.
Most heartwarming moment
Three-year-old cancer fighter “The Mighty Quinn” Waters dropped a ceremonial first puck on Hockey Fights Cancer night at TD Garden, and his Weymouth homie Coyle scored a goal for him.
Losing Bruins fan Pete Frates at age 34 to ALS. As fierce a fighter as there was. As terrible a disease as there is.
Most forgetful fan
From the police notes of my hometown Gloucester Daily Times: A Gloucester man reported to police that his Bruins sweatshirt — “to which he attached immense sentimental value” — was stolen while he was working out at the local YMCA. An hour later, he called back to report that he’d been wearing the sweatshirt the whole time, under his vest, and didn’t remember putting it on.
Let’s all strive to make 2020 an unforgettable year.