The Bruins have little issue with how they’ve been playing lately.
Consider their most recent showing, Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Montreal. They took control of that game, built a lead, and never let up. They were at least one step ahead the entire night: fast and furious in their attitude, sharp and skillful in their execution.
“That was us,” coach Bruce Cassidy said after Friday’s practice.
There is not much doubt in their game. They have owned the top spot in the NHL standings since Feb. 5, and have not been lower than fifth since the opening weeks of the season (you know, once the standings started to mean anything). The Atlantic Division has been theirs since Oct. 29, when the pretenders from Buffalo faded after their annual sprint out of the gate (you knew that was coming).
The Bruins started 20-3-6, their division lead swelling to 15 points by the first week of December, and they kept banking points with OT and shootout losses during a pre-and-post-holiday lull. Refreshed after the All-Star bye break and energized by new arrivals from Providence, they are outscoring their opponents, 21-8, in the last six games.
If Wednesday is an indication, David Pastrnak is hotter than Miami in August. Brad Marchand is flat-out embarrassing defensemen (tough night, Jeff Petry). Tuukka Rask is a wall. To quote the guy ahead of you in line at Dunkin’, they’ve played some awesome hockey.
So what’s this business about losing to Detroit? That can’t continue, can it?
The Bruins, who host the Red Wings on Saturday (12:30 p.m.), already have punted away 4 seemingly straightforward points to Detroit. Even though the two previous meetings were road games, and Sunday’s 3-1 loss came on a back-to-back with travel, it was befuddling for the 80-point Bruins (now 82) to lose to the 30-point Red Wings (now 32). Detroit is bad, rightfully content to collect lottery Ping-Pong balls in lieu of victories. First-year general manager Steve Yzerman’s club is on track for the fewest points in a season since the expansion Thrashers 20 years ago. Even someone wearing white Nike skates and a Fedorov jersey in a pickup game would admit the Bruins are twice as good.
Cassidy, puck pragmatist, pointed to Sunday’s loss as an example of NHL parity, noting that the gap between teams isn’t that large after all. Center Charlie Coyle recalled how goalie Jonathan Bernier, who has been otherworldly of late, stole the show. Any number of Bruins forwards could talk about the plays they flubbed.
That’s why it happened. Here’s why it can’t happen again.
We don’t know if the Maple Leafs will ever show up, or if the Panthers are for real, but there is little doubt that the Lightning have arrived.
The Bolts (81 points) are 1 point behind the Bruins (82) in the Atlantic Division and for first place overall. They have three more wins (38) and an equal number of regulation wins (31).
They are 21-2-1 in their last 24 games, have won nine in a row, and began the aforementioned run with a 10-gamer. They are also 11-2-1 on the road in that stretch. When they beat the Oilers on Thursday, they were missing captain Steven Stamkos (for the third game in a row), sniper Nikita Kucherov, and two-way gem Anthony Cirelli (Patrice Bergeron lite). No worries.
The Bruins haven’t been watching their games, per se, but they are aware.
“Definitely not focusing on what they do,” David Pastrnak said. “They’re a great team with unbelievable players, but we worry about ourselves. We just need to keep playing our way. It’s no surprise to me that they’re right there. We play them two more times, and those will be big games.”
That’s March 3 in Tampa, and March 7 in Boston. Those who placed bets last summer that these teams would meet in May: You just might collect.
Cassidy said the pressure of a real divisional race, rather than a blowout, could help keep everyone sharp entering the playoffs. If given the choice, however . . .
“I think it’s always good to have some level of competition,” he said. “On March 20-something, I’d like to have a 10-point lead. I think it’d be awesome, simply because it means we’ve played well and you have the luxury of setting up your lineup before the playoffs start. Does that guarantee success? Absolutely not. We saw that with Tampa last year.
“Things tend to balance out. We figured we’d be a good team, pushing for first place, and here we are. Tampa’s right where I thought they’d be.
If the Bruins are who we think they could be, they can’t keep giving away points. The standings are too tight. Missed layups aren’t a problem until they start to add up.
“We’ve kind of struggled against them,” Coyle said of Detroit. “They had a hot goalie last time, and we played decent, but there’s things we can do better. We need to make sure we bring it, because we owe these guys.”