Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 27, 2011

Bruins’ Fans May Not Be Dreaming

As the NHL breaks for its annual All-Star Weekend, long-suffering fans in the Hub of Hockey are daring to hope that this season their team may at long last be a serious Stanley Cup contender once again. After a 2-1 victory over Florida on Wednesday night, the Boston Bruins head into the break in first place in the Northeast Division, four points ahead of arch-rival Montreal. If it were the playoffs on tap for this weekend rather than the All-Star game, Boston would be assured of home ice for at least the first round.

To say that Bruins’ fans have waited a long time for success doesn’t begin to capture the reality of their time in the wilderness. With eight teams from each conference going to the Stanley Cup playoffs, winning one’s division isn’t a requirement for success. Prior to their amazing run to the Finals last year, the Philadelphia Flyers were the third place team in the Atlantic Division during the regular season. Still, division winners get home ice advantage for the first round, and potentially longer depending on how the playoffs go. If the Bruins are still in first place at the end of the season, it will be just their fourth division title in the last 18 years.

As much as divisional success has been hard to come by, a run deep into the playoffs has been even scarcer. It’s been more than two decades since Boston skated in the Finals; and as their fans know all too well, it’s been nearly 40 years since anyone wearing black and gold last hoisted the Stanley Cup. With Chicago winning the championship last season, that drought is now the second longest interlude between championships of any of the Original Six members of the NHL. Of the legacy franchises, only the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose last championship was in 1967, have gone longer between Cup victories.

This season the Bruins got off to a strong start, winning seven of their first nine games. For that they largely had goalie Tim Thomas to thank. Coming off a year in which he was hurt and ineffectual down the stretch, a healthy and rejuvenated Thomas has played like a man determined to show he is still one of the top netminders in the league.

But as good as Thomas has been all season, no team is going to win without scoring some goals. Through November and December the Bruins repeatedly went through streaks where they seemed incapable of putting the puck in the net. In each of those months they went through a five game stretch where they won but once, while averaging just 1.8 goals per game in the November slide, and only 1.6 during the pre-Christmas losing streak.

Those streaks had them looking up at Montreal in the division standings, and barely on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs as one of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. It was an especially tough time for head coach Claude Julien, who heard both fans and sportswriters calling for his firing. Whether it was in response to those boo birds or to a wake-up call in the form of a lukewarm endorsement from team president Cam Neely, Julien suddenly became decidedly more creative. Lines were shifted and rearranged with regularity, and the team took on a more up-tempo offensive style.

In 18 games since the end of that December losing streak, the results have been startling. The Bruins are 11-4-3 in that stretch, and 7-3 in their last ten games. A big reason for the improved record is that they’ve tallied six or more goals five times in those 18 games, as compared to just one such offensive outburst in the season’s first 32 contests. The even better news is that they’ve stepped up in the offensive zone without sacrificing anything on defense. Boston goes into the All-Star break having surrendered 112 goals, the lowest total in the NHL.

Five weeks after the talk in Boston was about the need to fire Claude Julien, now the debate is whether the Bruins are one of the NHL’s elite teams. The results since mid-December show how silly the first discussion was. The fact that the Bruins haven’t really won anything yet makes the current chatter equally foolish. An 82 game season inevitably has some ebbs and flows. After the festivities down in Raleigh this weekend, the Bruins play four of their next five games against teams likely headed for the playoffs. Then at the end of February, they play seven of eight on the road, including a long six-game trip out west. On that trip aside from the Western Conference leading Vancouver Canucks the opposition doesn’t appear to be particularly formidable; but it will still be a lengthy stretch without the benefit of home cooking.

After that road trip there will still be more than five weeks left in the regular season. But how they fare through the tough schedule immediately after play resumes and then during an extended period away from home ice should give fans a pretty good idea of just who these B’s are. The woeful underachievers of November and early December, or the balanced and winning squad they’ve been of late? Elite is certainly not a label that they’ve earned as yet. But one important statistic has their fans dreaming of a Cup. Thanks to their recent offensive surge, Boston goes into the break with a goals for versus goals against differential of +40. Only two teams in the NHL, Philadelphia and Vancouver, have better differentials (both +44). Philadelphia is number one in the Eastern Conference, and Vancouver leads the West. It’s been a very, very, very long wait in Boston. No one should begrudge them if fans in the Hub choose to dream a little.

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