Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2011

Bruins Prove Themselves Roadworthy

At some point in every NHL season, each team must face the rigors of the long road trip. It’s ten days to two weeks away from the comforts of home ice. It’s airplanes to and buses through distant cities, away from family and friends. It’s hotel rooms and cramped visitor’s locker rooms, and, of course, jeering crowds who want nothing so much as to see the traveling skaters go down to defeat.

The long road trip forces team members into almost 24-hour contact with one another. If there is a simmering rivalry or dissension in the locker room, the road trip will almost certainly exacerbate it. If the trip happens to start badly, things can quickly spiral out of control until the team is trapped in the throes of an extended losing streak.

If, on the other hand, the trip is reasonably successful, the enforced time together can cement bonds of camaraderie. A series of road wins can help a team forge an identity as a force to be reckoned with against any opponent, on any sheet of ice.

For this particular Boston Bruins team, the schedule called for the long road trip in the second half of February. Starting out at a nearby opponent on the East Coast, the team eventually traveled across the continent, playing six successive games on hostile rinks. They left Boston Garden in first place in their division. By the time they returned ten days later, that lead had widened, thanks to a dominant road trip in which Boston won all six games, outscoring their opponents by a total of eleven goals. The Bruins had met the challenge of the long road trip, in the process proving beyond question that they were among the NHL elite.

It was February, 1972. The Bruins, led by future Hall of Famers Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and with Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston sharing goaltending duties, were on their way to winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years. They opened that extended road trip with a victory over Philadelphia before heading west. They stopped off in the Midwest where they defeated Minnesota and Chicago, the two teams that would finish the season atop the Western Division. They then proceeded to the Pacific coast, where they defeated Vancouver, California, and Los Angeles. Those Bruins were an offensive powerhouse, averaging five goals per game on that trip and outscoring their opponents 30 to 19.

That six-game trip came toward the end of a stretch of 26 games, exactly one-third of the regular season schedule at that time, in which the Bruins were all but unbeatable. Between a loss at St. Louis on January 8th, and a home loss to Los Angeles nearly two months later on March 5th, the Bruins’ record was 21-1-4. In that span their road mark of 11-1-1 was nearly as good as their home record of 10-0-3. When the calendar finally turned to April and the playoffs began, the Bruins rolled over Toronto and St. Louis in the first two rounds, and then bested the New York Rangers 4 games to 2 in the finals to claim the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup.

Almost forty years later, that Cup remains the Bruins’ most recent; and those six games remained the team’s longest undefeated road trip in all of that time. That was until Tuesday. Tuesday the 2010-2011 Bruins closed out a trip of equal length, at virtually the same time in the schedule, with a sixth straight win.

Not even the most ardent Boston fans will confuse this season’s team with its predecessor from four decades ago. There are no obvious future Hall of Famers skating in black and gold sweaters this year; and as successful as it was, the just-concluded trip was decidedly not the exclamation point on a two-month long statement of supremacy. The Bruins came out of the All-Star break skating well enough, winning three out of four; including a victory over Northeast Division rival Montreal. But they lost both ends of a home-and-home against Western Conference power Detroit; and then inexcusably dropped their next game against a woeful Toronto team.

With three losses in a row, the Bruins limped out of town two weeks ago, clinging to a two-point lead in the division. As was the case in 1972, their first stop was relatively nearby. After scoring a total of just six goals in the three previous defeats, the Bruins matched that number at their first stop on Long Island. Six different skaters found the net in the 6-3 victory over New York. From there, still paralleling the trip of the Stanley Cup winners, it was on to the Midwest. In Ottawa, for the second straight game they doubled up their opponent, beating the Senators 4-2.

This year’s Bruins may not be able to match the firepower of that earlier squad, but they are perhaps the top defensive team in the NHL. As they moved on to the West Coast for three games before finishing the trip with a return engagement in Ottawa, that strength was evident. They held Calgary and Western Conference leader Vancouver to a single goal each, beat Edmonton 3-2, and then wrapped up a perfect thirteen days by shutting out the Senators 1-0. In scoring 20 goals in six games, these Bruins fell 10 short of the production of the 1972 team. But they matched the earlier team’s 11-goal differential for the trip by allowing their opponents to find the net a mere 9 times.

If six consecutive road wins was the obvious best Bruins’ news of the past two weeks, the performance of goaltender Tuukka Rask ranks a close second. With Tim Thomas having a renaissance year, Rask has been relegated to a backup role. He’s seen half as much playing time as Thomas. When he’s been in the net Rask certainly hasn’t been bad. But with Thomas leading the NHL in both save percentage and goals against average, Rask’s decent season has seemed inadequate by comparison. He’s also been the frequent victim of poor support from his teammates, both in front of him on defense and in scoring against the opposition. As a result at the start of the trip, Rask’s season record was 5-11-1.

But head coach Claude Julien put Rask in the net for four of the six games, and the 23-year old from Finland made the most of the opportunity. In winning four times Rask posted a 1.75 goals against average and a .942 saves percentage, numbers that would easily lead the league if matched for a season.

The winning streak enabled Boston to pull away a bit from Montreal in the Division, where their lead is now six points. It also allowed them to move up within the Conference standings, which will determine seeding for the playoffs. As play begins tonight, the Philadelphia Flyers with 86 points are the only Eastern Conference team ahead of the Bruins, who have 81. Only Vancouver and Detroit in the West have more points, leaving Boston 4th overall in a 30 team league.

Bruins’ players have been saying for some time now that they want to prove to their fans that this team really is one of the elite squads in the NHL. There are still doubters, which is understandable. Thirty-nine years without a Cup is going to create some doubts. And the intriguing parallels of two February road trips aside, this season’s team is not the reincarnation of the 1971-72 Bruins. But neither is any other team in the NHL this year, or for that matter in most years. Which means that down on Causeway Street, long-suffering hope is starting to turn into belief.

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