Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 4, 2011

The Bruins Are Playing Like The Champions They Are

While it has officially been returned to its permanent home at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, the Stanley Cup is till nominally possessed by the Boston Bruins, who won it last June for the first time in nearly forty years. So it was that on Saturday the Cup was in Hampton, New Hampshire, accompanied by several former Bruins. The Cup outshone Santa as the most popular participant in the town’s Christmas parade, and then was on display at the fire station as part of a local fundraising effort. Hundreds of Bruins fans gladly contributed for the chance to have their pictures taken next to the symbol of hockey excellence.

A few hours later down at the TD Garden the Bruins skated past the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1; thus starting December off just the way they played throughout the month of November. A lethargic start to Boston’s season, when they won only three of their first ten games and at one point were dead last in the NHL’s Eastern Conference has long since been forgotten. By capturing 25 of a possible 26 points in November with a record of 12-0-1 the Bruins rocketed back up the standings. Along the way they served notice on the rest of the NHL that they intend to do everything they can to keep the Stanley Cup touring around New England for another year.

It’s been more than four decades since the Bruins went through an entire month on the calendar without a single loss in regulation. The team that went 9-0-4 in January 1969 was at the beginning of the era of the “Big Bad Bruins.” Bobby Orr was in his prime and Phil Esposito was the first man to score 100 points in a season. Those Bruins would win the Stanley Cup twice, in 1970 on the night Bobby Orr flew, and again in 1972.

When the current Bruins beat Vancouver 4-0 in Game 7 of last season’s Stanley Cup Finals their fans were understandably ecstatic; but few if any were comparing this team to the heroes of old. Resurgent goalie Tim Thomas did most of the heavy lifting to win the championship. Thomas won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender for his regular season play; then was perfect in two Game Seven’s, shutting out Tampa Bay at home in the Eastern Conference Finals, and then Vancouver on the road to claim the Cup. In the seven games of the Finals Thomas allowed a total of just eight goals.

But on offense the 2010-2011 Bruins sometimes came up short. Their 246 goals scored, exactly 3 per regular season game, put them right in the middle of the sixteen playoff teams. Their plus-51 goal differential, while impressive, was decidedly more about the defense’s ability to keep opponents from scoring than about the ability of Bruins skaters to find the net. As for the power play, the team went through long stretches of utter futility with the man advantage.

This year’s Bruins team is largely unchanged from the squad that got a victory parade through the streets of Boston little more than five months ago. Through the first third of the current season, the defense is picking up right where it left off. Boston is allowing just 2.13 goals per game, an average even stingier than last year. Although he’s 37, Tim Thomas is still a force in the net; and this season backup Tuukka Rask has been nearly as solid as Thomas. But given the lack of off-season roster moves it’s the team’s vast improvement with the puck on their own sticks that has been most surprising. Last season’s 3 goals per game scoring average has jumped to 3.54, which just happens to be the highest average in the league. Through 24 games Boston is sporting a gaudy goal differential of plus-34. Keep that up for 82 games and the differential at season’s end would be plus-116. It’s been half a decade since any NHL team outscored their opponents by more than 100 goals over the course of a season.

Of course, fans do know that while these Bruins have now gone 14 games without a regulation loss, they really aren’t going to win them all. Over the course of 82 games there are bound to be off nights and slumps; and a key injury can change the trajectory of a season in an instant. And while the memory has happily faded, a glance at the season’s results does force one to recall that 3-7 start in October.

But for Bruins fans this is a season unlike any in nearly forty years; for this is a season in which their team is the defending champion. No team has successfully defended since Detroit doubled up in 1997 and 1998; and the twelve championships since then have been won by ten different franchises. This is the age of parity in the NHL. Dynasties like Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers, or the Broad Street Bullies, or assorted editions of Les Habitants, or the Big Bad Bruins, seem consigned to history. But after a November to remember the defending champions have their fans starting to think that those history books may be due for a new chapter.

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