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Friday, December 1, 2023

How the Bruins have surpassed expectations to lead the NHL again

The Boston Bruins were ripe for a letdown. Everything fell into place for them last season, when they won an NHL-record 65 games. (The playoffs were a different story, of course.)

The retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci left the Bruins with huge holes down the middle of their lineup. Boston also lost key role players Tyler Bertuzzi, Taylor Hall and Dmitry Orlov.

And yet, despite all the changes, the Bruins are back on top of the NHL standings at 13-1-3. How have they done it?

First and foremost, Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have picked up where they left off last season. After Bruins goaltenders saved an extra 31 goals in 2022-23, they once again lead the league with 16.9 goals saved above expected. Swayman has outplayed his Vezina Trophy-winning partner, saving 10.1 goals above expected — the second-best mark in the league behind Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko (12.4).

“It’s the singular reason why we have the record we have,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery told reporters last week. “It’s because of our goaltenders.”

Ullmark and Swayman have had to be sharp, because the Bruins’ play in front of them has slipped. Boston has allowed 3.12 expected goals per game with Swayman in net, compared to 2.21 per game last season. Ullmark has seen an average of 2.96 XG per game, up from 2.3 per game a year ago.

Montgomery has singled out the Bruins’ rush defence. They have allowed 7.12 rush scoring chances per game, 27th in the league.

“It’s more of a work in progress than it was last year,” Montgomery told reporters. “But we had centres (Bergeron, a six-time Selke Trophy winner, and Krejci) who had played a combined 35 years in the league last year. … We were expecting (a drop-off).”

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Bruins was whether Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle could handle the responsibility that comes with being a top-six centre. Both have been solid in their roles. Zacha has stepped in for Bergeron on the top line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, and together, they have controlled 56.8 per cent of expected goals. Boston has outscored opponents 9-3 at 5-on-5 with that line on the ice.

Coyle, who has spent the majority of his ice time with James van Riemsdyk and Trent Frederic, has been one of the better two-way forwards in the league. His 7.49 defensive plays per 20 minutes at 5-on-5 rank 13th out of 376 forwards with at least 100 minutes played. (That include pass blocks, shot blocks, stick checks and body checks.)

Not everything has changed in Boston. Pastrnak remains an offensive force, ranking tied for second in the league with 76 scoring chances. The pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Carlo has continued shutting down opponents. Marchand is as pesky as ever.

For now, it appears that any talk of the Bruins’ demise was premature.

“You want to carry on a winning culture,” Ullmark told reporters recently. “Boston has been so good throughout many years of doing that. Now we’ve got to pick up the torch and keep the flame burning as bright as it has been.”

All stats via Sportlogiq

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