Monday, November 24, 2008

Are The Bruins For Real?

Whether or not you're a Bruins fan -- but especially if you're a Bruins fan -- you're probably asking yourself that question every time you look at the league standings. Improbably, almost inexplicably, the B's have rockted to the top of the Eastern Conference by beating or tying every opponent in the month of November so far. They are now 7 points ahead of Montreal in the division, with a steep advantage in tiebreakers.

Considering the Bruins were widely picked to either miss the playoffs or just make the cut as a bubble team, this is a bit of a shock to the dynamics of the East. Suddenly the Habs are struggling to stay ahead of the Devils. Suddenly the Sabres are on the outside of the bracket looking in. Suddenly the Bruins are playing for home ice in a hypothetical Cup series against the Sharks. To say the least, this is not what we expected to talk about while watching the Lions lose on Thanksgiving.

Let's hang on to that last thought -- it's only Thanksgiving. The playoffs start just after April Fool's Day. It's a long road, a difficult one that will be filled with injuries and momentum swings. Things will almost certainly change, especially if it turns out that this team is just a wintertime mirage. So let's look at a few key factors to see if we can spot the potholes in the road to June Hockey:

Goaltending: The #1 element that can kill a team, and it seems to be completely under control. Tim Thomas is in the wonderful position of performing at an elite level AND approaching each game as an underdog. The All-Star snub works quite nicely for motivation, though it stings less when the selection process is a joke. Manny Fernandez has played brilliantly for the most part, and has not become the locker-room cancer I had expected. It will take a major reversal for this to become an issue.

Schedule: Taking the 12-Step Program approach to the schedule, the Bruins are right on track for discharge. We've almost gotten through Step 4 with flying colors, and are approaching the relatively soft Step 5. But look ahead -- extremely tough stretches in December and Februrary could send this young team off the rails. A distinct lack of long road trips will help, but rest and maturity are going to be much needed in those months. One day at a time...

Distractions: Thankfully, there are none. The biggest "distraction" we've seen this season was Lucic choosing to score a goal instead of fight a goon. This will not be a problem for a well-disciplined squad with good team chemistry.

Return to Earth: Sometimes an individual's overachievement can lift the entire team; usually this ends in heartbreak when reality sets in over the course of the season. Fortunately, the Bruins are not seeing a lot of overachievement at the individual level; other than Thomas, everyone seems to be pretty much on a normal track. This team wins with good coaching, good chemistry and good defense. That doesn't leave much likelihood of a reality check.

Injuries: So far the Bruins have been very, very lucky. Chuck Kobasew was out for a month, but his replacements were adequate and he came back with a vengeance. Ference is out for 6 more weeks, but Matt Hunwick might earn a permanent roster spot in his absence. Those situations won't happen every time. There is still talk that Chara's shoulder is less than 100%; we still hold our breath when Bergeron goes into the corners; Lucic's right fist looks like it got caught in industrial machinery every time he fights. This team is deep and disciplined, but could not survive a major injury to Savard, Thomas or Chara. And that can happen at any time, to any player.

Hot opponents: To begin the season, the B's were in the unenviable position of sharing a division with two of the top three teams in the conference. It looked like it would be one of those frustrating seasons when your team is amazingly talented and focused, but has to settle for a 4th place finish and road ice in the second round. Since then, both the Sabres and Habs have stumbled. The Bruins could put a stake in Buffalo's division-title hopes on Wednesday, but Montreal will be a season-long nemesis. There will also be intense competition in the conference from the improving Penguins, surging Flyers and schizophrenic Rangers. Eventually the winning streak will end, and losing streaks will happen, and that will naturally tighten the race.

So from where I sit, two things are pretty clear:

1) Yes, the Bruins are for real. They are not the sort of front-loaded, streaky team that is likely melt down in the home stretch.

2) The most likely "backslide" scenario is for the Bruins to hit the tough December-through-February schedule, suffer a key injury or three, and start feeling the heat of trying to stay ahead of more media-friendly teams in Pittsburgh and New York.

But for the time being, we've got something pretty sweet to be thankful for on Thursday -- a hard-nosed, hard-working team getting its due.

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The Bastahd said...

Completely off-topic but did you see the O'Byrne own-goal? Absolutely priceless!

Tom said...

The Habs are a freaking mess right now. At least O'Byrne managed to get a puck in the net, unlike Kovalev. I wonder what it would take for them to pull the plug on Carbonneau?

Araev16 said...

Being a Bruins fan who lives fairly close to Montreal, it's been a blast to listen to their sports talk radio. These people are ready to throw themselves off of tall buildings. I wouldn't be surprised if they sent a mob after Guy pretty soon.

Mixing their collaspe with the Bruins success is about too much for them to bear. It's wonderful, especially when you factor in how freakin cocky they are when the Habs are playing well.

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Tom said...

Violator, you're on the blogroll. Nice to have a KHL perspective.