The Boston Bruins just played their 41st regular season game on Thursday night, marking the true halfway point in their 2013-14 NHL season. The B's are currently sitting atop the Atlantic Division, just three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference. The fact that they sit in second place in their conference amidst the lengthy list of players missing games due to injuries and suspensions is pretty remarkable. Here is a look at some of the reasons why the Bruins are still one of the best teams in the NHL:
First Star of the First Half: Reilly Smith
If someone told you that the Bruins would have acquired a potential 30 goal scorer in the Tyler Seguin trade last July 4th, you would have been convinced that Loui Eriksson was a great addition to this team. Yet Eriksson has missed 17 games (and counting) with two concussions, while Reilly Smith has been a revelation to all Bruins fans. Smith has 14 goals and 17 assists on the year, putting him first on the team in goals scored and second to David Krejci in points. This coming from a player who in his 40 game NHL career prior to coming to Boston had three goals and six assists. Smith did show his potential in his three years at Miami University, tallying 66 goals and 56 assists while with the Red Hawks. He also scored 14 goals and notched 21 assists last year at Dallas' minor league affiliate. The Bruins' brain trust have recently said that Smith was not a throw-in piece to the Seguin-Eriksson trade, noting that they have been scouting him for a long time and were focused on adding him to the team. But they couldn't know just what a great talent they were getting in Smith. He started the season on the third line along with Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly, but has really flourished since his promotion to the second line during the absences of Eriksson. Smith has scored nine goals and added five assists since Eriksson's latest concussion on December 7th, and may push Eriksson back to the third line when he does return to the lineup. I'm sure the Bruins won't be complaining about having that type of "problem".
Second Stars of the First Half: Jarome Iginla, David Krejci, and Milan Lucic
The offseason acquisition of Jarome Iginla was viewed by many as a questionable move by the Bruins. Iginla is 36 years old and had played 17 seasons in the NHL, with all but 13 games spent with the Calgary Flames. The Bruins tried to trade for him during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, thinking that they had struck a deal only to be spurned by Iginla's preference to play with the Penguins. The Bruins then squashed Iginla's chances at his first title in a comprehensive four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals, which apparently changed his mind about playing in Boston. It looked early on as if Iginla might not be the same Hall of Fame player that he was in Calgary, as it took him nine games to score his first goal in black and gold. After breaking the ice (pun intended), Iginla has become a strong addition to the Bruins' first line, alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Krejci leads the team in assists with 27 and points with 36, placing him 9th in the league in assists and 25th in points scored. Lucic has 12 goals and 18 assists, and continues to bring a physical presence to the Bruins top line. During the last month, the line has combined for 14 goals and 24 assists, with Lucic on a five-game assist streak. The brilliance of the first line was on display during the 41st game against Nashville, with Krejci, Lucic, and Iginla combining on a beautiful goal in the third period that gave Boston the lead. As long as these three players stay healthy and hot, the Bruins will continue to be one of the best teams in the NHL.
Third Stars of the First Half: The Young Guns of Boston
The Bruins starting lineup has missed a total of 99 games this season due to injuries and suspensions. They have called up 8 players from their minor league affiliate in Providence, with those players filling various roles for the last month. To the credit of the players and the organization as a whole, the NHL team has not missed a beat even with all the changing parts. Ryan Spooner has led the charge of Providence Bruins' callups, making a strong case for staying with the big B's even when the injured and suspended players come back. Spooner has nine assists in 14 games with Boston, notching three assists against the Predators on December 23rd. Spooner has been paired with P-Bruins teammate Matt Fraser for 11 games, with Spooner setting up Fraser's only goal of the year in the Nashville game. Kevan Miller, David Warsofsky, and Zach Trotman have played well in their short stints with the B's, all filling in defensively for the recent loss of Dennis Seidenberg to a torn ACL. Trotman in particular had a memorable debut, driving 5 hours to Ottawa to barely make the pregame skate for the Bruins' game last week. Among the young "veterans" of the team, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, and Matt Bartkowski have played like they have been in the league for many years, demonstrating the depth of the current squad. Krug leads the Bruins' defensemen in points with 20, and his presence on the B's power play has directly led to its vast improvement. Hamilton and Bartkowski both have solid plus/minus stats, with Hamilton now being paired on the top defense line with captain Zdeno Chara. Along with Reilly Smith, who is just in his second full season in the NHL, the future looks very bright in Boston.
Honorable Mentions: Tuukka Rask, Claude Julien, and Peter Chiarelli
Normally having a goals against average below two goals would garner more than just an honorable mention, but that's how good some of the other parts of the Boston Bruins have been this season. Tuukka Rask has proven during his first 32 games that he is well worth the huge contract he signed in the offseason, making him the man behind the pipes for the B's for a long time to come. Rask is clearly a top candidate for the Vezina Trophy, leading the league with four shutouts and landing in the top five in games played, wins (20) and save percentage (.932). Remarkably, he's sixth in GAA with a 1.99 average. He's lost back-to-back starts just once this season, on October 26th to New Jersey and October 30th to Pittsburgh. Last year's playoff run was proof that Rask can lead this team to another Stanley Cup title, and with the amount of injuries the Bruins have, the team may have to jump on his back again this year.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the great job both Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli have done with this roster. Clearly Chiarelli has done a marvelous job with his recent acquisitions, both in free agency and via trades. This is definitely one of the deepest teams in the NHL, with the team not missing a beat even with injuries to numerous key starters. Watching a game right now, you would never know that the team is missing a top defenseman (Seidenberg) along with a center (Chris Kelly) and two wingers (Eriksson and Shawn Thornton). Boston was also able to absorb injuries to Hamilton, Adam McQuaid, and Carl Soderberg, who have all recently returned to the lineup. Chiarelli has built the team, but Julien deserves just as much credit for coaching the team to their success. Julien has long been criticized for his defensive style of play, yet the Bruins are 8th in the league in goals scored with 120. The biggest improvement by far has been Julien's power play squad, who has been consistently one of the worst in the league during his tenure in Boston. The B's are currently sixth in the NHL on the power play, scoring 21.6% of the time with a man advantage. He has also done a solid job rotating in his backup goalies, giving Rask a rest without sacrificing the success of the team. Instead of looking to fire him, Bruins fans should be adding Julien's name to the short list of the top head coaches in the NHL.
Dishonorable Mentions: Shawn Thornton and Loui Eriksson
Loui Eriksson has been a disappointment in his first season with the Bruins, mainly due to the two concussions that he has been diagnosed with. Eriksson got off to a slow start, scoring two goals and one assist in his first eight games before getting hurt against the Buffalo Sabres. Eriksson came back in early November and looked like he was starting to gel with Patrice Bergeron on the second line, scoring three goals and eight assists in 13 November games. For a player who was expected to score between 20 and 30 goals for the Bruins, Eriksson has yet to live up to his expectations when he is able to skate with the team. Now that Reilly Smith has emerged on the Bergeron-Marchand line, it will be interesting to see where Eriksson plays when he returns from his latest concussion.
The word "dishonorable" has never been used to describe Shawn Thornton during his entire NHL career, but what he did on December 7th against the Penguins was just that. While there has been extensive debate over how fair the suspension given to Thornton after his fight with Brooks Orpik was, there is no debate over how out-of-character the whole incident was for Thornton. Thornton claims that he made a mistake by blindsiding Orpik, taking him to the ice before knocking him unconscious. Unfortunately that one mistake will stay with Thornton forever, and has tarnished the reputation of one of the league's most respected enforcers. The refusal by Orpik to engage in a fight with Thornton after Orpik's hit on Eriksson (which gave him his second concussion of the season) should have been the end of the contact between the two players, with Thornton possibly choosing another player (James Neal?) to show his allegiance to his teammate. Instead he took matters into his own hands and subsequently took himself out of the Bruins' lineup for 15 games. He states that when he comes back he will play the game the same way but my question is does the team really need him back at all? The "Merlot line" is about energy not about instigating fights, and Jordan Caron is holding his own on that line. When Chris Kelly comes back the team will need to shuffle the lines even more, and I would rather see Ryan Spooner and Matt Fraser continue to flourish with the Bruins than either scratch them or send them back down to Providence. The team could look to move Kelly, Thornton, or some other players to free up the coming logjam on their starting roster, with this "dishonorable" incident possibly a ticket out of Boston's lineup for Thornton.