This was supposed to be a Boston Bruins squad that would have to grind out every single point in an arduous climb to the right side of the playoff bubble, but with their 3-2 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden on Thursday, the Boston Bruins are off to their best start ever at 9-0-1. And, much like the historical 2022-23 Boston Bruins team, the 2023-24 Bruins continue to find different ways to win hockey games.
After setting NHL wins (55) and points (135) records in 2022-23, it is easy to forget that, for all the star power last season brought, there were just as many x-factors, things that could go wrong but just happened to go right. No one knew how David Krejci would play at age 36 after a full year away from the rigors of the NHL. No one knew how the goaltending would hold up starting a season without Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brad Marchand, who were all rehabbing offseason surgeries (in Marchand’s case, double-labrum repair). Anyone who followed the Boston Bruins knows they knocked the 2022-23 season out of the park, only to lose their grip on what looked like a stronghold on their opening-round series against the Florida Panthers. Instead, it was the Panthers who would beat a nine-count, survive what looked like certain defeat in Games 5 and 7 in Boston with late goals and overtime wins, and, two more rounds later, be the team facing Vegas for the Stanley Cup.
The Panthers’ visit to TD Garden last Monday was a spirited 3-2 overtime win, no doubt, but Captain Marchand left no doubt as to the right way of looking at his team’s victory that night as nothing that can change what happened last spring. And, doubling down, he noted that the Panthers were a month later in the same spot as the Bruins, without what they wanted.
Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney did the predictable thing this past offseason. In the face of losing Krejci and Patrice Bergeron to retirement, all of his deadline acquisitions (and UFA’s Connor Clifton, Nick Foligno, and Tomas Nosek) to free agency, and being forced to trade Taylor Hall to become cap compliant, he backfilled with the sturdiest set of low-earning free agents he could. The result was a Jennings-winning goaltending tandem, a defense core intact, and a fresh opportunity for a group of young forwards whose roles would be sorted out by Jim Montgomery. More would be asked of the front-line core of Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Pavel Zacha.
Just like starting the 2022-23 season 9-1-0, no one had the 2023-24 Boston Bruins starting 9-0-1. For the most part, they have kept the puck out of their own net. So what happened beyond the predictable?
First off, quite a bit, but beyond Matt Poitras, Pastrnak’s goal-a-game October, and the continued brilliance of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, what has emerged is the continued ability of this hockey team to play a bad period (including several bad first periods but not lately), sputter on the powerplay (15.6% at home going into an 0-for-2 night vs. Toronto) and 7.1% on the road (30th in the NHL) and win.
“We know we can get better,” said Marchand after Thursday night’s 3-2 shootout victory over division rival Toronto, echoing sentiments of last season in which the Bruins were preoccupied with the process and their game, parking each result without being distracted by their success in the win-loss-point columns.
Pavel Zacha, destined to skate in a Bergeron/Krejci slot since his acquisition from New Jersey, is back on the wing, and the Bruins are winning. Montgomery continues to make in-game changes, and the team’s defensive depth (Bedrock Part B) is presently challenged without McAvoy (suspension), Grzelcyk (upper-body injury), and Derek Forbort (lower). As stunningly successful as Mason Lohrei’s NHL debut was on Thursday, over 30 shifts, including 1:43 on the league’s top-ranked penalty kill, this remains a developing situation with a learning curve.
Once again, the Bruins are presented with unplanned challenges, and once again, they are finding ways – not just one – to win. Maybe they will find yet another way to beat the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night for the second time in a week.