Bruins left wing Brad Marchand made the honor roll due to his scorching hot points streak. Credit: Getty Images
Sitting pretty in second place in the Eastern Conference with 78 points, the Bruins closed 8-1-2 before the Olympic break. They are only five points behind Pittsburgh for first in the East and are seven points ahead of Tampa Bay in the division.
When they hit the ice in Buffalo Wednesday (7:30, NBCSN), the B’s(37-16-4) will begin a 25-game sprint to the postseason, which starts in mid-April. Just like their first half success was expected, the Bruins are on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders going forward, especially when you consider the relative weakness of the East compared to the West. When you look at their roster, you realize that they’ve played so well because nearly every player has reached or surpassed their potential in 2013-14. If a couple key players pick it up the rest of the way, the Bruins could very well win their second Cup in four years come June. Injuries will happen down the stretch, of course, but the B’s just hope they can avoid major losses to certain guys that are irreplaceable.
Boston is tied for the most games left. They only have 10 home games remaining (they are 23-6-2 at TD Garden) and March is brutal with 17 games. On to the grades:
Claude Julien – A-: Fresh off a gold medal as an assistant coach with Team Canada in Sochi, Julien’s resume continues to get more shine. His defensive based system is a proven winner year-after-year and in this particular campaign, the B’s offense has scored 176 goals (third most in the Eastern Conference). His teams are always well prepared and he never throws players under the bus – something they have to appreciate.
David Krejci – A: His reputation for coasting in the regular season was established, but so far in 2013-14 he’s been a different player. Krejci leads the Bruins with 50 points (13 goals, 37 assists) and he’s played in every game. He’s always been known as a big-game performer, so who can predict what he’ll do this postseason if he keeps this up?
Patrice Bergeron – A: He earned a bigger role on Team Canada and picked up his second straight gold in the process. It’s become almost cliché to rave about him but he honestly does everything you want, including being the second-best in the NHL on face-offs (59.7 percent). Bergeron and Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews (a teammate in Sochi) are the best two-way centers in the game.
Reilly Smith – A-: He slowed down in the last few weeks before the break, but no other Bruin has wildly exceeded expectations like Smith. He is second on the team in goals (18) and third in points (42) for a club that was in the Stanley Cup Final last season. Boston has to be thrilled with his production so far and his potential for the future since he’s only 22.
Tuukka Rask – A-: Who’s to say how Finland would have done if Rask had not gotten sick before their Olympics semifinal vs. Sweden? Rask is 25-13-4 with five shutouts, owns a 2.11 goals against average and has a .928 save percentage this season with the B’s. Getting him enough rest before the playoffs is one of the biggest keys for Boston’s success going forward.
Milan Lucic – B+: Similar to Krejci, Lucic has proven to be a different player this season after too many underachieving years in Black and Gold. If he was from any other country than Canada, he would have been a no-brainer for Sochi. He’s tied for third in goals (17) and fourth in points (41) but you can’t put a stat on the physical presence that he can bring.
Johnny Boychuk – B: Perhaps the most underrated member of the Bruins, Boychuk’s value was magnified recently when he was the elder statesman on the blue line. He leads Boston in plus/minus (plus-27) and is as reliable as anyone that they have on the squad. He’s only missed four games, which is remarkable given all the injuries he’s battled through.
Jarome Iginla – B: His first few weeks with the Bruins, when he couldn’t score a single goal, Iginla looked washed up. Since then, he’s developed good chemistry with Krejci and Lucic to form one of the top lines in the NHL. He’s second on the B’s with 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists), which at age 36 is pretty impressive. Nobody on Boston wants a Cup more than him since he has never captured one in his Hall of Fame career.
Torey Krug – B: Anyone paying attention last postseason could have predicted that Krug would have a solid season in 2013-14. He’ll never be a top defensive defenseman, given his size and style, but few on the backline possess his offensive skills (12 goals, 20 assists). His six power-play goals are second best on the B’s and his presence has transformed Boston’s man advantage unit.
Chad Johnson – B: He looked extremely shaky in his limited amount of starts in the first few months but Johnson really turned the corner and was playing great most recently (11-3-0 with 1 shutout, 2.13 goals against average, .924 save percentage). His importance can’t be overstated since he’ll need to play more the rest of the regular season to give Rask a break before the playoffs begin. Expect him to be in net Wednesday vs. the Sabres since Tuukka just returned from Russia.
Zdeno Chara – B-: It says something about Chara’s greatness that his first half (13 goals, 13 assists, plus-11, team-leading 8 power-play goals) was considered somewhat disappointing. Let’s not forget he turns 37 in March, so there’s bound to be some tough stretches. Most Bruins fans wouldn’t be too upset to see him take some games off before the postseason.
Brad Marchand - B-: Call him the X-factor or barometer of the Bruins, because when Marchand is playing well they can beat anybody and when he’s struggling, they often look mediocre. As always, he got off to a slow start but he followed that with a red-hot stretch that left him with a team-leading 19 goals. The coaches or front office might have finally gotten through to him after his childish taunting of Vancouver in December during a 6-2 loss.
Kevan Miller – B-: Dennis Seidenberg’s injury could certainly come back to bite the Bruins in the playoffs but they have discovered a good young defenseman in Miller. In many ways, he’s similar to Boychuk and Boston obviously agreed by rewarding him with an extension. Also, with Adam McQuaid out for long periods of time with various injuries, Miller has proven to be a fearsome fighter.
Carl Soderberg – C+: Heading into the break, no one on the Bruins was playing better than Soderberg (who was in his more natural position of center). He has improved by leaps and bounds from last season’s limited action and made Boston’s third line (with Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson) way more formidable. He wouldn’t have been out of place on Team Sweden in Sochi.
Daniel Paille – C+: It’s tough to quantify Paille’s impact since he’ll never put up that many points and he skates mostly on the fourth line, with less talented players (Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton). You see his ability when he got bumped up to the third line when Boston suffered through its litany of injuries. He is still a favorite of Julien given his defensive strength and reliability on the penalty kill.
Matt Bartkowski – C+: He doesn’t have the flash of Krug or the potential of Dougie Hamilton but Bartkowski has developed into a decent NHL defenseman in his first full season with the Black and Gold. He doesn’t have any goals but that’s not exactly his game. He has 10 assists and is plus-10. Every NHL team needs guys like Bartkowski.
Dougie Hamilton – C: You look at Hamilton’s numbers (6 goals, 8 assists, plus-13) and you feel like he’s capable of so much more. Unfortunately injuries cost him 16 games in the first half and even though he’s big in size, he usually doesn’t play like it. Still, he’s only 20-years-old and is in just his second season in the NHL. Boston has no reason to panic yet for what should be their top defenseman in the near future.
Gregory Campbell – C-: This grade will sound harsh since he is coming off a broken leg last postseason and the injury led to a slow start to this season. But he is the only Bruins regular with a negative plus/minus (minus-2). Look for him to take his game to a higher level the rest of the way.
Shawn Thornton – D+: He has the lowest ice time on the team so it’s hard to measure his production. I put him down here since I find it impossible to overlook his awful incident with Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik that led to his 15-game suspension. He’s still one of the most popular players with his teammates, but losing his mind like that at the age of 36 has to make the Bruins pause.
Jordan Caron – F: I couldn’t tell you why he’s still on the Bruins. He was a healthy scratch for more games than he played (25). Even better, his season totals are one goal, zero assists and minus-6. Not to pile on here, but what exactly does he bring to the table for the B’s?
Loui Eriksson – incomplete: Nobody on the Bruins had worse luck in the first half than Eriksson: he suffered two concussions and took an errant stick to the mouth. Seeing him pick up a silver medal with Sweden showed some of what he can do on a big stage. With a cleaner bill of health (he missed 20 games), he could really emerge now when it matters most.
Chris Kelly – Incomplete: For the second straight season, he broke his leg. He’s another player that Julien seems to view more favorably than the rest of the league. Seeing Ryan Spooner in his spot when he was out showed the Bruins that their future is bright.
Adam McQuaid – Incomplete: He missed, basically, half of the first half (27 games) but he still leads the team in penalty minutes (69). The B’s could use his experience in the playoffs since he’s a proven winner. He deserves better health the rest of this campaign.
Follow Metro Boston Bruins beat writer Richard Slate on Twitter:@RichSlate