BOSTON (CBS) -- Now is a fine time to praise the Bruins' defense.
Mocked and criticized all summer and fall, and accused of being the aspect of the game that was going to sentence the Bruins to a third straight season out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins' defense has instead become reason No. 1 they're in the thick of the playoff race and currently sit in second place in the Atlantic Division.
Despite bringing back the seven defensemen who finished last season and just adding rookie Brandon Carlo to a team that allowed 2.78 goals per game (ranked 20th in the NHL), the Bruins through 46 games this season are fifth with 2.43 goals allowed per game. Boston is second with 26.7 shots allowed per game.
Goaltender Tuukka Rask deserves the lion's share of the credit with his .926 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. But credit also has to go to the improved play of the players and the coaching staff, which made the tweaks that helped turn a rag-tag group lacking in a true two-way blueliner in his prime and consisting of a rookie, a second-year pro and a 39-year-old into one that could help Rask make a run at the Vezina Trophy and give the Bruins solid hopes of reaching the postseason.
"I think the coaches that we have, they always try to get better and tweak things around, and I thought this year the little changes they've made in the system have worked a lot," said Bruins center Patrice Bergeron after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Sunday. "I think it's subtle changes but they make a big difference with denying the space as much as possible for the offensive team and kind of swarm as much as possible."
Bruins head coach Claude Julien wanted to get his defensemen's feet moving and wanted to give the opposition less time with the puck and less clearance to get from the neutral zone into the attacking zone. Amazingly not only have the Bruins been able to suppress shots against, they've spent enough time in the opposition zone to rank second in shots on goal at 34 per game.
The best news recently for the Bruins, who are 23-18-5 after going 3-1-1 in the past five, is they've started turning all those shots into goal totals indicative of a NHL-caliber offense. Boston has averaged 3.8 goals per game in their past five while surrendering just 2.2 goals per game in that span. Boston has averaged 37.2 shots and allowed 23 shots against as well.
There's no telling is the Bruins' current rate of offensive output is sustainable but through more than half the season it's become apparent they can rely on their defense to keep them in games regardless of what's happening at the other end of the rink.
"Over the course of the season you're going to have times when maybe your power play's not clicking, your penalty kill's maybe not getting bounces, you're not scoring goals. And you kind of just got to stick with it," defenseman John-Michael Liles said. "And I think that with the foundation we've put together, and the coaching staff and management have put together, it allows us to fall back on some other things. Thankfully the last little while we've able to score a few more goals, which is nice."
The Bruins' defense has also shown depth, as they've survived despite missing Zdeno Chara for six games, Adam McQuaid for five, Kevan Miller for 20 and Liles for 20. Kevan Miller has just left the lineup again and the Bruins have also been without Colin Miller for the past two games.
It's the nature of the current NHL that the Bruins haven't been playing the mettle of the League lately. There are a lot more bad or average teams than elite ones. Nonetheless, if they can grind out enough points to avoid a wild card spot, the Bruins might be able to use their stalwart defense to get a first-round playoff win against a second- or third-place team from their weak division. If their scorers can duplicate their current hot streak in April, they could be a tough out.
Of course when the competition quality increases, the tweaks the Bruins have made to their system and the way the players have mastered them might not be able to overcome the talent gap. We won't know whether the Bruins can close that gap for a few months but as of mid-January we know that the coaches have found the right style of play for this particular combination of defensemen and the Bruins have proven almost everyone wrong.
"It's not all about that, but certainly we want to continue to limit the shots and play strong and that doesn't just come from the D corps," McQuaid said. "Defensively it's a team structure. Everyone's been really good and supporting one another in that way."
McQuaid's probably right that everyone on the Bruins deserves credit for the defensive renaissance but considering the ridicule the defense corps was receiving not too long ago, it probably deserves enough praise to make up for the negativity.
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