Boston rising: Five keys to the Bruins’ better-than-expected start

    Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.

The Boston Bruins were rumored to be washed up.

They were supposed to be too old. And too injured. And too past their prime. No way could this Bruins’ team run with the younger, faster Atlantic Division teams — let along the high-flying league at large.

That part turned out to be true; the Bruins haven’t been keeping up. They’ve been setting the pace.

Boston cruised to a league-best 12-2-0 record to start this season, while boasting the top goal differential (plus-25), most goals for (57, tied with Vegas in one fewer game players) and most efficient penalty kill (94.1%) during that span. The Bruins took care of business largely without last season’s leading scorer (Brad Marchand, who returned from offseason hip surgery on Oct. 27) or No. 1 defenseman (Charlie McAvoy, just back in the lineup after undergoing a complex shoulder procedure in June).

The season took a controversial turn when the club signed — then cut ties with, amid internal and external criticism — defenseman prospect Mitchell Miller, and the Bruins continue to face questions on their interest in him.

On the ice, how has Boston proved the pundits wrong? By rolling out its own recipe for success. Its key ingredients include a new voice behind the bench, enviable forward depth, unexpected star turns and a heap of good Pasta.

Mad for Monty

It was a real head-scratcher when Boston parted ways with coach Bruce Cassidy on June 7 after six seasons.

The decision came weeks after the Bruins’ first-round playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes — coaching changes are generally more expedient than that — and Cassidy had produced a strong record (245-108-46) and six consecutive postseason appearances.

Boston’s general manager Don Sweeney justified Cassidy’s departure as the team “need[ing] a new direction” and a “new messaging and voice was going to be required.”

Enter Jim Montgomery.

He became the franchise’s 29th coach on June 30, returning to a head role for the first time since being let go by Dallas in 2019 for “a personal behavioral issue.” Shortly after his firing, Montgomery checked into rehab for alcohol abuse. In September 2020, St. Louis brought Montgomery on as an assistant, a post he held until Sweeney’s offer.

The marriage is, by all accounts, off to an excellent start.

“He’s just come in with [really] good energy,” veteran forward Nick Foligno said. “That’s the biggest thing about Monty; he loves the game just as much as the players do. So, it’s infectious in our room. He’s really good about the one-on-one conversations and understanding what you need to bring, and he’s really open about that. He also enjoys the process of the game. It’s lined up well with the way this group is. He’s done a great job.”

What Montgomery doesn’t do is micromanage. Instead of recreating the Bruins in his own image, Montgomery got to know what makes players tick, what systems work with their skill sets and went about maximizing the potential off his bench.

“He just lets us play,” forward A.J. Greer said. “He isn’t being too hard on us, but he’s also correcting us, sometimes without even having to say anything. It’s fun to play for him. The way he uses the systems and the way he’s using this team is exactly how we want to play, and you see it with the success we’re having. It’s really well-thought out, because everyone’s dialed into that same mindset and everyone’s collectively pulling the boat here.”

Cultivating an all-for-one solidarity was a critical mission by Montgomery, to keep Boston from allowing early injury absences define the season. Adversity can sometimes divide a dressing room; Montgomery’s methods kept the Bruins tight.

“I think he really brought this group together,” David Pastrnak said. “He’s a very positive person. He’s very smart. He has great points about hockey and the style that he wants us to play. He’s just been really good.”

That unity extends on the ice too. Montgomery’s approach is subtle, but he’s guiding the Bruins toward being a complete team. The rest has come naturally from there.

“He really understands what [we] are going to have success with,” Foligno said. “That’s being heavy down low. He talks about wearing out the goal line, and that’s conducive to a lot of guys in this room. That messaging alone plays into a lot of guys’ hands. Guys are more comfortable. The reads you can make down low; you don’t get burned on as many times if it doesn’t work out. There’s still a 200-foot game that [another] team has to get through. I think that’s really played into a lot of our hands.”

It’s no wonder that the honeymoon phase feels far from over. Boston hopes it’ll last all season.

“We love playing for this guy,” Greer said. “He’s really brought just a positive mindset and a positive aura around the group. He always talked about the process of taking it one game at a time. He respects us as people, he respects us as players, and he understands each and every one of us. To build off that energy for the coach and the respect that everyone has for everyone here, he’s done a phenomenal job and it’s fun.”


Only two players in the league had more points than David Pastrnak after 11 games: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

These things happen.

Also happening? A potential career year for Boston’s bold winger. That’s saying something for Pastrnak, who managed a second 40-goal showing last season, while averaging over a point-per-game pace, with 77 in 72 games. This season Pastrnak buried eight goals and 19 points through the 12-game mark, including eight points in his first four outings alone.

Boston knew it would need Pastrnak playing at his best without Marchand in the mix (especially when Marchand was supposed to be unavailable until Thanksgiving). Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci coming back on one-year contracts wouldn’t be enough to fill the offensive void. So Pastrnak kicked things up a notch, and his timing has been perfect.

Pastrnak’s terrific play not only benefits the Bruins now, but it’s materializing in the final season of his six-year, $39.9 million deal. The 26-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent this summer if he doesn’t reach an agreement with Boston before that. Basically, this is Pastrnak’s moment, and he has taken full advantage.

“He’s a man on a mission, right?” Foligno said. “It’s just the age too. You start to really understand yourself. And I think that’s where Pasta has come to. He’s become a man now in his mindset, his approach to the game. The skills have always been there but when you add the rest, you become more of a superpower and that’s what you see from him. He’s not afraid to trust his instincts. He understands the players he’s playing with, he’s confident in who he is as a person, and I think it’s just coming out in the game.”

Boston could have anticipated Pastrnak’s prowess. The strong start from his linemate Krejci was more in doubt. The 36-year-old spent 2021-22 with Olomouc HC in his native Czech Republic before deciding to come back to the NHL for another season. How quickly Krejci readjusted was a question mark. He turned that into an exclamation point, netting two goals and eight points through eight games prior to being injured on Oct. 27.

Krejci has also been the perfect partner to his other linemate, Taylor Hall. They skated together late in the 2020-21 season, and Hall’s top-end speed complemented Krejci’s playmaking. Absence clearly made the heart grow fonder, because they’ve picked up things seamlessly, reflected in Hall’s own fast start with five goals and nine points in 12 games.

Having Pastrnak as part of that equation too? Who can really call them a “second line?”

Depth of character

Yes, the Bruins have top-end talents. But they haven’t been top-heavy. The difference lies in Boston’s depth.

In the first 12 games, all but one regular forward (Tomas Nosek) produced at least one goal. Multiple skaters were in double-digit point totals or averaging more than a point per game.

While Marchand missed the first two weeks, Boston still rang up the third-most goals in the league (4.14 per game) and the sixth most shots (35.6 per contest). Their dominance continued even without contributions from McAvoy, a high-level offensive defenseman who has paced the club’s blueliners with 27 goals and 146 points in his past 250 games.

Krejci missed time with an injury. Ditto Jake DeBrusk. Boston’s bevy of options left it unbothered by the disruptions.

“We have so much depth, and we’re winning by committee right now,” Marchand said. “It’s hard for teams to sustain the tempo that we’re playing at each and every shift, and eventually we just break teams down and get opportunities. With the talent that we have on each line, we’re going to capitalize. Some teams have one or two good lines, but we have four. It’s showing up when one line has a tough night, [but] another line is stepping up and producing and taking over the game.”

Greer has individually embodied that mentality and become Boston’s surprise standout. It barely registered when Greer signed a two-year, $1.5 million free agent contract last summer. After all, the journeyman entered this season with two goals and eight points in 47 NHL games from 2016-17 to 2021-22. But there was something about the fit in Boston.

It took just four tilts in black and gold for Greer to establish new season-long career highs in goals (three) and points (five). Greer — a Boston University alum, to boot — was so thrilled to score in front of the Bruins’ home crowd he actually kissed his jersey in celebration.

He has also been a healthy scratch some games, reflecting just how many candidates Boston has from which to choose. Greer finds the continuous battle for ice time motivating.

“I think there’s a competitive energy in the bottom six because anyone can play at any given time,” he said. “It’s a competitive setting here and guys push me to be as best as I can every day. So, things have worked out statistically, but I think my game in general has taken just a leap forward as far as consistency and finding what I need to do best in the in the NHL. I’m really happy about that and just trying to build off it every day.”

Foligno has nearly 1,000 more games experience than Greer, but plays a similar role in elevating Boston’s attack. From a mostly fourth-line perch, Foligno managed three goals and seven points in 12 games — already nearing his 13-point total through 64 outings a season ago.

When Boston is healthy, the fight to stay in play intensifies. That’s part of the fun. Newbies and veterans alike want to earn their spot, but leave ego at the door regardless.

“I think every guy realizes how crucial [their contribution] is to this team’s success, whether you’re in or out of the lineup,” Foligno said. “Every guy takes responsibility [because] there’s a guy that’s a pretty darn good player waiting in the wings to come in. So, when you’re in, you want to do the job you’re asked to and when you’re not, you’re itching for that opportunity to get back and just help the group.

“That’s also the mindset and the culture in here. The way that it’s been in Boston is the next-man-up mentality, and you don’t want to let anyone down and I think every guy is really relishing that opportunity that they have here.”

A new dominant D-man

Boston couldn’t replace McAvoy. But Hampus Lindholm sure gave it a shot.

Consider Lindholm’s role in Boston’s wild, come-from-behind victory over Pittsburgh this month. The Penguins had a 5-2 lead in the second period and the Bruins were down a defender after Derek Forbort suffered an upper-body injury in the first. Confronting that multigoal deficit with a depleted blue line was daunting.

Until Lindholm put the Bruins on his back. He assisted on Boston’s next three goals that forced overtime, and then went coast-to-coast scoring the game-winner.

Montgomery called Lindholm “phenomenal” after that performance. It might have been an understatement.

“I can say that I’ve played with good defensemen, and I watch hockey regularly,” Greer said. “And I would say Lindholm is definitely one of the more impactful D-men I’ve seen in the NHL.”

Lindholm’s numbers this season back that up. He ranked third among league defenders with 13 points through 12 games, had an NHL-best plus-12 rating, and averages a strong 24:06 minutes of ice time per game — the bulk of which are played against the opponent’s top forwards.

This is the Lindholm that Boston hoped for when acquiring him via trade with the Anaheim Ducks last March. McAvoy hadn’t had a true top-pairing partner, and the Bruins bet on Lindholm — with an eight-year, $52 million contract signed after the trade — to be that guy.

And so it seems that he could be. Lindholm and McAvoy have skated together in practices, but Montgomery also likes Lindholm with Connor Clifton. That’s the thing about Lindholm — he can work well with almost anyone.

That’s not to say Boston doesn’t miss McAvoy, of course, at even strength and quarterbacking its power play (Boston is at 23.2% — 14th overall — on the man advantage). But Lindholm arguably has been Boston’s first-quarter MVP and is generating Norris Trophy buzz while keeping the Bruins’ back end intact without McAvoy (and more recently Forbort) in their midst.

“It’s incredible how [Lindholm] can get away from guys,” Foligno said. “His poise with the puck, you think he has a play open and then he waits that extra second and a better play opens up. He’s really given us a real footing with Charlie being out and he’s logged a lot of minutes. But just [with] his calmness, his poise — it’s just settled everyone down on the back end. And he’s almost welcoming it; that’s what’s neat about him. He welcomes the extra minutes and the pressure.”

There might be more eyes on Lindholm now than ever before in his career. That includes some of his teammates. Foligno admits he didn’t see much of Lindholm when he was playing out west, and Greer claimed not to know “one thing about him” before they shared a dressing room.

Lindholm isn’t fooling anyone now.

“He’s an insane hockey player, and an amazing person,” Greer said. “I did not know he was that good. And every single night, he just puts on a show. It’s crazy. And he does it so easily. It looks so seamless for him. He’ll play 30 minutes a night and he has the same energy at the end that he had in the first period on his first shift. I think he’s been a great addition and a great tool for us.”

All in on Ullmark

The two most recent Bruins goalies to start a season 8-0-0 were Tim Thomas in 2010-11 and Linus Ullmark in 2022-23.

Thomas backstopped Boston to a Stanley Cup that season. Ullmark would like to do the same.

Boston leaned on Ullmark early, and he has embraced being one of the NHL’s busiest netminders. Those league-leading eight victories came with a .929 SV% and 2.16 goals-against average, plus a goals-saved above average of 7.0 (sixth overall). And the veteran won’t be getting a rest any time soon.

The Bruins planned on using its same goalie tandem of Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman that contributed so much to their success last season (not to mention a landslide of goalie hug memes). After Tuukka Rask’s difficult return from injury in January — and his subsequent retirement following four appearances — the Bruins’ crease belonged wholly to then-rookie Swayman and Ullmark to share.

Both are capable starters, meant to be equally involved throughout this season. Then Swayman went down with a lower-body injury on Nov. 1 and was moved to injured reserve (he’s listed as week-to-week). Ullmark immediately inherited increased responsibility — in concert with Swayman’s replacement Keith Kinkaid — to protect the house.

Fortunately, Ullmark’s been up for a heavy workload. And luckily for Ullmark there’s a strong forward group in front of him to generate needed goal support, not to mention that Lindholm-led defense which is top five in goals against to date.

It takes a village, as they say. And Ullmark’s consistency has been foundational to what Boston is building.

How high can these Bruins climb? Stay tuned for the next chapter.

Source: Read Full Article