The Bruins' 11-5-1 record to start the season has been nothing short of fantastic, and doubly so when you consider that the Bruins have been missing a pair of top six forwards for the entire season, and a third (David Krejci) for a good chunk of it.
Winning hockey seems to come down to doing a lot of little things right, but in the end, it's two big things that win hockey games: scoring goals, and preventing goals. Every little thing feeds into one of those two big things. The Bruins are doing both really well, as evidenced by their +20 goal differential, which is 3rd in the NHL behind only Washington and Philadelphia (both +21). When you're scoring that many more goals than your opponents, you're going to win games, and lots of them.
So, why the title of this article, instead of something like "Things Are Going Great for Bruins"? Why be concerned about the Bruins defense? In two words: shots allowed.
Let's be clear; the Bruins are keeping goals out of their own net at an impressive rate. However, that's been due to insanely good goaltending. Two of the top three leaders in save percentage wear the spoked B on their chest. Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask are, between them, turning aside 94.9% of opposing shots. Not only is that fantastic, it's unsustainable. The Bruins led the NHL with a .922 save percentage last season, so some regression to the mean is inevitable.
When the Bruins went through their brief slump recently, the overriding theme was poor defensive play. Too many turnovers in the defensive zone. Too many opposing skaters taking shots from the middle of the ice. Claude Julien preaches the importance of pushing the action to the periphery of the ice, where the bad guys are taking less-dangerous shots. One might be forgiven for thinking that, with the Bruins shutting out two of their last three opponents, this problem was a thing of the past. It's not.
For the season, the Bruins are allowing 34.5 shots per game, fifth worst in the NHL. That's a bad sign. In the month of November, however, that number has risen to 37.1, the worst in the league. That's a very bad sign. And it's not the sort of thing that can easily be explained away. Injuries? Well, Johnny Boychuk has missed all but 6 games, but he's no better than their third or fourth best defenseman. Apart from that, the defensive corps has been healthy. Even Andrew Ference, the NHL's answer to Chad Pennington, hasn't missed a game. I thought that maybe the numbers were inflated by opposing power plays, but the Bruins are middle of the road in terms of penalty minutes, so that doesn't explain it.
No, this is a situation where statistical evidence and empirical evidence yield the same conclusion. If you watch the Bruins defense, they're not playing great hockey right now. The old bugaboo of having a problem clearing the defensive zone reared its head more than once last night against Florida. Mark Stuart, in particular, seems to be an inviting target for opposing forecheckers. That's not new, and it's not unexpected; the Bruins have sought a puck-moving defenseman since about 5 minutes after they traded Raymond Bourque. Here is a situation that Boychuk can help. When Stuart was paired with Adam McQuaid, it gave the Bruins a pair of rugged defensemen with absolutely no offensive ability to speak of. Boychuk's return to the lineup allows the immobile Stuart to be paired with someone with a bit more offensive skill. Last night, it was Matt Hunwick.
So puck movement is a familiar issue. What is unexpected is the ease with which opposing teams are getting off shots. Last season, the Bruins allowed 29.8 shots per game, 14th best in the league. And the defense was the exact same group, with the same skills and limitations. And opposing forechecking was just as aggressive then as it is now, so that doesn't explain the difference.
More disconcerting is that this barrage of shots comes despite Dennis Seidenberg acting as almost a second goaltender when on the ice. "Dikembe" has 41 blocked shots to his credit, second only to Nick Boynton (42). Adam McQuaid had 14 in 10 games, with fairly limited ice time, and was actually blocking shots at the same rate as Seidenberg. If those two are doing their job to keep the amount of rubber down, what about the rest?
Despite his massive frame, Zdeno Chara has never been a great shot blocker, instead using his long reach to impede opposing skaters. Big Z has not been playing that well in his own end of late. It seems like Chara is joining the rush more often, and looks much more dangerous offensively than he was last season. That's absolutely a good thing, but I've too many times recently that Thomas or Rask has bailed out a beaten Chara with a great save. Since Chara is the team's workhorse when it comes to ice time, improvement in the defensive zone must begin with The Captain.
The Bruins have faced 584 shots this season. 31 have gone in. If we plug in that aforementioned .922 save percentage from last season, they would surrender 15 more goals. And suddenly, that gaudy +21 becomes a more pedestrian +6. Simple math leads us to an inescapable conclusion: for the Bruins to continue their stingy ways, either Thomas and Rask must continue to stand on their heads, or the defense must allow fewer shots.