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Stress hockey: Early surprises from the season so far

Whew, I need a cigarette.

NHL: OCT 18 Bruins at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Boston Bruins 2022-23 season is just four games old, but whether you’re a sunshine and rainbows type of Bruins fan, or the dyed-in-the-wool pessimist (we all know one, many of us see them in the mirror every morning), you must admit there have been some pleasant surprises so far.

There have also been a couple major unpleasant surprises. So, let’s sort through them to try to gauge what they mean for the rest of the season, compliment sandwich style.

Goals Everywhere

One of the Bruins’ biggest issues last season under Bruce Cassidy was a lack of depth scoring. Under Jim Montgomery and his offense-first philosophy, the Bruins are filling the net.

Patrice Bergeron is scoring at more than his regular consistency (which was great to begin with), and David Krejci looks like he’s finally getting to play the type of creative offensive type game he’s always wanted to, without the shackles of a defense-first coach slowing him down.

Jake DeBrusk looks like a new man as well (more on that in a moment).

Every top-six forward except for Taylor Hall has at least three points. Every Bruins regular, besides Tomas Nosek and Jakub Zboril, has a point. First-year Bruin A.J. Greer is the team’s co-leader in goals, tied with David Pastrnak and Bergeron with three. Even Nick Foligno, who just tied his 2021-22 goal total (with 2), looks like the player the Bruins thought they were getting when they signed him last season.

Montgomery’s focus on breaking the puck out through the center of the rink, rather than up the boards, and emphasizing puck possession and creativity has shown real results. Montgomery has encouraged the defense to get involved in the offense, which is one of the reasons why Connor Clifton has four assists! Connor Clifton! So far, Montgomery is achieving what Don Sweeney brought him in for. But that has come with one major drawback.

Pond Hockey Problems

What has happened to the Bruins’ defense and its solid goaltending? Montgomery’s system happened. While it’s been a breath of fresh air on offense, the new system has come, so far at least, at the expense of defense.

The Bruins lead the league in goals through four games with 21, one ahead of the Los Angeles Kings, who have scored 20 goals in five games. But their goals-against number is staggering also. They’ve surrendered 15 goals through four games, good for ninth worst in the league. The Bruins and Kings are the only two teams ranked within the bottom 10 in the league in goals against with winning records. The other eight teams have a combined record of 6-24-3.

Winning games this way is not sustainable. Sure, you could make the argument that this is who they are and they can win enough games this way to make the playoffs. But when you take a closer look at the pace at which they’re scoring, you start to see the issue.

The Bruins are on pace to score 431 goals in 82 games this season. For context, last season’s Presidents Trophy-winning Florida Panthers led the league, scoring 340 goals in the regular season. The Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche scored 312.

Only the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s broke the 400-goal barrier, and they did it a few times.

On the flip side, the Bruins are on pace to surrender 308 goals. Last season that would have placed them ahead of only the three worst teams in the league, Montreal, Arizona and Detroit.

This doesn’t feel like a sustainable brand of hockey.

Five Forwards, No Goalie

Yes, the team is still missing Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy. Yes, changing to a new system will result in growing pains. But what we’ve seen through the first four games this season has been frightening. The team defense to start this season has ranged from mediocre to outright disgraceful.

In Ottawa, against a winless (but talented) Senators team, the Bruins’ defense was an embarrassment and Jeremy Swayman was equally bad.

The book is clearly out on Swayman. If he doesn’t stop letting goals in through his five-hole, opponents might try to revive the old Dave Reece train joke.

He deserves a lot of the blame for his .816 save percentage and his 5.40 goals-against average, but not all of it.

The Bruins have allowed odd-man rushes at a break-neck pace in their first three games. Against Ottawa, the team surrendered multiple goals off rushes in which they had the numbers advantage over the Senators but still suffered massive breakdowns in coverage. The team’s backchecking has been lackluster as has its ability to win puck battles in the defensive zone.

Take the Senators’ first goal Tuesday night.

The Bruins matched the Senators numbers wise on the rush at mid-ice. By the time the puck crossed the Bruins’ blue line, the situation had devolved into a 3-on-2. The coverage was abysmal.

The Senators goal, off the stick of Brady Tkachuk, started with Tim Stutzle facing two Bruins defenders. A badly timed change and lackluster backchecking gave Tkachuk plenty of time and space to receive Stutzle’s pass and fire a puck past Swayman for a 2-0 lead.

The Senators’ third goal came after Tkachuk and Stutzle ate up Hampus Lindholm and Mike Reilly behind Swayman before getting the puck out to Drake Batherson.

From start to finish, the Bruins’ defensive performance was a disgrace.

The lack of defensive discipline has been one negative undertone in the otherwise positive first three performances of the season for the Bruins. Against Ottawa, it cost them the game.

Jake DeBrusk Looks Incredible

Back to the good stuff.

Through two-plus games, DeBrusk has looked incredible. In his 11:06 of ice time before leaving the Washington game due to injury, DeBrusk was flying. He notched three shots and one high-danger chance; he played with physicality, forcing a turnover that resulted in a Connor Clifton shot that hit the crossbar.

But it was Monday’s victory over Florida which was eye-opening. He’s had games in which he’s scored more impactful goals, but from start to finish, that was probably the best game McDavi…I mean, DeBrusk has ever played in a Bruins uniform.

No, he’s not Connor McDavid, but in that game, DeBrusk’s play was McDavid-esque. Two of his three points directly resulted from burning by defensemen. His first goal, less than a minute into the game, also featured a deceptive shot that DeBrusk has benefitted from during his best games.

His assist on Bergeron’s second goal of the season was even more impressive. He used his remarkable speed again to beat Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ best defenseman, shield the puck, kick to his stick and make a no-look pass to Bergeron, who scored.

DeBrusk impressed in Ottawa as well. He initiated breakouts, pounced on rebounds and continued to generate offense, tallying two assists along the way.

DeBrusk has also been one of the rare Bruins to play responsible defense. In spite of the team’s porous performance in the defensive zone, DeBrusk has only been on the ice for a single goal against. That compares to the 12 goals the Bruins have allowed with DeBrusk on the lineup, but not on the ice.

He has the second-lowest expected goals against among the Bruins’ regulars at 1.19, trailing only Jakub Lauko. That means the Bruins are stingier at surrendering high-quality scoring chances when DeBrusk is on the ice, which is reflected in the actual number of goals the team has allowed when he’s on the ice.

Things Will Get Better

The surprises this season have been a mixed bag. While the explosion of offense is both exciting and refreshing, the regression of the team’s defense and Swayman’s goaltending have been shocking, and they both cannot exist simultaneously for a whole season.

The good news is when Brad Marchand, McAvoy and Grzelcyk return, the team will add even more offensive weapons and a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman to steady the team’s back end. Combine that with the fact that the season is only four games old, and the team still needs to figure out just how aggressively to play on offense to balance out the risks it’s taking on defense, and it the future looks bright.