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Heading into Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning (7 p.m. ET, NHL Power Play on ESPN+), the Boston Bruins are on pace for 66 wins and 140 points, both of which would set NHL records (currently 62 and 132, respectively). For a team that lost in the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs and fired its coach in the summer, this has certainly been a surprisingly great start.
But who has been most responsible for this start? Can any team in the Eastern Conference mount a serious challenge when it comes to the postseason? And what should Boston do ahead of the March 3 trade deadline?
Our experts tackle those questions and more here:
Who has been Boston’s MVP thus far?
Ryan S. Clark, NHL reporter: Hampus Lindholm. He was big for them when Charlie McAvoy was out of the lineup. Furthermore, he is everything teams seek in a top-four defenseman in that he can lead a team in 5-on-5 ice time while also being a figure on both special teams units.
Arda Öcal, NHL host: Linus Ullmark. A .938 save percentage. Broke the NHL record for fewest decisions needed to get to 25 wins (28). A 25-2-1 record. He’s pretty much locked up the Vezina Trophy halfway through the season. Leads the NHL in saves above expected (27.3) and wins above replacement (4.55). He’s made 804 saves on 857 shots faced this season. There are a lot of players to choose from for this question, but I’m throwing flowers to Ullmark.
Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Jim Montgomery. Of course, Ullmark, Lindholm, Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, among others, deserve the credit and attention they’ve drawn through great seasons. But what a perfect marriage Montgomery has entered into with Boston. The Bruins have responded to his coaching style and system so seamlessly it’s strange to think his tenure began only a few short months ago.
Montgomery coaxes the right buy-in out of his players, and seems to know when it’s time to tinker and change things up to keep the Bruins fresh. Any team in the league would want to bottle Montgomery’s formula right now.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: The answers here read like someone dared my fellow round-tablers not to write “David Pastrnak.” But it’s David Pastrnak. He has 37 goals and 32 assists in 47 games, making him the NHL’s highest-scoring non-Oiler. One of my favorite unfancy stats is “first goals,” as in the player who opens the scoring in a game. Pastrnak has done that nine times for the NHL’s best defensive team, leading the league in that category. And never underestimate the goofy, infectious joy he brings to the rink every day.
He’ll be compensated handsomely in his next contact for all of this — it’s just a matter of how long Pasta wants to commit to the ‘B’ knowing that the Bergeron era will end soon.
Who is the Bruins’ biggest challenger in the East?
Clark: For now, it’s the New Jersey Devils. They receive offensive contributions from everywhere, while having a defensive structure that is one of the best in the league. The Devils have balance and may have the strongest chance of pushing the Bruins.
Öcal: Only because the Bruins have struggled the most this season in Canada, I’ll go with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If there was ever a time for the Leafs to exorcise the Boston demons of the past, it would be this year. I’ll say this, I’ve never heard more Bruins fans on the ESPN campus say “watch them win the Presidents’ Trophy, then pull a Tampa and get swept in the playoffs.”
Based on the current standings, that wouldn’t be exactly the same scenario — since the Bruins and Leafs wouldn’t meet until the second round. They play twice more before the postseason begins, and it would be interesting to see the Leafs challenge the Bruins in those games.
Shilton: Considering I already picked Carolina to win the Stanley Cup this season … I should probably say the Hurricanes. And I still think that with their depth of forward talent, solid back end, multiple goaltending options and excellent coaching, they could emerge victorious from the East.
In terms of who might challenge Boston most in a playoff series, though? Toronto. Never mind the history between those two clubs in recent postseason meetings. The Leafs would match up well against the Bruins because of how similar the teams can be: top-end offensive threats, puck-moving defenders who like getting involved, a goaltending tandem that’s among the league’s best. Going head-to-head every other night could bring out the best in both teams, and Boston would likely find a worthy opponent in Toronto.
Wyshynski: There’s one thing the Devils, Hurricanes and Leafs all have in common, which is that none of them have won a Stanley Cup within the last three seasons — let alone two of them consecutively. This version of the Tampa Bay Lightning isn’t as good as previous incarnations — frankly, they haven’t been the same since their Cup-winning checking line was broken up due to the salary cap and expansion draft in 2021. Now they’re minus Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh, too. But they still have Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli. Brandon Hagel has found his groove.
This front office will find a way to bolster the blue line, which could use another veteran hand. Oh, and the other thing those Eastern Conference contenders don’t have? Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best postseason goalie since Martin Brodeur, and someone who could steal a series against the mighty B’s on his own.
One word to describe the Bruins’ season:
Clark: Astonishing. We’re in late January and they are in a position to finish the month with nearly 85 points. That’s just stupid. Especially when they have more points through 47 games than some teams had at the end of last season.
Öcal: WHAT???? Remember how we were talking about the Bruins before the season started? Oh cool, they have a new coach. David Krejci‘s back. “The Last Dance” in Beantown. End of an era. But now they are on pace to have the best season in NHL history. You wouldn’t have even predicted this for any team you thought would win the Presidents’ Trophy before the season started, let alone Boston. It’s absolutely incredible to see.
Shilton: Serendipitous. The idea that Boston — the too-old, too-injured, too-predictable team it was forecast to be in September — would be steamrolling its way through the NHL? While barely breaking a sweat? It’s unexpected. It’s wonderful. It’s incredibly fun to watch.
Wyshynski: Bergeron. The free agent captain’s decision to return to this team was the validation the Bruins needed that they had another run left in them. He’s a rallying cry — “win one for Bergy!” — and a de facto associate head coach and still the best defensive center in hockey.
What do you expect the Bruins to do ahead of the trade deadline?
Clark: Try to get another bottom-six forward who can strengthen that part of their lineup with a bit more production, while also having another option they can use on the penalty kill as they look to be strategic with Patrice Bergeron‘s usage going forward.
Shilton: I would expect GM Don Sweeney to look at his team and think, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But of course, a GM’s job is never done, and there’s likely some modicum of improvement the Bruins could make.
Health is the No. 1 thing. If, over the next month, Boston runs into injury issues that would change the strategy, the salary cap might prevent the Bruins from chasing any high-end rentals or big-name contracts. More realistic targets could be a bottom-six winger like Ivan Barbashev, who has a history with Montgomery from their time in St. Louis. Boston clearly wants to win now. But adding a big piece at the deadline doesn’t always equal success, and the Bruins don’t want to do too much and disrupt the good thing they have going.
Wyshynski: I think they go big-name hunting and land Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks. Bergeron, Krejci, Horvat and Charlie Coyle up the middle would give Boston unparalleled center depth. It would also create a succession plan in case Bergeron and Krejci are both done after this Boston run, as Horvat is an unrestricted free agent next summer. He won’t come cheap, but when you’re all-in, you’re all-in.
What has impressed you the most about what Jim Montgomery has done?
Clark: How he maximizes his talent. We’ve seen it with Jake DeBrusk, Trent Frederic and Pavel Zacha. They are all having career seasons under Montgomery. DeBrusk would be on pace for nearly 70 points if not for his Winter Classic injury. Frederic had 12 career goals coming into this season, already has 10 this season, and is flirting with a potential 20-goal campaign. Meanwhile, Zacha is just seven points shy of a career high.
Öcal: He’s not resting on his early success. He’s constantly tinkering with the lineup, looking for ways to get even 1% better. Sometimes, it’s to find more chemistry among players. Other times, it’s to manage ice time. One example was the recent back-to-back in California, where the Bruins had a different lineup from San Jose to Anaheim, but won both games, drubbing the Ducks 7-1 in the second game.
As a side note, I think it’s impressive that both Montgomery and Bruce Cassidy, his predecessor in Boston, will be coaching at the All-Star Game. Both coaches are thriving in new environments.
Shilton: Much like the Bruins’ season itself, Montgomery has simply been a pleasant surprise. But it’s not just the fit he’s had behind the bench. It’s how Montgomery continues to push Boston that is impressive. There’s no fear in Montgomery. He appears to trust his players and they in turn believe in his methods. That’s the best way to explain how Montgomery has been able to have such quick success with individual skaters and in building the Bruins up as a whole powerhouse unit.
Wyshynski: The way the players talk about him. It’s beyond obvious that Cassidy’s particular brand of intensity reached its expiration date for the Bruins. From training camp onward, players raved about Montgomery’s demeanor, accountability, coaching systems and even the sense of fun he managed to bring back to games and practices. Their juggernaut success isn’t coincidental to his arrival. He’s the right coach at the right time for the right team, and it’s been inspiring to watch.