Orfao: Bruins’ surge returns team to NHL relevance

  • ABOVE: Boston’s David Pastrnak (88) returns to the bench after scoring a goal against the Penguins in Sunday’s 6-5 overtime loss. AP file photos

  • Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask stops a shot in the second period against the Penguins on Sunday in Pittsburgh. AP

  • Boston Bruins' Tim Schaller, right, celebrates with teammate Sean Kuraly (52) after scoring a goal as New York Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak (41) gets up during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in New York. The Bruins won 5-1. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Frank Franklin II

  • Boston Bruins' Tim Schaller, celebrates with teammates Sean Kuraly (52) and Noel Acciari (55) as New York Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak (41) gets up during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in New York. The Bruins won 5-1. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Frank Franklin II

Monitor staff
Friday, January 12, 2018

My cellphone chirped Sunday night as the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins traded blows in a back-and-forth scoring barrage.

Phil Kessel, the former Bruin who has helped the Pens to consecutive Stanley Cups titles, had just scored to give Pittsburgh its first lead of the game midway through the first period. That chirp was a text message from a friend from Pennsylvania reading: “PHIL THE THRILL.”

The first thing that should strike every reader is that the message was sent in all capital letters, which is a tell-tale sign the sender is trying to strike the most obnoxious tone possible. He succeeded.

But the fact a diehard fan of the two-time defending Cup champs couldn’t resist the compulsion to gloat in the first period of a regular-season game sent a completely different message: The Bruins are back.

It’s been a while since the B’s were relevant. The Bruins last won a playoff series in 2014, back when beards were synonymous with the World Series champion Red Sox, Jeff Green was the Celtics’ leading scorer and “deflategate” wasn’t a real thing.

Check that – it’s been more than a while.

Since an uninspiring 6-7-4 start, the Bruins have gone 17-3-3 with a blend of youth and experience that opens a window for sustained success. Boston’s top defensive pairing, Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, serves as the perfect example.

Chara made his NHL debut 32 days before McAvoy was born in 1997. The 40-year-old captain is leading the Bruins by example with a team-high 933 minutes of ice time this season. The 20-year-old McAvoy is second on the team at 916.

That’s the most obvious case, but that type of mix is sprinkled throughout the lineup.

The Bruins’ top line of forwards has a similar construction with the talented 21-year-old David Pastrnak skating alongside established All-Stars in Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

The team’s depth has been bolstered by the emergence of 22-year-old Danton Heinin (10 goals, 20 assists) and 21-year-old Jake DeBrusk (nine goals, 10 assists), along with the return of grizzled veteran David Backes.

New Hampshire’s own Tim Schaller, along with Sean Kuraly and Noel Accari, form an energetic and physical fourth line built to create a little chaos.

The sum of all parts is a bona fide playoff contender. As of Thursday night, hockey-reference.com listed Boston as the third most probable to hoist the Stanley Cup this season. VegasInsider.com had the B’s at 12-to-1, tied for the third best odds with Washington.

Kudos to general manager Don Sweeney for assembling the personnel, but Bruce Cassidy deserves even more credit for orchestrating the Bruins’ ascent. It’s been less than a year since the coach took over for Claude Julien. The franchise was muddled in mediocrity, but the Bruins are 41-18-8 in the regular season with Cassidy at the helm.

Undoubtedly, the B’s will hit a wall at some point and a stretch of results will resemble the early season woes. How the team responds to adversity will provide a barometer to its postseason mettle.

The second half of the season starts Saturday with a trip to Montreal for the first of three meetings with the rival Canadiens during the next five games. Under the guidance of old friend Julien, the Habs are hobbling with a 5-8-1 record since Dec. 5 and sit seven points out of a playoff spot.

Bless Julien’s heart for winning a Cup and racking up more victories than any other coach in franchise history, but it’s a fair bet the Bruins would love to bury their former boss in the standings and cripple the perennial nuisance residing in Quebec.

The three-game series over eight days – with a visit from Dallas and a trip to the Islanders in between – should draw some league-wide attention.

Win or lose, Montreal will be chirping – because the Bruins have returned to relevance.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JasonOrfao.)