Friday, December 14, 2007

The Most Surprising Team

I don't think most experts expected much from the Boston Bruins this season. I picked them to pick 13th overall in the East Conference and I don't think my prediction was too out of line with the rest of the hockey world. However, so far this season their 17-14 (with three losses counted as regulation ties) has them tied for fifth in the NHL. They are the team that has most exceeded expectation. How have they done it?

It is not too surprising that Marc Savard leads the team with 37 points. He has been a top scorer in the NHL for the last couple years (having posted 97 and 96 point seasons). This is expected. However, he has not had any support from any other game breaking offensive players. Marco Sturm, Glen Murray and Phil Kessel are their next best offensive players this season, but none of them have more than 20 points. Patrice Bergeron has been limited to only ten games due to a concussion and this has hurt the team, but even with him in the lineup the Bruins lack a top offence.

On defence, Zdeno Chara is a star and is posting another good season, but he has little support. The other key Bruin defencemen, Dennis Wideman, Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference are journeymen. Boston has a couple good players, but not enough depth to make a run.

The surprise has come in goal. I was not expecting that Manny Fernandez would be the answer for the Bruins and he hasn't been. He played rather poorly in four games and with his recent knee surgery may not be back this season. The surprise is Tim Thomas, who is the Vezina leader at this point. Thomas was expected to be the Boston backup goalie this season, but currently has been their best player. He leads the NHL with a .936 saves percentage. He has posted those numbers despite facing a lot of high quality shots. Thomas would be one of the nominees for the Hart Trophy at this point if I could vote.

Tim Thomas shows how important goaltending is in the NHL. A top goalie can make a poor team look like a contender. On the other hand, poor goaltending can make an otherwise good team miss the playoffs ( see Calgary this season). The easiest way to change the fortunes of a team is to find a top goalie. One man is all that it takes to make a contender out of an also ran.

Boston has been a surprise this year. They were not expected to be in the playoff race, but they currently sit in a tie for fifth place in the league. The reason for this surprise is quite simple. Tim Thomas is having an outstanding season so far in goal and he was not expected to be much of a factor by most experts when they made their predictions before the season began.

Claude Julien has had an impact as well. They are playing a much more defensive game this year. They still give up a fair number of shots but the quality is much lower in general than last year and they still are giving up nearly 2 shots per game less than last year. Certainly Thomas deserves a huge amount of credit for Boston's improvement but they are playing a smarter more defensive brand of hockey as well. The Boston-Toronto game last Saturday was a perfect example.

"They're a very defensive hockey team," said Toskala. "They just sit back and wait for those turnovers. There were long periods where I didn't touch the puck."

Boston's shot totals are down 3.3 shots per game this year which is indicative of their less aggressive offensive play.
Its a bit of a stretch to claim Boston is a good defensive team whne they are 5th worst in the league in shots allowed with 31.7 per game. At best they have improved from really bad defensively to merely bad.
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