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Bruins break before Soupey XLVI

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No doubt you like the look and tempo of the hockey season so far. You are still feasting off that fabulous frolic last spring. The game seems healthier than it's been in a long time. Crowds are big. Revenues are up. The TV networks are even back sniffing around in search of some action. And above all, your beloved team is still riding high; as tough a bloke as you'll find on the block.

In short, you are feeling pretty good again about being a hockey fan. That vague sense of being an outcast has faded. Maybe you even feel equal to the insufferable blowhards who favor the other teams in town; or are holding your own in the give and take around the water cooler at work. You haven't felt quite so comfortable since Nixon was president and nobody had yet heard of the Watergate.

We've arrived at the halfway point of the National Hockey League's long, unforgiving, bloody gauntlet of a painfully grueling regular season. It's the toughest regimen in sports with the harshest demands and the most brutal travel and if you haven't flopped into Winnipeg or wobbled out of Calgary in the middle of the night in the month of February at the height of flu season you're just going to have to take my word for it. My hat's off to any team that goes all the way in this game in this league. Whatever you win in the NHL you have earned, my friend.

With all that in mind it is unwise to try to go pedal to the metal in this league over the regular season. If you fight too fiercely to finish on the top of the heap and you may have nothing left for the playoffs, which are all that count. That's been happening regularly in recent years. The Bruins would be wise to take note.

Recall that a year ago at this time, nobody was talking about the Bruins as a Cup contender. In the regular season last year, they had two major stretches of significant slumber which, along with the burden of nearly four decades of futility, only deepened the customary pessimism. The great awakening came in early March and lo and behold by late April they suddenly found themselves with unsuspected depths of gas in the tank. The rest is history. It is not as if you can deliberately coast or lay back. Turning it on and off is hard to do and risky as well. But keeping your people fresh and avoiding burn-out are vital considerations. Pacing is everything. In importance, it ranks second only to staying healthy.

Because once again in this league that features parity like no other, there are at least a dozen teams -- and perhaps as many as 16 -- that have legitimate hopes in the playoffs and can reasonably claim to be contenders for the Cup. Remarkably, that's roughly half the teams in the league. At the break, eight teams are clustered at the top with between 61 and 65 points. Any of them can heat up, find extra gas in the tank, and get lucky, much as the Bruins did just last year.

But to this point there's little dispute. The Bruins have been the best of the lot. Yes, as of the writing they are tied with the Rangers but they have one more win, and they are a point behind the Red Wings, but they've played two fewer games and also lost two fewer. But the most telling statistic is the difference between goals scored and goals allowed. The Bruins bulge is an astounding 71 points (168-97). In second place are the Wings with a plus 46. The Rangers are a plus 33. The majority of the teams in the league (18) have a minus differential. No team has exhibited anywhere near the fine balance of offense and defense that the Bruins can boast of. How difficult is it to do what they're doing? In the last 35 years, only one team has finished a season with the most goals scored and fewest allowed. They've been the best. Period!

Buttressing the notion further is the fact they lead in nearly everything that can be verified by statistical minutiae. They are the top-scoring third period team, the top-scoring five on five team, they have the highest percentage of face-off wins, the lowest goals against per game average. They have given up (by far) the fewest 3rd period (crunch time) goals; they're neck and neck with the Flyers for most penalties, and second only to the Rangers in most fights. While leading the league in scoring, they have only one player in the league's list of top 50 scorers (Tyler Seguin). In other words, this is a deep and balanced team that is plenty tough with no holes and -- as a crowning touch -- features goal-tending as is its greatest strength.

At the halfway point, that's a heckuva prescription for a very happy Spring! And, if you believe in statistics, it begins to look like a team that has a legitimate right to talk about "Dynasty;" although at that point, I would urge supreme caution. A couple of years ago the Pittsburgh Penguins were all the rage. And then suddenly Sidney Crosby's career got short-circuited.

Which brings us to the larger question of the overall state of the game. As the NHL prepares to stage its totally pointless and faintly silly all-star game, which has no meaning let alone any reason for being, it can afford to be no more than cautiously hopeful about the season it's having given the fears that grip the immediate future. There's a whole lot of whistling by the graveyard going on here.

Surely worth worrying about are looming contract talks between the players (NHLPA) and management. Yes, it's that merry time again. The NHLPA's CBA (collective bargaining agreement) expires in September. No doubt you assume -- given the horror show of seven years ago resulting in the bloody cancellation of an entire season -- there will be no more problems with all of that, in the name of sanity.

But there are legitimate and complex issues along with an undercurrent of resentment among the players who feel they've been obliged to bear too much responsibility for helping keep the dumb owners solvent. More to the point, the hockey players have -- for the first time in their history -- a leader who is both honest and knows what he's doing. That would be Don Fehr, former baseball labor steward. Fehr, as you may recall, knows how to play hard-ball. Tactical maneuverings for what's likely to be fierce negotiations this summer are already grinding away.

Even more pressing -- as we are seeing on an almost daily basis -- are the concerns about injury which have begun to meaningfully impact the way the game is played. Who would not want to see any game made safer, or decent kids like Crosby and the Bruins Marc Savard (and there are dozens more) spared the agony of injury that leaves them addled in some twilight zone facing the prospect of never playing again while still very much in their prime? The caprices of the thing are brutally unfair and anything that can correct the problem must be considered.

And yet it's approaching the point where the policing of the game threatens its very essence. At what point does legitimate, hard-nosed play become violent or dirty and who can make that judgment on the fly in the course of a game keyed to the pace of a runaway freight train?

Would North American patrons appreciate hockey that featured greatly reduced contact? Let's put it another way. Would North American football patrons appreciate a game that banned gang tackling, blind-side whacks, and hits above the waist?

Dealing with this issue is becoming a crisis for the NHL and by extension a potentially huge problem for the Bruins. For no team more favors the old-fashioned style or plays a more bruising game. What the Bruins should fear most is the possibility of getting caught in the cross-currents of a fast-changing game.

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