Before the season, it was the universal consensus of the hockey world that they'd again struggle for their playoff lives all season, never quite out of it, maybe, but always just hanging on by their veritable and collective finger-tips.
Say this for the Bruins. They are resolutely predictable. In a world turned upside down wherein nothing seems as it once was, the Bruins -- who have always tended to play to the fullness of their potential whatever it may be -- remain relentlessly what you thought they'd be; nothing less, nothing more.
Before the season, it was the universal consensus of the hockey world that they'd again struggle for their playoff lives all season, never quite out of it, maybe, but always just hanging on by their veritable and collective finger-tips. So here we are at roughly the half-way point of the mindlessly grueling regular season and they've played (as of the writing) 46 games and won exactly half of them (23) while losing -- exactly -- the other half (23), scoring four more goals than they've given up. Doesn't get more "average" than that.
Of course, five of those defeats were of the ingeniously half-baked "a loss ain't a loss if it happens in overtime" schtick which could only make sense in the National Hockey League or Alice's Wonderland. All of which gives them the illusion of a respectable 23-18-5 mark and a momentary hold on the sixth of the eight playoff spots.
But setting aside all such gobbledygook one stresses it's essentially illusion. Boston's thin playoff edge at roughly the season's halfway point is based on having played the most games; five more than closest pursuers Toronto and Ottawa. When the Leafs, Senators, Canes, Flyers, Panthers and Lightening have played as many games, the Bruins could be twelfth in the playoff sweepstakes with the task of rising higher increasingly daunting. And then, what?
It's all about "parity"; the remarkably clever scheme that virtually guarantees roughly 25 of the 30 teams will retain the faint look and technical potential of a playoff-worthy club from October to April even if rarely a half dozen are remotely Cup-worthy. All sorts of clever devices contribute to the maintaining of beloved Parity; the salary cap, draft, roster controls, rules changes, brutal scheduling, even the heightened campaign to limit the game's physical dimension and crackdown on rough-stuff, essential to the survival of softer teams.
It's contrived of course but the people who run this game, led by the re-constructed basketball guy who serves as its commissioner, devoutly believe that parity fools all the hockey patrons all the time and keeps the turnstiles spinning from October into April.
Does it make the game better? Hardly! But then neither does the fact that the NHL has swelled to a preposterous 30 teams with more expansion looming and still more soon to follow; this though half the existing teams are thoroughly mediocre. A perfect NHL would have 16 teams; with 24 -- none from the sunbelt, let alone the desert -- being the absolute limit. But that cause has been lost. Sometimes I wonder if the NBA planted Gary Bettman in the NHL to sabotage hockey and snare winter all to itself.
Ah, but we digress. Giving up on the Bruins in January may be unwise; or at least unkind. One won't go that far, although when they lose three games within a fortnight to last-place teams one's tempted. This can be an aggravating team; hard to figure.
The goalie is having a fine year but tends to tire and lacks a reliable back-up. The 39 year-old captain remains grand, but he's near-40. If Brad Marchand has arrived as a star, Patrice Bergeron's star may be waning? New-boy David Backes has much character but too many miles on him. Matt Belesky, last year's priciest free-agent import, looks a bust. As does the entire third line although the fourth line is better. Of the promising kids, Brandon Carlo looks the real deal and David Pastrnak is a revelation but Ryan Spooner is skating backwards and others look average. David Krejci is overpaid. A seasoned defenseman remains the crucial need. Stylistically, the Bruins don't scare teams as they historically have. But then no team is allowed to anymore.
How much of this is Claude Julien's fault? Precious little, says I, and the General Manager's recent suggestion that the Coach is in trouble is particularly annoying. You sense Don Sweeney may be lining up Julien as a potential fall-guy should the Bruins again miss the playoffs and ownership needs to be appeased.
Such questions Sweeney has of Julien he might better ask himself. Would he like to have the Reilly Smith for Jimmy Hayes deal back? What about the Belesky signing? He's had two years to find a back-up goalie. How did he improve this team when he let Loui Eriksson walk so he could sign Backes? When does the parade of prized-phenoms begin?
Claude Julien has proved himself. Don Sweeney still needs to. This season's second-half should be VEEEEEERY interesting. Stay tuned!
Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.
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