Players to keep an eye on ahead of Boston's upcoming three-week gauntlet.
Charlie McAvoy's return gives the Bruins a tremendous tandem on the blue line.
After a Saturday night drubbing of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins found themselves atop the NHL with a 16-2-0 record and a .889 points percentage.
That .889 points percentage over the course of an 82-game season amounts to 146 points. Even with their lofty expectations, achieving seven more wins than the historic 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens remains a stretch.
“It’s a special team,” Patrice Bergeron, who is one point shy of 1,000 career points, said after the Bruins’ 6-1 win over Chicago. “We have a lot of depth, and I think it shows. Everyone is contributing, everyone is valued, and I think everyone has confidence…I think that’s the biggest thing.”
That depth has been crucial to the Black and Gold during their historic start. And they’ll rely on their four forward lines and three defensive pairs as they approach a daunting point in their schedule.
Ten of Boston’s next 11 games will feature some of the league’s top opponents. Headlining the stretch are last year’s President’s Trophy-winner, both sides of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, and another league-top squad with a familiar face behind the bench.
“It’s unfathomable that we were going to have this start,” head coach Jim Montgomery said. “We’re enjoying the ride right now, but we know that our schedule is getting really hard. It’s nice to be part of the record books, and one thing we wanted to do was stay in the present, focus on the next shift.”
With that in mind, here are three players to keep an eye on ahead of Boston’s upcoming three-week gauntlet.
Swayman made his first start Saturday night after sustaining a lower-body injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 1st. The former UMaine standout didn’t see a tremendous amount of rubber, allowing one goal on a mere 18 shots faced during his return.
“Just one shot at a time. Doesn’t matter,” Swayman said. “Definitely a mentally strong game. I want to make sure I’m ready for a shot, a breakaway, a grade-A if there was one.”
Swayman will likely see a much higher shot volume during this upcoming run. Linus Ullmark will get the start against the Lightning on Monday. If the Bruins return to their rotation, then in all likelihood Swayman will get the nod Wednesday night against the Panthers.
Ullmark has carried the load for the Bruins as of late, starting five of the six games during Swayman’s absence. With Swayman returning to full health ahead of a challenging stretch, the Bruins will have to rely on both sides of their goaltending tandem.
“Playing a lot of games now lately, obviously you go a lot more on autopilot than if you’re sitting on the sidelines for a long time,” Ullmark said following the Bruins’ 5-2 win over the Flyers on Thursday. “It’s been fun watching the guys. It feels like they’re doing all the right things. ”
Ullmark, in possession of a league-best save percentage, goals-against-average and wins, could likely see more action than Swayman down the stretch. Swayman will still be relied upon against many of these upcoming opponents. But much of the Bruins’ success will be contingent on the performance of their current second option between the pipes.
A four-assist night on Saturday punctuated McAvoy’s strong start to his 2022-23 season. Now with five games under his belt, the Boston blueliner may have taken the next step since returning from off-season shoulder surgery.
“He’s got the rust off and he’s starting to play on his toes,” Montgomery said. “It was nice to see, and it was just a matter of time.”
Hampus Lindholm’s Norris-caliber early-season run provided the Bruins with a number-one defenseman in McAvoy’s 13-game absence. With McAvoy back, Montgomery can utilize McAvoy and Lindholm as a “1A and 1B” option within the top four.
With McAvoy’s game coming into its own, the Bruins have themselves quite the two-headed monster within their defensive core. Such a versatile backend will provide Boston with the firepower needed ahead of its gauntlet schedule.
“[McAvoy’s] just using his god-given ability to make things happen,” Montgomery said. “He can skate right by forwards. He has the poise where he’d look, whether he’s looking at [Grzelcyk] or looking in the slot…he’s down the wall, and he’s making things happen.”
A late entry into training camp and visa issues complicated Stralman’s integration into the Bruins organization. Now with six games under his belt, the veteran blueliner seems to have re-established his steady defensive play.
“It’s just been a crazy start for me here with everything that went on with the PTO and visa struggles,” Stralman said late last week. “Ever since those days, it’s just been trying to play catch up a little bit and working on my game behind the scenes. Just be ready when that call came.”
Between Jakub Zboril’s struggles and Derek Forbort’s return potentially being still weeks away, Stralman has emerged as the most consistent option to complement Brandon Carlo on Boston’s bottom defensive pairing.
Continued consistency from bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defensemen like Stralman remains crucial as the Bruins prepare for clubs with equally strong depth.
“It’s always a bit of a challenge,” Stralman said. “I think you go out there and you try to find your way, find the pattern of the game and all those things. It obviously helps with the team being as good and connected as they are. You can kind of hide out there a little bit, hopefully.”
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