5 reasons why Bruins are in a tier of their own this season

The Bruins have difference makers littered throughout their dominant lineup.

The 2022-23 Boston Bruins are no longer competing against their opponents for the duration of the regular season; they’re competing against the ghosts of years past.

Boston is fighting for its status among the all-time great teams and is currently on pace to topple the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens for most points in a regular season (132). This year’s Bruins team became the fastest to reach the 100-point mark and is threatening to break the all-time wins record of 62, set by the 1976-77 Canadiens and 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.

My colleague James O’Brien summarized Boston’s pathway to becoming the greatest team of all-time in January. Here’s how the Bruins have fared all year and the primary reasons why they’re in a tier above the rest of the field in the NHL.

Bergeron is having a season for the ages

Patrice Bergeron is having the best season of his storied career; an absurd notion when you consider that he turns 38 in July. Boston controls an eye-popping 64.2 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when he’s on the ice, via Natural Stat Trick, the best mark in the NHL among players who have logged 500 minutes or more. He is outright dominating the competition, and though it will be David Pastrnak who gets the down-ballot Hart Trophy votes, the Bruins’ unmatched success this year begins with their captain.

Bergeron has been the NHL’s best faceoff man by far. He’s winning draws at a spectacular 62.2 percent clip at 5-on-5 and 60.48 percent in all situations, which is all the more remarkable when you consider he’s taken the third-most faceoffs in the NHL, trailing only Bo Horvat and Sidney Crosby by three draws.

We wouldn’t be surprised if Bergeron wins the Selke Trophy unanimously. He’s been the best defensive forward in the NHL by far; his only real rivals are his linemates, and he’s been on the ice for 37 goals scored versus 14 against at 5-on-5. This would be the sixth time — the second consecutive year — where Bergeron wins the award, and this may have been his most comprehensive effort to date.

Bergeron’s leadership also extends off the ice, as Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said he’s eased the transition for all of the team’s post-deadline acquisitions.

"When your captain is Patrice Bergeron, people get acclimated real quick to what the culture is and why it's special to be here, more importantly," Montgomery said Wednesday. "Under Patrice Bergeron, there's a bunch of assistant captains that are great as well, that understand that Spoked-B matters more than anything and that's what we're driving towards.

The Boston Bruins may are the most balanced team the NHL has seen in a long time. (Reuters)
The Boston Bruins may are the most balanced team the NHL has seen in a long time. (Reuters)

"It's more than just leading by example. He sets the example — we practice like champions every day because of him and others…they compete. There's a professionalism to what we do on the ice…but more importantly, being around Patrice — Patrice's awareness of other people and being empathetic, whether they're going good or whether they're not going good, he sees it, he addresses it, he communicates with them.

"The best example is, I've met with several players because your job as a coach is to look and be aware of those things and you've got to pick guys up or hold them accountable, whatever the case may be and a lot of times, I'll be ing a player in my office this year and [ask them], 'How you doing, man?' And they'll be like, 'Well, Patrice talked to me. I'm in a better place.'"

Bergeron is also the central component of Boston’s league-leading penalty kill, which is stopping opponents at a 86.6 percent rate, three whole percentage points ahead of second-place Carolina.

Bruins split the Perfection Line into two excellent combinations

Remember when Jake DeBrusk demanded a trade from the Bruins? That may as well be ancient history. DeBrusk leads the NHL in expected goals against per 60 among all qualified players (500 minutes played or more) while Bergeron ranks second. Brad Marchand, for the record, ranks 63rd — he’s clearly slacking!

Boston’s nominal top unit has controlled 63 percent of the expected goals and 73 percent of the actual goals, while being on the ice for 16 goals for versus six against at 5-on-5. All three players are within the top-16 of expected goals for at 5-on-5 and Boston’s second most-used combination has been a veritable nightmare to play against. The Perfection Line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) has been split into two flawless combinations and there’s virtually no scenario where the Bruins take their foot off the gas.

David Krejci returned from his one-year sabbatical re-energized and re-committed to the Bruins. He’s now centering the team’s nominal second line, which includes Hart candidate Pastrnak and former top-six pick Pavel Zacha. This unit has outscored opponents 26-12 at 5-on-5, while the Perfection Line, when reunited, are leading opponents 8-3. It’s also worth noting that Marchand missed the first four games of the year, and the Bruins cooked opponents alive with a makeshift combination of Krejci centering Pastrnak and Taylor Hall.

You can’t make a mistake against the Bergeron line or else it’ll get punished on the scoresheet, and then you have to face a line consisting of a Hart candidate, a revitalized four-time 20-goal scorer and a former prized prospect who found his stride and is entering his prime. Good luck.

Boston’s bottom-six are crushing opponents as well

It’s somewhat unfair that the Bruins can deploy a former Hart winner in Hall on their third line and no one bats an eye. Hall may miss the remainder of the regular season due to injury, but it’s believed he will return from long-term injured reserve when the playoffs start. Hall, Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic have been one of the NHL’s best third lines this season, controlling 60 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5, while Frederic leads the NHL in high-danger goals for percentage at 5-on-5. Coyle has turned into a genuinely elite defensive player this season as well, and we don’t anticipate any drop-off during Hall’s absence.

Hall and Nick Foligno may be recovering from injury, but the Bruins were proactive at the deadline, acquiring Tyler Bertuzzi from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a conditional 2024 first-round pick and 2025 fourth-round pick. Picks simply don’t matter to elite teams and the Bruins acquired a capable, hard-nosed winger two years removed from a 30-goal season for a light acquisition cost. Bertuzzi slotted right onto the Coyle-Frederic line, registering an assist in his first game with his new team.

Garnet Hathaway is a pain in the behind to play against and the Bruins’ optimal lineup is terrifying, especially when you consider that Bertuzzi may drop down to the fourth line when Hall and Foligno return, with Tomas Nosek being the odd man out. These are good problems to have and there’s never a moment of doubt with this group.

Ullmark’s rise from castoff to Vezina favourite

Anyone could’ve snagged Linus Ullmark two summers ago as an unrestricted free agent, and now the Bruins may have their next Vezina-winning goaltender. Ullmark leads all goalies in most categories, including goals saved above expected (36), save percentage (.938) and goals against average (1.89) while forming one part of the NHL’s best tandem alongside Jeremy Swayman.

Swayman is the league’s best backup, but the focus should rightfully be on Ullmark. He’s submitted one of the best seasons by a goaltender we’ve ever seen. And this is usually where you’d chime in that he’s the beneficiary of one of the NHL’s best defenses — certainly, Boston’s defense has helped him immensely — but on the rare night that the Bruins aren’t suffocating the opposition, Ullmark has stood tall. He single-handedly won the Bruins a game by making 54 saves against the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28, where there was a 37-shot disparity between both clubs, three nights after scoring a goal against the Vancouver Canucks.

When your Vezina-favourite goaltender is scoring goals, there’s not much left for opponents to do. Godspeed to anyone who gets the unlucky Bruins assignment in the first round.

Orlov helping Boston’s tremendous team speed on the blue line

We’ve spent a long time writing about the Bruins’ forwards and superior goaltending, but their biggest advantage might be on the blue line. Brandon Carlo and Hampus Lindholm both told Yahoo Sports prior to a 6-2 win over the Maple Leafs on Feb. 1 how the Bruins emphasize their team speed, with a focal point on head-manning the puck. Lindholm, who signed an eight-year, $52-million extension upon joining the Bruins last year, has emerged as one of the NHL’s premier defensive defensemen this season.

“I'm a good skater that wants to be all over the ice, trying to join and the defensive part is always what came easy to me because that's what I developed first, being a two-way defenseman and responsible defensively,” Lindholm said. “It's really fun for me to explore the offensive side and go up and join the rush. I think it's years of me working — I know it sounds like it just exploded out but it's been a lot of work behind it. It's nice to have a team that's flourishing.”

The pairing of Lindholm-Carlo has worked exceptionally well for the Bruins, on the ice for 25 goals scored versus 14 against, while controlling a 55 percent share of the expected goals and a 64 percent share of the actual goals at 5-on-5. They’re one of the best pairings in the NHL and their speed and offensive intuition are major reasons why they’ve been so successful.

Charlie McAvoy is the Bruins’ best defenseman — if you want to argue Lindholm instead, that’s fine by us — and he’s often been paired with Matt Grzelcyk, while leading Boston’s blue line with 43 points. After the Bruins traded for Dmitry Orlov ahead of the deadline, McAvoy has been paired with the former Capitals defenseman, while Grzelcyk takes reps with Derek Forbort.

Orlov may have been the best deadline addition made by any team, and he’s paid immediate dividends, earning the NHL’s first star of the week after recording three goals and nine points in four games with the Bruins. He’s now taken over the Bruins’ first power play unit, and while Boston often runs four forwards, he could share this responsibility with McAvoy going forward.

Forbort and the emerging Connor Clifton have been the Bruins’ most consistently used pairing, and they’ve been on the ice for 21 goals with 16 against, while posting league-average underlying numbers. As the Bruins look to get their optimal lineups in place, they have four exceptional defenseman in McAvoy, Lindholm, Carlo and Orlov. By carving out an impenetrable lead in the Atlantic Division, the Bruins can now experiment with their lineup combinations in what’s been a dream season to date.