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By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON – It’s time to stop roasting the coach on a rotisserie-style hot seat.
The moment is way past due to quit pushing for a shakeup within the Bruins, or speaking about the Black and Gold hockey club as an organization mired in dire straits.
The argument has been losing steam for weeks as the B’s have rolled out a 7-1-3 record in the last 11 games after running smack into a wall last year around this time.
When it’s boiled down to facts, figures and all-important performance on the ice, it has become much easier to make a Teen Wolf-style slam dunk case that the Boston Bruins should now be considered one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
“For this team we accept and embrace the challenge of playing teams like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Washington, and really making the statement that we’re a good team,” said Gregory Campbell. “That’s what we expect of ourselves: to beat those elite teams.”
The B’s have beaten the Washington Capitals three times in four chances, taken down the mighty Penguins with a pair of dizzying third period comebacks at the CONSOL Energy Center and defeated the hated Flyers in both home and road tilts this season.
In a league where you’ve got to crush the best to be the best, the Bruins are a combined 9-2-1 against the aforementioned Flyers, Capitals and Penguins along with a Tampa Bay Lightning team that’s emerged as a legitimate force.
“Philly is kind of a measuring stick and I thought we played pretty well,” said Campbell of Thursday night’s 7-5 victory over the Flyers. “I don’t think we get enough credit. We belong with that group of teams. We definitely have that group in here that can be compared to those teams on paper.
“I think the biggest thing for us is consistency. We’ve beaten those teams, and to be a good team in the playoffs you have to beat all of the top teams. Every game is big now and the standings are so tight – whether it’s Montreal in our division or climbing up in the standings. We have to be prepared for every game.”
The Bruins are riding a three-game winning streak born from the stunning third period collapse against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre, and they continue pushing their way up the Eastern Conference standings.
The B’s sit third in the Eastern Conference by virtue of their Northeast Division cat bird seat, but they’d be tied for fourth in the conference regardless of the divisional standings.
The B’s amazingly still haven’t caught up to rest of the Eastern Conference in games played after starting a week behind due to the Premiere Games in Europe, and hold two games in hand against every potential playoff squad aside from the Flyers and the Canadiens.
If you pencil in a pair of wins or even a victory and an overtime loss for the Bruins with those two idle games, then the B’s rocket all the way up to second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Given those two games in hand, the Bruins would be nipping at the heels of a Flyers team widely agreed to be a certified Beast of the East.
So many of the complaints about the Bruins over the first few months now seem pretty distantly off the mark provided the B’s can continue to gain some consistency, and keep gathering momentum in the second half.
Anybody that values goal differential as a measure of a hockey team’s effectiveness would be interested to see that the Flyers (plus-36) and Penguins (plus-34) slot just ahead of the Bruins with a plus-32 so far this season.
Similar to the run differential cousin in Major League Baseball, goal differential is a pretty clear measurement of just how effectively the offense, defense and goaltending are blending together for an effective Bruins squad hardened by last year’s playoff disaster – and girded even further by third period stumbles against the Canadiens and Sabres among others this year.
The Bruins are eighth in the NHL in goals per game (3.0) and still set the standard for goals against average despite mounting evidence that Tim Thomas is cooling off a bit between the pipes. There is no glaring weakness to this year’s unit, but there are soft spots just as there are with the Capitals (lack of discipline), Flyers (lack of goaltending) and Penguins (lack of anything behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin).
That just means that the Eastern Conference is wide open for teams that are good enough – a similar situation to last season when a hot goaltender in Montreal allowed the Habs to advance all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The stats are there, the performance is there against the best teams the Eastern Conference has to offer and the slow-moving respect meter is finally climbing to the “contender” level for the Black and Gold.
B’s coach Claude Julien is hesitant to make any boasts or claims about just how good his club is halfway through the year, but he wasn’t about to stop anybody else from taking the initiative.
“It’s not for us to say,” said Julien. “It’s for us to show it. If people want to say that we’re an elite team then they can say it. We know how we feel and we know what we have to do to be that, and we just have to continue sticking with that.
“We’ve taken the approach that ‘talk is cheap’ and actions speak louder than words. That’s what we want to do.”
Well in that case…repeat after me before the bandwagon gets too crowded: the Bruins are one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
It may feel a little strange rolling off the tongue given all of the hue and cry this season, but there should be little doubt behind it if the Bruins dust off a revenge-minded Penguins team at the Garden again on Saturday afternoon.
Joe Haggerty can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HackswithHaggs