Yes, I'm going there again … I'm writing something good about the Bruins

December, 9, 2008
12/09/08
11:19
AM ET
In March -- March 3, to be exact -- I decided to file a short blog entry in this space to commend the surprisingly sturdy 2007-08 Bruins. At the time, they had won six straight to improve to a very impressive 35-23-6.

I figured they were playing so well that my silly comments couldn't do any damage.

Well, I was wrong.

Those B's responded to my heady praise by getting their hockey pants kicked by the Caps in D.C. The final score was an ugly 10-2.

So it is with a bit of trepidation that I again would like to bring up the subject of the Bruins, who upped their Eastern Conference-leading points total to 42 with a 5-3 victory over the visiting Lightning on Monday night.

Simply put, the 2008-09 Bruins have been doing most of the pants-kicking during the first third of the season. After 27 games, did anyone think they'd be 19-4-4? No, I didn't think so.

These Bruins are good, and pretty tough to root against. They're led by a coach (Claude Julien), who, in his previous gig, was canned by the Devils just days before the playoffs despite a terrific record. They have a goalie (Tim Thomas), who doesn't do anything pretty except the stop the puck. And they have an emerging super sniper (21-year-old Phil Kessel), who has overcome testicular cancer and seems to be proving many skeptics (who figured he was too much style and not enough substance) wrong.

In his second season, Julien (with the help of clever assistant coach Craig Ramsay) has done a terrific job of installing a system of play and holding his players accountable. There haven't been too many nights during Julien's tenure in Boston when his team hasn't been ready to play. That says something about a coaching staff.

In goal, Thomas and fellow veteran Manny Fernandez have given the Bruins what every hockey team needs -- damn good goaltending. Thomas has an 11-3-3 record with a ridiculous .940 save percentage and a 1.90 goals-against average. It's funny how things work out sometimes. Former GM Mike O'Connell gets the blame for making the dreadful Joe Thornton trade, but he's the same guy who, as it turns out, was smart enough to sign Thomas to a very reasonable multiyear deal. That contract, which pays the 34-year-old stopper a modest $1.1 million this season, expires at the end of the season. Guess who's going to get a pretty big raise?

For the record, Fernandez, who missed almost all of last season, has been good, too. He's 8-1-1 with a .926 save percentage and a 2.09 goals-against average. Fernandez, 33, makes a more substantial $4.75 million ($4.333 cap hit). Coincidentally, his contract also expires in June.

The best story in Boston, however, just might be Kessel, who leads the club with 17 goals. Quick and skilled, Kessel is currently riding a 12-game points streak. On the season, his 25 points in 27 games ranks second on Boston's scoring list behind playmaking ace Marc Savard. Kessel will almost certainly smash his career-best 37 points from last season. He is also plus-12. In his previous two seasons, he was a combined minus-18.

Kessel is one of those guys who seems older than his 21 years. In the hockey world, we've been talking about him since he was a promising 16-year-old. After a dazzling performance at the 2005 World Juniors, he seemed ticketed to be the top pick in the 2006 draft. But in the months leading up to June, Kessel's stock started to slide among scouts. Talented prospects Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom were chosen before him. With the fifth pick, the Bruins decided to take a chance on Kessel's skill. Nearly three years later, it looks like a very good decision. After all, you can't teach skill, can you?

Too often, teams aren't willing to be patient with prospects barely beyond their teenage years. Sometimes those kids get bounced around and never find their way. Clearly, Julien and Ramsay have made an impact on Kessel. They've helped him get better. He's getting a little older and starting to mature. It's funny how that works, too. Right now, Kessel is a lot like his team -- fun to watch.

Fellow kids Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Blake Wheeler have all been major contributors to the strong start, while Patrice Bergeron is back after missing most of last season with concussion issues. I can see him getting better as the season goes on. Vets Michael Ryder, Chuck Kobasew, Marco Sturm, Stephane Yelle and P.J. Axelsson are capably filling different roles.

On the blue line, All-Star Zdeno Chara leads a no-name group that's quietly getting the job done. Offensive-minded Dennis Wideman (16 points, plus-12) and veteran Aaron Ward are the minute-eaters behind Chara.

Right now, this group seems very much for real, and I don't even feel bad about writing these good things about them. I mean, what can happen? Who do they play next? Hmm. They travel to D.C. to face the Caps on Wednesday.

It can't happen again, right?

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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