We’re getting deep into another NHL season and once again the Boston Bruins are among the top teams in the league. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a person who would disagree that they are the best team in the NHL right now.
Boston leads the league in points percentage (.804) and they have a league-high plus-40 goal differential. That’s 15 goals better than anyone else.
That goal differential being so much better than the next-best team through just 28 games is extreme to the point I’m not sure people are appreciating it enough. What it means is the Bruins are outscoring opponents each game by 0.61 more goals than the next-best team. That’s just crazy.
The Bruins are far from the ideal roster at a glance; their top centre is 34 years old, their top winger is 31 years old, their captain and a top-pairing defenceman is 42 years old, and their goalies are 32 and 34 years old. It’s not like they don’t have a bunch of good young players, but this roster construction kind of goes against the grain of what a modern Stanley Cup contender should look like.
And yet, every year the Bruins are not just in it, but at the very least are the among top-five favourites to win it all. So, what is it that they do that makes them so successful? How have they lost just three games in regulation out of 28? Let’s dig in.
Despite the fact they’ve scored the second-most goals in the NHL so far, you wouldn’t think the Bruins are too special if you looked solely at their 5-on-5 offence.
From the inner slot, they’re only getting the 17th-most shots on net. From the slot as a whole, they fall to 22nd. Expand the sample and look at shot attempts and Boston only generates 19.7 of those every 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The league average is over 21, so the Bruins rank way down at 27th in the NHL here.
That’s a bit of a shocker, but then again the Bruins are primarily a lock down defensive team, so it could be that they’re playing a low event style that relies on their best players to make bank on their few opportunities, while Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak gobble up weak shots against.
But the Bruins haven’t exactly been spectacular on defence either. They allow the third-fewest chances against off the cycle, but they’re relatively porous off the rush and vulnerable to the forecheck. Overall Boston allows the 15th-most inner slot shots against and are outside the top-10 at preventing shots and shot attempts from the slot, where they give up the seventh-most shot attempts at 5-on-5.
When you add the for and against together to see their differentials, they don’t look like a team that should be sitting where they are in the standings.
Last season, the Bruins were one of just three teams that was uniformly positive across all of these metrics when expressed as a percentage, so to see them largely being outplayed by almost every measure and winning anyway is a surprise to say the least.
There is a bit of a caveat here. Since the Bruins have spent most of their season leading games there’s a possibility that score effects have hurt them a little bit in these measures. And if you look at the public data on a site like Natural Stat Trick, you’ll see there is a gap between the Bruins’ recorded 5-on-5 Corsi (shot attempts) at 49.66 per cent and their score-and-venue-adjusted number at 51.33 per cent.
Scoring chances aren’t as impacted by score effects as shot attempts are, but even if we were to adjust all of the Bruins’ numbers in the same manner they would go from being outplayed to just mildly outplaying the opposition. That’s still surprising because you would assume they’ve been a dominant team.
That really hasn’t been the case so far, at least at even strength. In fact, even when you look at all situations, the biggest statistical standouts for the Bruins are the types of things that usually don’t last. They have the third-highest shooting percentage in the NHL at 11.54 per cent, and the highest save percentage at 93.13 per cent. That gives them the league’s highest PDO, which is a combination of those two percentages. And in fact their 104.7 PDO eclipses the next closest team by a huge margin (102.9 for Colorado).
Over the past five seasons, the highest end-of-season PDO marks have been 103.8, 102.7, 102.1, 102.1, and 101.9 among all teams. And that 103.8 outlier, last year’s Lightning, happened to get swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, despite their stellar overall numbers everywhere else.
Luck, or random variance if you prefer that term, has the nasty habit of running out.
The Bruins’ history is that of a good to excellent team, though, so I think it’s fair to believe that they should improve as the season goes on and that improved play might soften the impact of disappearing luck. But, so far, we don’t really have evidence this season to suggest Boston’s results are sustainable.
As teams have managed to get a better grasp on controlling shot quality instead of just pounding every puck possible on net, there is an expectation that percentages can be controlled a bit more efficiently. The Bruins have been a leader in that for several years, but they just haven’t been able to do it this year.
One area they remain strong in is controlling slot passes, which stems from their defensive play. The Bruins allow fewer slot passes than any team aside from the Carolina Hurricanes, so Rask and Halak are able to challenge shooters more, knowing that they can feel safe setting up for shots and not be caught out of position as often as their peers often are.
Offensively the Bruins only complete an average number of slot passes and they only create the 27th-most chances off the cycle. However, those low numbers aren’t entirely representative of their play, because the Bruins have another trick up their sleeves to outperform expectations.
Boston makes the most out of their average slot passes and way below average cycle chances because as a team they have the quickest releases in the game at 5-on-5, which translates into a league-leading number of one-timers.
In total, 15.1 per cent of the Bruins’ shots on goal at 5-on-5 this season are one-timers, a league-high by a huge margin that blows away the league average of just 11.7 per cent. And those one-timers aren’t just coming from the point either; 15.7 per cent of their shots from the slot are one-timers, and 14.8 per cent of their shots from the inner slot are one-timers as well.
The Bruins are 22nd in the NHL in shots on net from the slot, but first in one-timers from the slot. And to make matters worse for their opponents, they’re also second in the NHL in maintaining the widest offensive gaps on their even strength shot attempts, meaning their deadly shooters who get pucks on net quickly also face less pressure on their shot attempts than nearly every other team. Only the Lightning create more space for their shooters.
Then of course, there’s the power play.
The Bruins’ power play is one of the most dominant in the league, but they don’t accomplish that from their net-front play. Rather, they eat teams alive in the high slot.
Once again, one-timers work to the Bruins’ advantage on the power play, though they’re not as good at creating them as the Washington Capitals or Tampa Bay Lightning. But Boston does have the third-most one-timers on net overall.
From the slot, though, no one is better than Boston’s power play. They full on double the league average in one-timers from the slot, a hair in front of the Capitals — and those two are miles ahead of everyone else. The Lightning, for example, generate 40 one-timers for every 60 minutes of power play time, but only 10 of those are from the slot. The Bruins generate 37 one-timers per 60 minutes, but 16.5 of those are from the slot. It’s obvious which one is more dangerous.
The Bruins’ modest slot pass numbers at even strength also disappear on the power play, with only the Oilers and Lightning completing more of them than the Bruins.
Giving the Bruins powerplays has been the end of many teams’ promising games this season. It’s a serious weapon that can help them take over a game they weren’t necessarily playing well in.
With all that said, according to SPORTLOGiQ’s data, the Bruins are outperforming their expected goals for at even strength more than any other team, scoring about a half goal more than expected every game. They’re also outperforming their expected goals against by a half goal per game, which is the second-highest margin in the NHL behind the Winnipeg Jets.
The goals against may be more sustainable with a dynamite goaltending duo in Rask and Halak, but if things turn on the Bruins and they lose the extra goal per game that they’re getting over expectations, the shine on them might look a lot more smudged as the season wears on.