Why the Bruins' season start is more optimistic than the Flyers'

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) celebrates his goal with defenseman Charlie McAvoy (73). (Nick Wass/AP)

Two of the top teams in the NHL face-off Wednesday night on Sportsnet as the Philadelphia Flyers (7-2-1) host the Boston Bruins (6-1-2). Boston ranks seventh league-wide in points percentage while the MassMutual East-leading Flyers rank 10th. However, if each team continues to play as it has so far, one is far more likely to continue to have success than the other.

That team is the Boston Bruins.

Despite losing Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug in the off-season, the Bruins continue to roll along as one of the top defensive teams in the NHL. Boston ranks third in expected goals against per game (a reflection of team defence based on the quality and quantity of shots against) at 2.23, in all situations. The Bruins' actual goals against of 2.14 per game also ranks third. Great defence and goaltending is a recipe for continued success. Earlier this season, it was the offensive game that was giving Boston trouble, but after erasing three-goal deficits in consecutive games, it seems like they are finding their scoring touch. The return of David Pastrnak has certainly helped.

The Bruins currently rank 19th in the NHL averaging 1.56 goals-per-game at 5-on-5. However, Boston’s expected goals at 5-on-5 sits at 2.06 goals-per-game (seventh). What this tells us is that the Bruins are creating quality chances, but they just haven’t been converting them at a rate we would expect.

The negative differential between Boston’s actual goals at 5-on-5 and its expected goals is the second largest in the league to Carolina. Simply put, if Boston continues to generate the kind of chances we’ve seen from them, it will score more at 5-on-5. A top-three expected and actual goals against and an offence that is on the precipice of popping is enough to feel confident the Boston Bruins are still an elite team in the NHL.

As for the Flyers, there are legitimate questions about their play and the organization is well aware they are fortunate to sit on top of the East division so far.

“I don’t think anyone is fooled by our record,” GM Chuck Fletcher said on Tuesday. “We know there are things we need to clearly do better.”

That starts with team defence, which has been propped up by strong goaltending. At 5-on-5, the Flyers rank 28th in expected goals against per game (2.26). When you dig into why that is, you see a team that spends a lot of time in its own zone and struggles to keep the opposition out of the critical scoring areas of the ice.

This is a departure from last season where the Flyers ranked 13th in expected goals against at 5-on-5 and seventh at all-strengths. The reasons why the significant drop in defensive play hasn’t cost Philadelphia yet is strong goaltending by Carter Hart and Brian Elliott, and an ability to outscore their defensive issues. The goaltending may hold up, but expecting pucks to go in at the rate they have for the Flyers so far is likely not a realistic expectation.

Unlike the Bruins, the Flyers are outperforming their expected goal rate. Philadelphia sits 11th in expected goals-per-game at 5-on-5 (1.98) and fifth in actual goals (2.30). The Flyers have converted on an absurd number of deflections this season and while they may prove to be more proficient than other teams in this area, their success rate here is bound to normalize. Philadelphia has scored 11 deflection goals already this season, more than any other team.

The Flyers have some talented forwards, but we’re talking about a success rate of over 50 per cent as Philadelphia has scored its 11 deflection goals on just 20 shots. This team will likely come back down to Earth a bit in terms of its offensive output.

The Flyers have won four straight, but they will face a tough test tonight against a Bruins team that is trending in the right direction and has won both games against the Flyers this season.

Defensively, the process and results line up for the Bruins -- excellent in both areas. Offensively, this is a team that looks primed to start filling the net more than we’ve seen to this point.

For the Flyers, they are fortunate to have 15 points through their first 10 games. The offensive output is likely not sustainable and, defensively, the goals against will likely go up if the team doesn’t start cutting down on the quality chances against.

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