Between 2013 and ’15, the Boston Bruins funneled veteran voices out of its room, voices that were the fabric of the team winning the 2011 Stanley Cup and reaching another in 2013. The results were negative.
Guys like Shawn Thornton, Johnny Boychuk, and Andrew Ference – to offer a short list of those ushered out over that period – were loud, and more importantly resonant voices in the B’s dressing room. They spoke out, said what was needed to be said, and weren’t afraid to flip the table that had the post-game spread. Efforts to replace them were null, and the TD Garden ice has been down by mid-April the past two years because of it.
The character and mental toughness went missing along with the playoff pedigree. The Bruins weren’t a hard team to play against. The Bruins finished ninth in the Eastern Conference both years.
This season’s Bruins team doesn’t look much different than those teams. There’s talent at the top of the roster, but come up short in areas the best teams in the NHL don’t. It’s a team that looks destined to finish somewhere between seventh and 10th in the conference standings. Again, not dissimilar to the two seasons that have prior to this one.
But pencil in the Bruins as more likely to be seventh or eighth than ninth come the spring. Character, heart, and toughness – all qualities less measurable than corsi and goal differential, but still vital – have made a comeback.
The intangible spark added by the new veterans was evident in Wednesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Washington. Going down 3-0, the Bruins claw their way back into the game, with Colin Miller tying the score with 11:41 remaining on a powerplay goal. The rally was started on a goal by one of those veteran, Dominic Moore, who has seven goals in 27 games.
Nobody stopped skating after Daniel Winnik made it 3-0 in the second while Washington eased up with the comfortable lead. Players stuck up for one another, shifts were approached like they were at a premium. Boston nearly won it in regulation before going to overtime, where Nicklas Backstrom allowed the Caps to escape with a goal 1:36 into the extra period.
Bruins moves in the offseason suggested a push to address the character issue in the room, and doing so without blowing the whole thing up.
That was none more evident with Don Sweeney prying David Backes away from St. Louis – where he’d been captain since 2011 – with a five-year, $30 million deal. A rugged forward who can play top-line minutes, the 32-year-old fit the mold of what was missing with the Bruins.
Same goes for Dominic Moore, brought in late in the summer after three years with the New York Rangers. While the Bruins were the 10th team Moore had played for since making his NHL debut in 2003, plenty of the teams he’d played for were winning ones, highlighted by the 2014 Rangers squad the won the Eastern Conference. He played in the East final in back-to-back seasons in 2010 and ’11, with Montreal followed by Tampa Bay, which fell to the Bruins in a seventh game. The former Harvard standout had been one of the better bottom-six contributors in the league, his character unquestioned.
Riley Nash was another bottom-sixer brought in with miles on his tires, he of 242 NHL contests and 188 more in the AHL since his pro debut in 2010. Also like Moore, the product of an Ivy League education, having played at Cornell.
As of Thursday, the Bruins hold a playoff spot, the B’s 32 points good enough for third in the Atlantic Division.
Backes has skated on the second line, flanked by David Krejci and Ryan Spooner. Playing 108 minutes of five-on-five together – second behind the 216 played by Patrice Bergeron-Brad Marchand-David Pastrnak – the line has a 3.87 goals-for per 60 minutes that leads the team, according to corsica. Backes has 12 points of his own through 22 games.
Moore has seven goals in 27 games while winning 54.9 percent of the 235 draws he’s taken, second on the team only behind Bergeron (58.6), and 12th in the NHL with a five-on-five faceoff percentage of 57.4, according to puckbase. Nash has taken the third-most faceoffs on the team (244), winning at a 53.3 percent rate. The two have taken 34 percent of the 559 defensive zone draws for Boston this season.
As the Bruins have learned in the past two seasons, you have to be tough to play against to win in the NHL.
This team has it.