Boston Bruins\' Milan Lucic (17) congratulates goalie Tuukka Rask after the Bruins shutout the Florida Panthers 8-0 in an NHL hockey game in Boston, Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
BOSTON - The Boston Bruins got off to a horrid start to their Stanley Cup championship defence, winning just three of their first 10 games and landing in last place in the Eastern Conference.
After an incredible two-month surge, they're back on top.
"They deserve a lot of credit for that and they worked hard to accomplish that and I think it's important that they enjoy the three days of the Christmas holiday they have," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after Boston beat Florida 8-0 on Friday night for its 20th win in 23 games.
It's easy to see why the Bruins have been nearly unbeatable since losing two in a row to Montreal at the end of October.
They enter the NHL's three-day Christmas break with the most goals scored (119) and the fewest allowed (63) in the NHL. A recipe for success for any team—not just defending champs.
During the Bruins' rough stretch, the players heard complaints and some boos from the hometown fans. They sensed the disappointment and feel as if they've responded with a similar effort that saw them win the organization's first title in 39 years.
"We were sitting at the 15th spot in October with a lot of criticism on us so we realize that this is a game that things change quickly and oftentimes things change through hard work and that's what I think we did the last two months," forward Gregory Campbell said. "We worked hard, we played our game and we played consistent. It's a tough league. Every night is a battle and every night you have to compete. Wins aren't always going to flow as easily, or not as easily, but I think as pure as they have, but as long as we're competing and playing our game, I think that's our goal right now."
The big offensive night against Florida was hardly unusual for the Bruins this season. They've scored six or more goals nine times—eight coming in their last 22 games. Quite a run for a team known for its defence under Julien.
"I think it goes to show that we have probably more talent than sometimes people give us credit for," Julien said of the team's offensive outburst. "We play a good team game, we create our scoring chances and right now our guys are scoring some pretty nice goals."
Behind Boston's offence is the top goalie tandem in the league. Both Tim Thomas—last season's winner of the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies—and Tuukka Rask have goals against averages under 1.85, making the Bruins the NHL's only team with two goalies allowing under two goals a game. The pair have combined for three shutouts in Boston's last five games and held opponents to two goals or less 22 times this season.
"It's a big-time luxury. I'm not going to hide that fact. It doesn't matter who you put in net right now, you know you're going to get good goaltending," Julien said.
"Both guys have been at the top of their game, which allows you to put in one or the other. The other guy gets a rest and the other guy stays sharp. They're both very supportive of that approach and they're OK with it. That just makes us such a better team by having that situation right now. We're extremely fortunate because most teams in this league don't have that approach or luxury."
The players talked after Friday's win about how they realize now what it took to recover from the rough start but they hardly seemed content with where they're at—considering that the calendar hasn't even turned to 2012.
"We're feeling good about ourselves. We're confident, but we can't, we always said it before, we can't be satisfied," forward Patrice Bergeron said. "Now we have a couple days to rest and make sure we get ready for the second half of the season because it's going to get tougher."