Before the season, the most important thing on Bruins coach Claude Julien's to-do list was to improve his team's goals-against average.
After seven games, the Bruins, despite letting in six goals against Los Angeles, have given up 2.14 goals per game, tied for eighth-lowest in the league.
In a more telling statistic, the Bruins have made the second-biggest defensive turnaround from last season. The Bruins have improved their defense by 1.34 goals per game (Boston allowed 3.48 goals per outing in 2006-07). Only Philadelphia, which has allowed 1.71 goals per match compared with 3.62 last year (1.91 goals per game difference), has enjoyed a better defensive makeover.
The Bruins haven't seen a dramatic decrease in shots. They have given up 29.3 per game (20th in the league), far off the 23.1 shots that NHL-leading San Jose has allowed per outing.
Where they've seen their improvement, however, is in quality scoring chances. While the NHL doesn't track the statistic, the Bruins allowed around a half-dozen against the Rangers in Saturday's 1-0 shootout win, and all were turned aside by Manny Fernandez.
"Most of them were from the perimeter," defenseman Andrew Alberts said of New York's attempts. "I think on the whole, the defense did a great job forcing the forwards in our zone to the outside. And Manny made a couple huge stops in the second period."
The core of Julien's box-plus-one defensive philosophy is to collapse in the slot area, taking away middle-of-the-ice offense and steering everything to the wings. The Bruins have given up two goals in the last three games (against New York, Tampa Bay, and San Jose - all playoff teams last season) by eliminating seams in the middle of the ice in their zone.
The Bruins faltered in the second periods of their wins over Tampa Bay and San Jose, getting outshot, 28-3. During those stretches, the Bruins struggled with their gap control by giving attackers too much room between the Boston forwards and defensemen.
Although forwards Brendan Shanahan and Petr Prucha had good looks in the second period Saturday, the Bruins limited the Rangers to 10 shots while putting five pucks on goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
"I don't think we can complain much about our game defensively," said Julien. "Other than the LA game [an 8-6 win], where we lost our focus and our composure, we've obviously been pretty good defensively."
This past summer, 29 NHL clubs had their opportunity to sign free agent Glen Metropolit.
It's a good bet at least some are regretting their hesitation.
Metropolit, who made the team on a tryout basis (he signed a one-year, $500,000 contract), turned in arguably his best game as a Bruin against the Rangers. He didn't log a shot, nor did he register a point, but the fourth-line center's body of work, despite not appearing on the scoresheet, was good enough to draw praise from his coach.
"To me, he had a great game tonight," Julien said after the win. "He battled hard on the penalty kill, won some races, won some battles. I thought he had a real good game, and it just goes to show that those guys are key to our lineup. When you get those kinds of efforts from guys on your fourth line, it's great to see."
Metropolit skated 20 shifts for 11:06 of ice time, including 3:34 on the penalty kill. In the second period, during New York's fourth power play, Metropolit slipped behind point man Chris Drury, forcing the center to take an interference penalty. Metropolit also won seven of his 12 faceoffs.
In the third period against Phoenix and for the entire game against Anaheim, Metropolit played on Boston's top line in place of Marc Savard when the No. 1 centerman was sidelined with a groin strain.
Zdeno Chara is averaging 25 minutes 22 seconds of ice time per game, 2:35 off his league-leading workload of 27:57 in 2006-07, and his reduced workload seems to be paying off. Chara has been charged with only three giveaways. Last year, Chara fumbled away the puck 94 times (1.2 per game), 11th-most in the league. "Z's minutes are the biggest shocker," Alberts said. "He's playing more quality minutes. He's not that tired out there. He's making good passes, getting up ice, getting into the play, and making things happen." . . . Milan Lucic can appear in two more games and be returned to his junior team without losing a year off his entry-level contract. General manager Peter Chiarelli said there's been no decision on whether to keep Lucic beyond nine games. "If he stays past nine, I am not ruling out returning him," Chiarelli wrote in an e-mail . . . By thwarting all three New York shots, Fernandez's shootout save percentage improved to .759 (13 goals on 54 attempts) . . . Tonight's game against Montreal will air on Versus, the first of five Bruins matches the network is scheduled to carry this season.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at FShinzawa@globe.com.