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On hockey

No need to throw a reality check here

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 25, 2008
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OK, who's better? Really, who? The Bruins stand a boastful 25-5-0-4 this Christmas morning, and if there is a fluke to detect, a reason to doubt what has happened thus far, especially the last eight torrid weeks, it escapes those of us who have chronicled the many failed Spoked-B models of the last three-plus decades.

In the spirit of the season, we'll spare you a painful review of the horrors of seasons past. No one really needs to know what Petr Klima is doing for the holidays, right?

The 2008-09 Bruins are solid in net. They are proficient, if not deep, in scoring. Their overall defense, though hurting in recent weeks without the services of the injured Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference, is the stingiest back end in the business.

While so much media attention has focused on the club's bountiful scoring, the blue liners, attentive forwards, and goalies have allowed a mere 77 goals in 34 games. The Minnesota Trappist Wonks have allowed fewer goals (76), but they also have played one fewer game. Not to argue over the shavings of galvanized rubber, but the Bruins are better defensively by a smidgen of .04 (2.26 vs. 2.30).

Here at the NHL's holiday break, the Bruins have the No. 1 offense (126 goals) and its No. 1 defense. Suddenly, it really is the Hub of Hockey. Hard to believe, especially when considering that they barely managed to inch into the No. 8 playoff seed in the East last season, and again finished upside-down in goal scoring (212 vs. 222) across the 82-game schedule.

If Claude Julien's charges can keep up their stingy ways, the Bruins will have allowed only 186 goals upon the conclusion of their final game April 12. Keep up the offensive pace, and they'll have 304 goals, what would be their best production since 1992-93, when they potted 332. And if they could finish with a 304-186 goal spread, it would be their best differential since the 1973-74 squad finished plus-128.

What all this tells us is that, yes, this is a viable contender for the Stanley Cup. No doubt about it. Count me in, both feet, among the believers. I've got them right there with San Jose, Detroit, and the Rangers, in no particular order. Until it becomes a game without goalies, I refuse to pick favorites.

If I were a little more savvy with the techno-world's gadgets and intricacies, I'd include a little whodingy or whatchamacallit here for everyone to activate - even those of you still humming along here in unison on the papyrus product - and some kind of crazy, celebratory music would blare out over those words, viable contender, in reference to the Bruins. For the ink-and-paper folks, a simple exclamation point (!) might suffice, but every time I hit a "!," it just feels way too tub-thumperish.

The key difference this season, beyond question, has been the emergence of what amounts to the club's junior varsity and freshman squads. To wit: the likes of Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, and Matt Hunwick. They've stepped in or stepped up, all of them effective performers in varying roles.

Pick your greatest surprise out of that herd, but I'd go first with Komet Kessel, who finally grasped the importance of competing in all three zones and emerged from a two-year fog as a blazing, budding superstar, and then Hunwick, whose size, skating, and offensive dare are somewhat reminiscent of a Phil Housley or Brian Campbell. How great to see a defenseman make the occasional foray to the net, and not look like some box tortoise that just wandered across a greyhound track.

Overall, it's this group of underclassmen that has provided the greatest change in results (W's and L's), and thankfully, mercifully, also in entertainment factor. Winning doesn't always translate into fun, or even in being easy on the eyes. We saw that with the Pat Burns Bruins in the late '90s, immediately after Joe Thornton came to town as the No. 1 pick in the '97 draft. Yes, the franchise began to skate upright again, but most nights it was dull beyond description.

No one should be surprised about the impact of Mssrs. Marc Savard or Zdeno Chara. They were added as foundation players and paid like superstars upon their arrival in the summer of '06, and for their 2 1/2 seasons in Black and Gold, they have performed to the penny.

Tim Thomas, the best gift left behind from the Mike O'Connell-Jeff Gorton days, needed to convince the new regime he was the real deal, but he has been a top stopper since coming aboard full-time midway through the 2005-06 season. Picking up Manny Fernandez in the summer of 2007 to be the franchise No. 1 goalie really wasn't necessary, but now the Bruins have perhaps the best tandem in the game, and at an economical cap hit of $5.43 million for the two.

The coup now for general manager Peter Chiarelli would be to extend both goalies, despite their advanced age (each 34) to three-year extensions at a reasonable rate - a combined cap hit in the $6 million-$6.5 million range. That figure may sound modest, but given that the salary cap (now $56.7 million) is likely to flatten or drop for the next 2-3 years, if not longer, Thomas and Fernandez could be unpleasantly surprised as to what the market will bear for them as UFAs on July 1.

What most everyone in the industry envisions as an impending economic flattening, if not downturn, adds an undercurrent of tension and intrigue to what's happening with the 2008-09 Bruins. Chiarelli, like more than a dozen of his fellow GMs, is operating within about a day's meal money of the cap. As of today, he has five pending UFAs in Thomas, Fernandez, Shane Hnidy, Stephane Yelle, and team senior statesman P.J. Axelsson. The goalies are of paramount importance in that group.

Meanwhile, emerging stars Kessel and Krejci, the latter developing into a sublime playmaker, are on the verge of entering restricted free agency. They average a cap hit of about $1.5 million right now. Each will want a bundle, be it from the Bruins or elsewhere, the latter in the form of a Group 2 offer sheet similar to what the Oilers offered Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner a couple of years ago. If Kessel and Krejci were to command the kind of quantum salary jump Patrice Bergeron made in his last deal, to a cap hit of $4.75 million, if not more, then what we have here folks is trouble.

The Bruins already have $43 million-plus committed in salaries for 2009-10. If the Kessel-Krejci averages came in at Bergeron's number, Boston's cap already would be pegged at around $53 million, even without Thomas or Fernandez signed, and without figuring in the likes of Hnidy, Yelle, Axelsson, or their replacements.

The financial realities here are almost as abrupt and stunning as the Bruins' warp-speed evolution into a viable Cup contender. Just as they may have arrived, they may prove impossible to keep intact beyond wherever this year's run ends.

If you've been hesitant to enjoy the run thus far, or suspicious that this Bruins team isn't the real deal, be advised that this might be, as Jack Nicholson (playing Mel Udall) once said, as good as it gets.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com

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