Goal scoring was a major problem for the Boston Bruins last season. Coach Claude Julien’s team finished 24th inthe NHL with 206 regular-season goals during 2007-2008. This season, Julien has created an offensive machine, and his Bruins rank fourth in the league in that department, having scored 67 goals in their first 21 games.
The Bruins (14-3-4) entered Wednesday’s game against Buffalo in first place in the Eastern Conference. Their 32 points were seven better than the Northeast Division’s second-place Montreal Canadiens. Boston’s success undoubtedly stems from the production of its entire roster, but the rate in which its offense — and defense — is putting pucks in the net simply cannot be overlooked. And it’s no fluke.
With many familiar faces returning this season, Julien stressed the importance of his defensemen creating more offense, but at the same time, not getting away from what worked late last season — their defense.
As in any new system, the Bruins dealt with an adjustment period early in the season in their attempt to add more offense from the defensive side, making for breakdowns and giving opponents opportunities to score. But as the standings show, Julien’s new emphasis has worked wonders.
“Last year, that was something we didn’t do a whole lot,” said Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman. “We just kind of went in, drove to the net, and threw everything at the net. This year, we seem to be finding the defensemen coming in late a lot better.”
Hunwick adding to the attack
The Bruins’ depth is another reason Julien’s new system is working. The return of center Patrice Bergeron and the off-season acquisitions of forwards Michael Ryder and Stephane Yelle have helped beef up the entire organization.
After Chuck Kobasew returned from a broken leg suffered on a blocked shot, the Bruins had to find a replacement for Andrew Ference, who sustained a similar injury.
They didn’t have to look far: Matt Hunwick stepped in as Wideman’s defensive partner, at least until Ference returns from injured reserve sometime in January.
Hunwick started the season in Providence for two games after being sent down at the end of training camp, but was recalled to Boston on Oct. 14. He played nearly 10 minutes the next night in Montreal but sat out the next nine games as a healthy scratch.
“For a while there, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be playing just because of the fact that we were playing so well with the lineup we had,” said Hunwick. “You kind of figure they’re not going to make changes if nothing’s wrong, but at the same time, you have to be ready each day.”
Hunwick has since played in eight of the Bruins’ last nine games. As each shift adds up, the 23-year-old’s confidence increases, and it shows. Hunwick has two goals, three assists, and a plus-4 rating in his last four games. Both of his goals came in big spots against division opponents on the road, but more important, came as a result of following Julien’s new defensive system.
“Something our team’s been preaching is our defensemen joining the rush,” said Hunwick. “Once you have the opportunity, and you see the play developing, all of our defensemen try to do it. It’s something I’ve done a lot in the past, in college, and I feel comfortable doing it now. As you play more games and get more minutes, I think your game feels more comfortable overall.”
Hunwick’s first goal came in Toronto on Nov. 17. Center Marc Savard slowed down the rush in Toronto’s zone and fed winger Milan Lucic with a pass in the right corner. Lucic found a streaking Hunwick joining the attack from the left point, and the defenseman took an open shot on Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala, only to put away his own rebound for his first NHL goal.
His second goal came in an even bigger spot, to break a 1-1 tie midway through the third period on Nov. 22 in Montreal. Center David Krejci hesitated on a 3-on-3 rush and found Hunwick cutting in from the right side. Hunwick put a one-timer past Canadiens goalie Carey Price.
“We talk about the confidence, we talk about the experience, and he’s getting better because he’s playing,” said Julien. “Part of it starts at practice. He’s been patient. He’s been working hard. Now he’s got a chance to play. You get those opportunities when you respond, and he’s responding.”
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at email@example.com
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