How Boston Left the Rest of the N.H.L. Behind. Far Behind.

BOSTON — From the moment the Boston Bruins gathered for training camp in September, the players were under a mandate. Almost every team strives to win the Stanley Cup, of course, but the Bruins were driven by a deeper purpose.

Patrice Bergeron, their beloved captain, and David Krejci, another admired veteran, had both returned to play for Boston, perhaps for one final season. The rest of the players, the coaching staff and the front office united in a grand effort to win a championship in what could be the last chance for the two leaders, pillars of the organization for well over a decade.

“It would mean the world to us to send him out on top,” the defenseman Charlie McAvoy said at a recent practice, referring first to Bergeron and then including Krejci. “That’s certainly an extra part of our motivation, because that would be incredible. It’s him, it’s Krejci. It’s about not wanting to skip a beat, wanting to be present in every moment, because they might not be here next year, so you don’t want to let them down.”

For the first five months of the season the Bruins adhered to that doctrine at a record pace, at least until recently, when a curiously shoddy stretch has thrown the whole enterprise into some doubt.

It had all been going so well. Last week, the Bruins reached 50 wins in only 64 games, faster than any team in National Hockey League history. They had a goal differential of 105 at the time, more than twice the next closest team’s, and with 15 games left to play could still at least match the record for most wins in a season, 62, set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1996 and matched by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019.

After reaching 50 wins, the Bruins lost in Detroit and Chicago against teams with losing records. McAvoy spoke for his teammates when he said no one wanted to let Bergeron and Krejci down, but that is what happened in Chicago on Tuesday, when Boston lost, 6-3, to a team fully dedicated to rebuilding. For perhaps the first time all season, they looked distracted and a step behind.

“Right now we’re disconnected, we’re not playing the right way, we’re cheating,” Bergeron said. “This league is going to humble you if you do that.”

Bruins winger Brad Marchand, left, and defenseman Charlie McAvoy were out with injuries to start the season.Credit…Derek Leung/Getty Images

For the first five months of the season, it was the Bruins who humbled the rest of the league, and they still own the best record in the N.H.L. at 51-11-5, with 107 points, so it is hard to fault them for a few of slip-ups after 64 games of near flawless hockey.

“They are the class of the N.H.L.,” said Jay Woodcroft, the coach of the Edmonton Oilers.

Their goalie duo of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, has been foundational. Ullmark, in his second season in Boston, leads the league in goals against average (1.97), save percentage (.935) and wins, and Swayman is third in goals against (2.28).

“It starts with the goaltenders,” said A.J. Mleczko, the Olympic gold medal-winning forward for the United States and an analyst for ESPN and MSG networks, who commentated from ice level at the recent Bruins-Oilers game. “Every team that is going to succeed needs a goalie tandem, but Ullmark, no one expected him to be as good as he’s been this season.”

The Bruins pulled back on course Thursday in Winnipeg with a 3-0 victory over the Jets on the strength of a shutout from Swayman, but the rest of the league, especially in the highly competitive Eastern Conference, is still hoping Boston reached peak performance too early, relying heavily on players in their mid to late 30s. Their top two centers — the position that requires the most skating — are Bergeron, 37, and Krejci, 36. They and Brad Marchand, the highly talented and scrappy forward, who will be 35 in May, are the only players left from the 2011 championship team.

“We have a lot of guys with a ton of experience in tough situations who don’t get down and don’t change at all,” Marchand said. “I know there’s a lot of young talent in the league and that’s the big thing. But you see the teams that win, they typically have a lot of older guys.”

Early in the summer, Bergeron and Krejci were undecided about returning to Boston. Krejci had gone home to the Czech Republic to play for one season, but Bergeron called and convinced Krejci they should reunite on the only N.H.L. team either had played for.

“I got really excited, and it helps when somebody like that wants you,” Krejci said after a practice last week. “People were calling it the ‘Last Dance’ or whatever. I don’t want to get caught up in this kind of thing. But I’m glad I came back and we’re having the season we are have having.”

Still, there was widespread skepticism going into the season because McAvoy, one of the best defensemen in the League, and Marchand would miss the first several weeks after off-season surgeries.

Boston leads Toronto, their closest Atlantic Division rivals, by 11 games and 18 points this season.Credit…Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

But Boston roared to a 17-2 start, and until the past week, simply overwhelmed opponents with talent, depth, experience and team cohesion. For a while, the record for wins seemed inevitable.

But those Red Wings and Lightning teams that won 62 games did not win the Stanley Cup, and perhaps burnout was a factor. Jim Montgomery, in his first year replacing Bruce Cassidy as head coach, said he will occasionally rest Bergeron and Krejci over the remaining 15 games, so the record for wins seems less likely, especially now with Boston’s recent dip in form. But regular season success will only be determined retroactively, by what the team does in the playoffs.

“I don’t think we’re chasing the record,” Krejci said. “I don’t even think we talked about it once. I mean, our record is pretty cool, and I think we should be proud of it. But at the same time, it just doesn’t really matter.”

Even just winning the semi-dreaded President’s Trophy — given to the team with the most wins in the regular season — is a risky benchmark. The last seven President’s Trophy winners lost in the first or second round of the playoffs and it has been 10 years since a President’s Trophy winner won the Stanley Cup (Chicago in 2013). Since 2000, only four President’s Trophy winners out of 22 have chugged champagne from the Cup.

Until now, the Bruins had faced only one worse stretch, losing four of five sandwiched around the All-Star Game. They won the next 10 in a row, but as the streak wound down, there were signs of danger. In Calgary, at the end of a Western road trip, they were exhausted and went long stretches without touching the puck. But Ullmark made 54 saves and Boston won on McAvoy’s overtime goal on a brilliant pass from Bergeron.

“The Calgary game was probably the worst game I’ve ever been part of in my career,” Marchand said. “It says a lot about our character to gut it out and find a way to get it done. Come playoff time, there is going to be adversity. But you have to find a way to win.”

Whether the Bruins limp or surge toward the playoffs is secondary. Their goal has always been to win one more Stanley Cup for their veteran leaders.

Bruins players say they have been inspired to win a Stanley Cup for Bergeron, right, and David Krejci.Credit…Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

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