BOSTON -- Through 33 games of the 2011-12 season, the Boston Bruins look as if they might be a better team than they were when they won the Stanley Cup last spring.
While there is no doubt the Bruins are in the midst of a torrid pace, posting a 20-2-1 record since the start of November, they also know there are 49 games remaining in the regular season and a lot of work left to do.
"We're feeling good about ourselves," said Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron. "We're confident, but we can't be satisfied. It's something that's very important."
On Jan. 1, 2011, the Bruins were 20-11-6. With two games remaining before the turn of the calendar year, Boston is 23-9-1. What makes the Bruins' record even more impressive is how this season began.
The Bruins dealt with the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover and struggled in the first few weeks of this season. On Oct. 30, the Bruins had just six points in 10 games and found themselves in last place in the Eastern Conference. But starting with a 5-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 1, the Bruins turned things around. Boston won 10 straight to start November and hasn't slowed down since. Now, as they head out to the desert to face the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday, the Bruins stand alone atop the Northeast Division and trail the Rangers by one point in the Eastern Conference.
"They deserve a lot of credit for that and they worked hard to accomplish that," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after the team's 8-0 victory over the Florida Panthers on Dec. 23.
Because of the NHL's break for Christmas, the Bruins were given three days off as opposed to the mandatory two-day hiatus for the holidays. Julien felt his players deserved an extra day.
"Those three days will be beneficial to us hopefully not just in the long run, but in the short term," Julien said. "If we come back with the right approach and the right attitude, and head out on the road and play Phoenix and take off where we left off, then those three days will look even better."
And just how good have the Bruins looked during their torrid two-month stretch? They've outscored their opponents 95-37 (not counting shootouts) since Nov. 1. That's an amazing goal differential of plus-58 in 23 games (or more than two goals per game more than their opponents). They've scored five or more goals in 11 games during this stretch, and six or more in eight of those games. Their goalies have posted six shutouts.
"It goes to show that we have probably more talent than sometimes people give us credit for," Julien said. "We play a good team game. We create our scoring chances, and right now our guys are scoring some pretty nice goals.
"Our guys are bearing down on the scoring chances and that's helping us a lot. There's a good element of grit, speed and skill in our game, and that's what makes us a decent team."
Decent? The Bruins are much more than that this season.
Like last season, it starts with goaltending. Reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas is playing well once again and has shown no signs of aging. The 37-year-old netminder is 16-5-0 with a 1.84 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage in 23 games.
As good as Thomas has been, No. 2 goalie Tuukka Rask has been great too. The 24-year-old is 7-4-1 with a 1.66 GAA and a .944 save percentage in 12 games.
Julien has said time and again that the Bruins have two No. 1 goaltenders. Even though Thomas is the true No. 1, Rask's stellar play and willingness to accept the situation gives Boston a 1-2 punch between the pipes that can't be matched.
"It's a big-time luxury," Julien said. "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 as we speak. Both guys have been at the top of their game, which allows you to put one or the other, and 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."
But while the goaltending might be leading the way, the Bruins are an explosive offensive team as well, leading the NHL with an average of 3.52 goals per game. In fact, the Bruins currently lead the NHL in most goals scored per game and fewest goals allowed per game. Since the 1978-79 season, only one team has led the NHL in most goals scored and fewest goals allowed, the 2010-11 Canucks.
Offensively, the team's top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton has been inconsistent. The trio got off a very slow start, forcing Julien to break them up for a while. While all three players have had stretches of hot play, the Bruins are still waiting for their top line to perform consistently.
Although the top line has struggled some, the second line of Brad Marchand, Bergeron and Tyler Seguin has been arguably the team's best. Seguin leads the team with 31 points, with Marchand (29 points) and Bergeron (28) right behind.
Last season, this line had a different dynamic with the veteran presence of Mark Recchi playing with Bergeron and Marchand. Now, with Seguin's speed and talent, the Bruins' second line is a scoring machine. Marchand, who registered his first NHL hat trick last Friday, is leading the team with 15 goals. He also boasts a plus-25, which is second in the NHL behind Seguin's plus-26. Bergeron, who has established himself as one of the NHL's best two-way forwards, checks in at plus-21.
"I think I've just been fortunate enough to play with great players and I just kind of feed off them and get some lucky goals," Marchand said. "I never expected to be in that position and I don't expect to be there long, but it's a lot of fun being on this team and being in the winning ways right now, so hopefully it keeps going."
For all the firepower on the top two lines, the third line of Benoit Pouliot (9 points), Chris Kelly (20 points) and Rich Peverley (25 points) has been solid too, giving the Bruins the kind of scoring depth that few teams can match.
Defensively, the Bruins are sound, which has led to a more solid attack with the team's defensemen contributing offensively. Captain Zdeno Chara has five points in his last four games and has 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) on the season, putting him on pace for a career-high 61 points. Chara is also plus-21 and has to be considered a leading contender for his second Norris Trophy.
Boston's special teams have improved too.
The Bruins are always strong on the penalty kill, but the power play has been a sore spot the last few seasons. So far this season, the Bruins are 24 for 124 on the PP (19.2 percent), good for No. 10 in the NHL. They're also the only team that has not allowed a short-handed goal.
The Bruins have killed off 38 of their last 39 penalties. Overall this season, they've killed off 112 of 126 and are No. 2 in the NHL with a kill percentage of 88.9 percent. They've also scored three short-handed goals.
But as well as the Bruins are currently playing, they still have 49 games remaining in the regular season. A lot can happen between now and the end of the season.
This team has the talent and ability to repeat as champion. The Bruins can become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings (1997 and 1998) to accomplish that feat.
"Our team has grown so much, maturitywise at being able to handle success," Julien said. "There have been other years where we had a great regular season and got caught with our pants down in the playoffs because we weren't ready for certain situations. I think our team has really matured in that area and being able to handle those situations a lot better."
No doubt the Bruins have been on a torrid pace the last two months. But for all the talk about how this team stacks up to last year's, the only true measure will be whether it finishes the season just as well.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.