Bruins poised for encore performance

After the Boston Bruins return from the All-Star break, there will be 35 games remaining in the 2011-12 regular season. A lot can happen in the final two-plus months, but so far there's a lot to like about this team.

It has strong goaltending. It has an impressive offensive attack. It is solid defensively.

Sound familiar?

It should because all those aspects are what led the team to its first Cup championship in 39 years last June in Vancouver. If anything, this season's team is better as it aims to become the first team to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

The Bruins are second in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14-2 record for 64 points, just two points behind the first-place New York Rangers, and are known league-wide as a big, strong, physical team.

Prior to the start of the season, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien spoke with many of their counterparts who had won a Stanley Cup. Boston's management and coaching staffs wanted to learn what kinds of challenges the defending champs would face.

Because last season ended on June 15 for the Bruins, making for an offseason that was virtually nonexistent for the players, both Chiarelli and Julien knew the team would need extra rest at points during the season to stay fresh.

Julien recently admitted the Bruins have been sloppy of late (they're just 5-4-1 in their last 10 games) and he hopes the break will be exactly what they need heading into the stretch run.

"It's important for us to really push ourselves in midseason," Julien said. "You've got those famous midseason blues. It's a long year, and all of a sudden after the All-Star break the intensity seems to pick up again to make the playoffs."

Boston is a good team with solid depth. But with the trade deadline approaching on Feb. 27, Chiarelli will be busy working the phones, attempting to do anything he can to improve the team. He has salary cap space, which could be helpful if he believes he can add a scoring spark on the front end or add another defenseman to the mix.

The Bruins lead the league in scoring with 3.53 goals per game. Their power play, ranked 11th in the league, is much better than it was a season ago. Boston's penalty kill always has been strong and that hasn't changed this season with an 85.1 percent success rating, which is seventh best in the league.

The Bruins also lead the league in faceoffs won, which is significant in allowing them to start with the puck instead of chasing after it for the majority of each game. It also helps that Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask are as strong a tandem as any between the pipes. Rask ranks second in the league with a 1.82 goals against average and Thomas (2.12) is seventh.

Sophomore sensation Tyler Seguin leads the league with a plus-34, while teammates Patrice Bergeron (plus-27) and Zdeno Chara (plus- 26) are in the top five.

Statistics are black and white. There's no denying Boston's success in the first half of the season. More importantly, the Bruins know exactly how they need to handle the remaining 35 games of the regular season.

"Our guys know what stretch drives are now and they're better suited for them," Chiarelli said. "I hope we'll be able to embrace that. Of course, the trade deadline is coming up, so hopefully we'll be doing some things at the trade deadline and getting ready for the playoffs."

The Bruins return to the ice when they host the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday at TD Garden.
With the exception of All-Stars Chara, Thomas, Seguin and the Bruins' coaching staff, the remainder of the team is relaxing and enjoying the time off. It's desperately needed.

"For the rest of the guys, it's always nice to get a few days off to regroup and recharge and have a change of scenery," Chara said.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.