Ryan Whitney got to watch plenty of hockey during the first few months of this season.
Probably a lot more than he cared to, really.
Consider it one of the perks, or curses, of having a foot surgically repaired.
And one of the things Whitney saw -- couldn't have missed, actually -- was the outstanding work of the Boston Bruins, who will visit Mellon Arena at 7:08 p.m. tomorrow, for the front end of a home-and-home series with the Penguins.
That the Bruins, who barely claimed the final Eastern Conference playoff berth in the spring, could be competitive with almost everyone this winter was pretty much expected. That they would downright dominate through the first half of the season was not.
"I'm not surprised they're good," Whitney said. "I'm surprised they're this good."
How good? Well, consider that the Bruins:
• Have won eight games in a row, including a 2-1 victory at Atlanta yesterday.
• Lead the Eastern Conference with a 27-5-4 record.
• Game: Penguins (19-13) vs. Bruins (27-5).
• When: 7:08 p.m. tomorrow.
• TV: FSN.
• Are scoring an average of 3.61 goals per game, one of the highest totals in the NHL, while allowing a league-low average of 2.11.
• Have fewer regulation losses than any team except San Jose. (The Penguins, by way of comparison, have seven regulation defeats in December.)
The Bruins' goaltending and special teams have been good, they're solid on faceoffs and, with no fewer than six guys who have scored at least 10 goals, their offense is balanced. And Phil Kessel, with 22 goals, is maturing into a game-breaker.
Other than that, the Bruins don't have much going for them. Oh, except for the solid system, which his players obviously have bought into, that coach Claude Julien has installed.
"Kessel has been pretty awesome, from what I've seen, but they have a lot of guys who are just playing the system and when they make a play, they're making it hard, and they're making the right play," Penguins defenseman Hal Gill said. "They're a team that works well together, and you can see it."
Fact is, while the Bruins have some exceptional individuals -- center Marc Savard and defenseman Zdeno Chara are on that list, and Milan Lucic is a scary blend of talent and toughness -- much of their success is rooted in simple execution and efficiency.
They don't usually do much fancy. They just do it very well.
"You know what they're going to do, but they're still going to do it," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "They get a lot of pucks to the net. They have some skilled guys.
"It says a lot about their team when you know exactly what they're going to do, and they still do it."
Savard is Boston's best playmaker -- he ranks in the top five in the league with 32 assists -- and centers the No. 1 line with Kessel and Lucic on his wings, but David Krejci has set up 26 goals and is a guy whose productivity clearly exceeds his profile around the league.
Even with Patrice Bergeron out because of a concussion, the Bruins have no shortage of capable forwards, although none will figure prominently in, say, the All-Star voting.
"They have a lot of guys up front who are real good players," Whitney said.
Chara is the cornerstone of Boston's defensive corps, maybe the entire team, and logs about 26 minutes of ice time in a typical game. But while he casts a shadow befitting a guy who is 6 feet 9, 225 pounds, Chara is complemented nicely by a group including ex-Penguin Andrew Ference (injured), Dennis Wideman, Matt Hunwick, Aaron Ward and Mark Stuart.
Factor in the strong work of goalie Tim Thomas, who ranks among the league leaders in every consequential statistic category, and much of the mystery about Boston's sensational first half begins to disappear.
"They have a little bit of everything," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Toughness, they play good defense, their goalies are good, Savard is a great passer. They have a pretty complete squad."
The most compelling evidence of that can be found in the Eastern Conference standings.
"I thought they'd be good," Whitney said. "I didn't think they'd be 10 points in front of everyone else in the East."
Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org First Published December 29, 2008 5:00 AM