It's hard to believe, but the Bruins are on the same points pace this season that they were at this time in 2022-23 en route to a record-breaking campaign.
The Bruins have taken 26 out of a possible 30 points with a 12-1-2 record entering Thursday. They were 13-2-0 through 15 games last year.
After losing so many important players over the summer, most notably Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tyler Bertuzzi and Taylor Hall, the Bruins were expected to take a decent step back during the 2023-24 season -- still a playoff team, but not a historical juggernaut again.
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So how are the Bruins still the best team in the NHL?
One word: Goaltending.
Jeremy Swayman ranks No. 1 in both save percentage (.944) and GAA (1.69) among goalies who have played five or more games. Reigning Vezina Trophy winner Linus Ullmark ranks No. 7 in save percentage (.928) and No. 9 in GAA (2.23).
“It’s the singular reason why we have the record we have. It’s because of our goaltenders," head coach Jim Montgomery told reporters after Tuesday's 5-2 road win over the Buffalo Sabres. "We’re still giving up way too much. Even tonight, in the last 30 minutes, we gave up way too much off the rush. That’s an area that we significantly have to improve. They’re hiding or masking how poor we are right now at defending the rush.”
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The Bruins started the season by playing a super soft schedule featuring bottom-feeding opponents unlikely to make the playoffs. That stretch included two games against the Blackhawks, two against the Ducks, one against the Predators and one against the Sharks. Boston's schedule has been far more difficult of late, though. The B's have played eight games since Oct. 28, and five of them were against opponents currently in a playoff spot.
The Bruins have gone 6-2-0 during that stretch, which is fantastic, but they've been largely carried by goaltending. Boston's netminders have allowed two or fewer goals six times over that span, including Tuesday night when Ullmark made 32 stops on 34 shots (8-for-8 on high-danger attempts).
What's concerning for the Bruins is what they're giving up defensively in that stretch. They have been average or worse in several metrics.
Here's how the Bruins' goaltending has performed over that same eight-game stretch (HD = high danger).
So while the Bruins have allowed more shots and scoring chances over the last two-and-a-half weeks, the goaltending has remained top tier, and that's what is keeping this team atop of the Eastern Conference standings.
The fact that the goaltending is hiding some concerns defensively is among the best reasons why trading Swayman or Ullmark makes very little sense. The Oilers' horrendous start to the season, highlighted by awful goaltending, has created some speculation that they might look into the possibility of a trade for a goalie.
Would it be tempting to trade one of them for a top-six center or top-six winger, especially given the Bruins' lack of scoring depth up front? Sure. But taking a sledgehammer to your most talented and deepest position group is rarely a good idea.
Not having to worry about your goaltending because you can start a Vezina Trophy-caliber player every single game is an incredible luxury that no other team has. It's a luxury that is lifting the Bruins to victories in games that many other teams would likely lose.
There's a lot of regular season left to play. The Bruins have integrated a lot of new players into the lineup, including a couple young players with limited experience. There was always going to be some growing pains early on. Improvement will be made defensively at some point.
Luckily for the Bruins, they have goaltending that's good enough to carry the team while it figures out how to correct these issues.