BOSTON (AP) Inexperience and injuries were supposed to keep the Boston Bruins from returning to the upper echelon of the NHL standings.
But after taking points in 11 straight games heading into their five-day break, Boston has the second-best record in the Atlantic Division. Across the NHL, only the Lightning, Jets and Golden Knights have squeezed out more points per game than the Bruins (53 points, 40 games).
Despite an overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday that ended their three-game winning streak, the Bruins headed into the break with an 8-0-3 streak that is their best since they went 15-0-1 in March 2014 on their way to the best regular season in the NHL.
''Guys seem pretty dedicated to really just taking it day by day and not looking too far ahead,'' said forward Brad Marchand, the Bruins' leading scorer, with 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists). ''Obviously it's not going to go as well as it is right now all year, but we know that. We want to make sure that each and every game we give ourselves an opportunity to win and that seems to be what we're doing right now.''
After ending a two-year postseason drought last spring, the Bruins have integrated a handful of rookies into a banged-up lineup. Center David Krejci missed 18 games, Marchand missed eight and center Patrice Bergeron missed five. Forward David Backes came back ahead of schedule following surgery to deal with diverticulitis but still missed 17 games.
Yet the Bruins (23-10-7) rank third in goals against per game (2.50) and sixth in goals scored per game (3.23).
Much credit goes to goaltenders Tuukka Rask, who has earned points in his past 13 starts (11-0-2), and Anton Khudobin. Also pitching in on defense are rookies Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk, and second-year player Brandon Carlo - half of their defense corps.
''They're good players. I think that's the easiest way to put it,'' coach Bruce Cassidy said. ''And they've been paired up with the appropriate partners. So put those two together. The team's winning, got good defensive forwards that can make up for some mistakes you make. That's I guess the three reasons.''
McAvoy has five goals and 16 assists and is polishing his Calder Trophy resume by playing the second most minutes on the team (22:53). He's helped defensive partner Zdeno Chara shut down some of the opposition's best lines while playing 23:20 per game at the age of 40.
On offense, the line of Bergeron (16 goals), Marchand (17) and David Pastrnak (17) has again emerged as a trio many consider the best in the NHL. But the Bruins have received scoring from other sources as well, including rookie Danton Heinen, who is tied for fourth among NHL rookies with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists).
Ten other Bruins have at least 17 points so far.
''Right now it looks good, we're winning games. And I don't think we're winning by accident, that's the good news,'' Cassidy said. ''It's not like we're relying our goaltenders standing on their head or one line is scoring all the goals. It's balanced scoring, it's good team defense, we're getting key saves when we need it. So as a coach you like that because it's not one way to win every night.''
The Bruins already know they can succeed through injuries. In the second half, they'll find out if their inexperience will catch up to them.
It'll be partly the responsibility of the veteran leaders to make sure that doesn't happen.
''Well I think that it's nice to obviously play the way we are, but you can't get caught up too much looking at the standings and be ... complacent or be satisfied,'' said Chara, the Bruins captain. ''You just have to keep going ... we want to make sure that we avoid these kind of bad habits and continue to thrive on the game that we are playing right now and take a lot of pride in it.''
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