Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Maybe it was the time off during the Olympics, but Jarome Iginla certainly appears to be refreshed for a guy who recently played in his 1,300th NHL game.
At 36 years of age, the Boston Bruins winger is entering the time of his career when the grind of an NHL season is supposed to wear a player down. However, with a little less than four weeks left in the regular season, an energized Iginla is playing his best hockey of the season.
It's hardly a coincidence the Bruins also are tearing it up on the ice. The club has won nine in a row enter Tuesday's game at New Jersey and, just like Iginla, it certainly appears the defending Eastern Conference champions are peaking at the perfect time.
It's a good thing, too, considering the Bruins are going to need to be on top of their game to repeat as East champions. This season's conference picture seems to be a two-team race for supremacy with the Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins installed as the favorites to represent the East by the time the Stanley Cup Finals roll around.
Of course, Iginla was on the other side of this Eastern Conference war a year ago. The longtime Calgary Flames star picked Pittsburgh over the Bruins at last season's trade deadline, using his no-trade clause to accept a deal to the Steel City when both teams came calling for his services.
In the end, the decision did not turn out well for Iginla or the Penguins, who were swept by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
It was an awful series for both Pittsburgh and Iginla in every way possible. Iginla failed to register a single point in the four-game rout and the Penguins were outscored by a combined 12-2 margin. So it shouldn't have come as a big surprise when Iginla opted to switch sides at last summer's free agent market. Signing a one-year, $6 million deal to join Boston in July, he spurned Pittsburgh in favor of the Bruins team he watched dismantle the Pens only a month earlier.
Earlier this season, it didn't seem like Pittsburgh missed out on much, as Iginla started off slowly and questions about his age started to creep into the conversation. But with five goals over his last three games, Iginla has overcome his poor start to deliver a team-leading 25 markers for the Bruins and suddenly it seems like Beantown is the perfect fit.
After failing to score in his first eight games of 2013-14 and carrying just five goals into December, the veteran sniper is becoming the go-to offensive weapon for Boston, a team that still dominates mostly due to its excellent defense and goaltending.
Known for his humble, soft-spoken demeanor off the ice, Iginla is a fierce competitor who relies a great deal on his strength to score from the difficult spots in front of the net.
His blue collar style and penchant for working hard in the corners are assets desired by just about every team, but it does seem like Iginla's style meshes better with the Bruins than it did with the Penguins, who are at their best when free to play a finesse game.
Iginla realizes Boston's strength starts from the back end. With Tuukka Rask between the pipes and star defenseman Zdeno Chara still looming large on the blue line, the Bruins and head coach Claude Julien ask their forwards to keep the game simple. When everybody sticks to Julien's system and he's able to roll four lines, the Bruins can be a frustratingly tough team to play against.
"We feel as the game goes on, the physical style that we play, we can start taking the game over as it goes on and try to wear teams down," Iginla said after Monday's 4-1 win over Minnesota. "We take a lot of pride in being a real good third period team and having that great goaltending."
On most nights during Boston's nine-game winning streak, the club has squeezed the life out of the opposition as the game wears on. Seven times during the hot streak, the Bruins have won by a margin of three or more goals. As a result of their recent lights-out play, Boston is starting to run away with the Atlantic Division title, and also it's five points in front of the Penguins for the top seed in the East.
Of course, Iginla is trying to downplay the club's recent success, knowing regular-season hot streaks count for little once the playoffs roll around. After all, even though the B's made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, they were nearly eliminated in the first round by a very game Toronto Maple Leafs club.
"It feels good, but we're really trying to stay focused on our game and what we're trying to improve on," Iginla said on Monday. "There's some things we go over that we do need to improve on."
When you've played in three different decades as a NHLer like Iginla, you learn some things the hard way. By now, he knows it only takes a bad game or two for things to snowball past the point of no return. It happened year after year during Iginla's last several seasons in Calgary, but the difference in Boston lies in the tremendous depth possessed by the Bruins.
No longer is Iginla counted on to be the one and only guy capable of leading his team out a slump. In Boston, the future Hall of Famer gets to be one of many players sticking to the program and pulling his individual weight.
It may have taken some time for Iginla to get adjusted to his new surroundings, but as the season enters crunch time, Boston is starting to look like a perfect fit for the unassuming superstar.