Darren Eliot
Monday December 15th, 2008

Is it to early to separate pretenders from contenders? Probably. But, when it comes to the Boston Bruins, I think we can safely assess them as the real deal in the Eastern Conference. Before the season started, I assessed them thusly:

And then we have the Bruins. GM Pete Chiarelli re-tooled the B's and saw them make the playoffs by securing the eighth and final playoff spot. They played a memorable first-round series before finally succumbing to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games. The positive experience garnered last season by David Krejci, Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic is invaluable. Yet, without the return of Patrice Bergeron to aid an offense that finished 14th in the east in goals scored, the Bruins would be hard pressed to make it back to the playoffs this season -- even if those players continued to develop as hoped. They lopped off a whopping 67 goals-against compared to the previous season -- a reduction they cannot hope to improve upon. Their inclusion in playoff hockey will rely on an improved attack, which means Bergeron becomes the biggest single variable in projecting the Bruins' potential this season.

What has transpired thus far has moved the Bruins from playoff potential to conference leader. Bergeron, however, hasn't been central to the Bruins' offensive explosion. He is, according to head coach Claude Julien, "playing well, but not fully back to where he was before last season's injury. He's playing hard, doing the right things, but the production isn't there yet. But we'll be patient with him."

That's a luxury afforded by the play of Lucic, Krejci and particularly Kessel. Their development has accelerated to the point where Kessel is one of the most dynamic players in the game right now. Challenged by a playoff benching and a summer message from management to realize what level he needs to compete at on a nightly basis, Kessel's production is the result of his resolve and stands as his "I get it" response. Combined with Lucic's power-forward presence -- he's showing improved mobility after a summer of foot-speed drills and power skating -- and centerman Marc Savard's playmaking and continued improved play away from the puck, the trio is the best line in the east.

The result is that the correlation is there for the B's: They've scored the most goals in the conference and sit atop the standings as a result. And that was my initial point. How much more offense would be available to augment the already instituted defensive tenets put in place by Julien?

The answer? Plenty.

Meanwhile, the defense has not suffered, with the Bruins yielding just 67 goals- against to date -- the fewest in the NHL. And goaltender Manny Fernandez is back healthy and performing brilliantly in tandem with Tim Thomas, giving the Bruins two quality netminders.

Not only is Boston's depth in goal better this season, they are dealing with injuries and still flourishing. Mainstay rearguard Andrew Ference goes out and in comes Matt Hunwick performing like a top four defenseman rather than an unsure rookie. Veteran winger Marco Sturm hits the injured list and up steps rookie free agent signing Blake Wheeler to score on the second line and play responsibly to the tune of an eye-popping plus-18 rating.

The formula has catapulted the Bruins to their current status and looks unshakeable. In a city where the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots make it a challenge to get noticed even on the local level, the Bruins look poised to grab headlines of their own -- now and for the foreseeable future.

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