The Boston Bruins caught the hockey world off-guard last year with their march to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. As with all surprising surges, the inclination is to expect a step back now that the great burden of expectation has reared its ugly, pressure-filled head.
Don’t bet on it.
Some feel Boston’s achievements last year don’t amount to a hill of beans because, basically, everybody on the team either broke out or overachieved.
Certainly there’s a poignant precedent from recent times of an Eastern team falling off the map after racking up more points than any team in the conference during the previous regular season.
The Montreal Canadiens – Boston’s hated rival – nearly dropped completely out of the playoff picture last year after topping the East with 104 points in 2007-08.
The Habs hung onto the eighth position last spring, only to be bounced in four gimme games by the Bruins.
For a number of reasons, I don’t see the same fate felling the Black and Gold.
The Habs, with an assortment of smallish forwards, felt like imposters all along. Boston’s success is built on a combination of team toughness and talent, perfectly embodied by the huge body of the Bruins’ franchise player, Zdeno Chara.
Blueliner Dennis Wideman was one of the players to take a step forward last year, posting a robust 13 goals and 50 points in 79 games. Throw sophomore Matt Hunwick and summer signee Derek Morris into the mix and the B’s are going to get plenty of offense from the D.
While the Bruins aren’t rife with shutdown defenders, Chara alone always ensures his team will be capable of severely tempering the opponent’s top line.
Up front, the Bruins are extremely strong at center, with David Krejci and Marc Savard anchoring the top two lines.
Third-line pivot Patrice Bergeron scored a personal victory simply by playing 64 games last year after missing all but 10 in 2007-08 due to the lingering effects of an early-season concussion.
Yes, the 24-year-old struggled to put up points in his return, but don’t forget the potential this still-young, two-way player was flashing before his injury. If he fully returns to form, Boston’s center stable will make other teams drool.
While it’s hard to believe every young Boston forward – Krejci, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler – will continue trending upward without a hitch, the Bruins are so deep up front they can allow for some regression.
Don’t think Michael Ryder can repeat his 27-goal season? Fair enough, but don’t forget Marco Sturm, limited to just 19 games last year, is back in the mix and you can basically put his 20-to-30 goals on the board based on his consistent track record.
Boston, which is feeling the cap crunch, still has to sort out what to do with RFA Phil Kessel. But whether GM Peter Chiarelli finds a way to get him back in the fold or flips him for something else of value, the asset won’t be wasted.
In goal, reigning Vezina winner Tim Thomas is armed with a new contract and the knowledge he truly belongs among the league’s elite stoppers. Those who think last year was an aberration for him would do well to look at his numbers since the lockout. His save percentage has never dipped below .905, even when he was playing on bad Bruins teams. Last year wasn’t his first good year; it was his first great year. He’d put three solid campaigns behind him before last season’s stirring showing.
The Bruins also benefit from playing in a weak division, meaning they’ll finish no lower than No. 3 in the East based on a seeding system that rewards division winners. And really, what other Northeast team could make a plausible pitch for winning that division?
Once in the playoffs, the Bruins will have a less tangible, but still important factor in their favor: incentive.
It almost seemed like Boston fell asleep at the wheel in Round 2 last spring, falling behind 3-1 to Carolina before nearly storming back to win the series.
Consider the lesson learned – and forget the idea Boston is bound for a fall.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.