As the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are slated to begin this week, the Boston Bruins will begin their championship defense.
Even though Boston returned most of their championship team for the 2011-12 season, it was reasonable to expect some sort of Stanley Cup hangover.
But these Bruins proved the critics wrong.
As the No. 2 seed in the East, Boston once again earned over 100 points for the season and have set themselves up for a deep playoff run.
Here are some reasons why the Bruins were able to surpass even the most loyal fans' expectations this season.
It is impossible to expect a team to go through a grueling 82-game schedule and stay completely healthy.
Like most other teams, the Bruins suffered numerous injuries over the course of this season to some of their biggest contributors.
The difference between other teams and the Bruins is the ability for Boston to still play at a high level even with the absence of top players.
Two prime examples are Nathan Horton and Tuukka Rask.
Horton won't return this season due to a head injury, leaving a big hole on the top line for the B's. However, Claude Julien has been able to shuffle lines and find the right combinations for everyone to contribute in order to continue to be a top team in the East.
Rask's injury was especially hard on Tim Thomas, who had to play in an extremely high number of games since Rask was injured. Despite being over-worked, Thomas played solid hockey down the stretch and was able to help the Bruins secure the Northeast Division.
During the 2011-12 season, Tyler Seguin matured way beyond his years.
At 20 years of age, Seguin led the Bruins in points during the regular season with 67—netting 29 goals and dishing out 38 assists.
After being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Seguin has had to live up to high expectations. He certainly lived up to them this season.
However, Seguin hasn't been the only one.
Brad Marchand, an under-the-radar type prospect entering last season, has also become an elite offensive player on the Bruins. Marchand scored 28 goals while assisting on 27 goals this season.
Seguin and Marchand have infused speed and creativity into the B's offense, leading to more opportunities for themselves and teammates.
Both will look to keep the dynamic play up during the 2012 postseason. They look to bring another title back to Boston.
They may not have a Steven Stamkos-type scorer, but the Boston Bruins boast an offense to which no other team in the NHL can compare.
The Bruins have six players with 20 goals or more; they are the only team in the league to accomplish this feat. This number would be even higher if Nathan Horton was healthy. Horton had 18 goals on the season before being injured.
Being balanced is key for the Bruins, who don't suffer if a player hits a rough patch. Another player is ready to step up and keep the offensive machine going.
Entering the postseason, the Bruins have to feel confident in the depth along their four lines. There may not be a better set of lines then the Bruins' 1-4.
If there is a team in the NHL that you don't want to upset, it's the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins have a lineup that features numerous "tough guys" who are willing to stick up for their teammates and know when the team needs a jolt.
Shawn Thornton has made himself a household name by being the Bruins' enforcer the past couple of seasons, but he isn't the only one willing to drop the gloves or lay out an opposing player.
Milan Lucic is the definition of a "power forward", Zdeno Chara throws thunderous haymakers and even little Brad Marchand likes to mix it up a bit.
But the Boston's toughness isn't limited to physical toughness. They are also one of the strongest teams mentally in the league.
Claude Julien's system requires effort and focus—both evident in last year's playoff run. This year has been no different.
If anything, Boston is tougher this season than last. And that could be a scary thought for the remaining playoff teams.