In 2012-13, the Boston Bruins will take aim at their third straight and 25th all-time Northeast Division crown. The black and gold juggernaut's recent dominance could be hard to stop.
The Bruins cruised to the division crown last season with 102 points. Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators surprised with a second-place finish, 10 points behind Boston. Buffalo missed the playoffs with 89 points, receiving a poor season from Ryan Miller. Toronto and Montreal each stumbled to disappointing records and rounded out the bottom of the division.
With just a single 100-point team last year, the Northeast division is far from the class of the Eastern Conference. It will likely offer an easier route to the playoffs than the Atlantic, which had four teams win at least 48 games last season.
Boston powered through their divisional foes with a 19-4-1 record, a number made even more impressive in light of the brutal Stanley Cup hangover that caused the Bruins to lose seven of their first 10 games. With an extended offseason, the Bruins should have little trouble matching that success once again this year.
The Bruins were hands-down the best 5-on-5 hockey team in the National Hockey League last season. The Bruins are the rare sort of team which can score consistently with all four lines. Scoring depth combined with Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask holding down the fort results in a tremendous advantage when both teams are at full strength.
As much as the Bruins power play has been maligned, 5-on-5 scoring has easily made up for special teams struggles. In fact the Bruins' total goal differential last season was a whopping plus-67, easily the best in the league. Ottawa was the only other team in the Northeast with a positive goal differential, and they finished 58 goals behind Boston.
Despite finishing a middling 15th in power play scoring percentage, the Bruins were second in total goals scored.
Bruins players Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, Zdeno Chara, Chris Kelly and Brad Marchand occupied all of the top five spots in the league's plus/minus table. Bergeron, Seguin and Marchand were the most efficient line in the NHL.
Patrice Bergeron was honored with the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league, but the strength of the Bruins is really exemplified by Chris Kelly's plus-33 rating as a third-liner. No third line in hockey had more of an impact last season than Boston's.
There is no team in the Northeast that is deep enough to contend with the Bruins on a consistent basis.
Since his appointment as team president, former Bruins bruiser Cam Neely has imbued his squad with the physical character that defined Boston hockey in its heyday. The big, bad Bruins are the most imposing team in the Northeast and should be able to consistently push their rivals around the rink.
Boston's big-hitting style begins, of course, with 6'9" captain Zdeno Chara. The Slovakian giant is an unmatched force on the Bruins' blue line. Chara was nominated for the Norris Trophy once again in 2011-12 but lost to young Senators star Erik Karlsson. Karlsson is a stellar offensive defenseman but lacks Chara's ability to set the tone in the defensive zone.
The Bruin's pounding set of forwards is led by enforcer Shawn Thornton who loves to drop the gloves. Agitator Brad Marchand may not be the biggest winger in the division but has the confidence to take on any opponent, and Nathan Horton should rediscover his physicality so long as his health is intact.
Milan Lucic should also regain the nastiness that marked his early career. The power forward seemed to take his foot off the gas last season, and the more level-headed Lucic struggled to score as often as he once did. In 2012-13, coach Claude Julien will unleash the forceful winger and all his intimidating fury. With a big chip on his shoulder, Lucic should get back on track and leave a trail of bruised bodies in his wake.
The Bruins will be as tough as ever this year and could pummel opponents into submission on a nightly basis.
The Bruins kept quiet this offseason and neglected to make any big moves, but the team's corps of young talent gives them the capacity for significant improvement after a very strong season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be kicking themselves as the Phil Kessel trade comes back to haunt them. Since leaving Boston, Kessel has become every bit the superstar Toronto hoped he would. But the Leafs paid an arm and a leg for the American scorer.
Tyler Seguin was taken second overall in the 2010 draft with a pick acquired from Toronto. After winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie, Seguin led the team in goals and points in year two. He projects to reach elite level this year and shows no signs of looking back. By year's end, Seguin could be the face of the franchise, and though unlikely, it is plausible that Seguin could be a Hart Trophy candidate.
Meanwhile, Dougie Hamilton, also taken with an early first-round pick from Toronto, is expected to make his debut at the TD Garden. After a dominant season in the Ontario Hockey League, Hamilton is expected to contend for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year before becoming an all-star offensive defenseman for years to come. Hamilton provides a special bonus as he looks capable of aiding Boston's weak power play.
Not to be overlooked, the feisty Brad Marchand has scored 20-plus goals in each of his first two seasons, and should make a run at 30 or more this year. Last season he claimed a place on Boston's top line and formed a great trio with Tyler Seguin and Patrice Bergeron.
Perhaps most importantly, Tuukka Rask will finally take over the Bruins crease without having to share time with Tim Thomas. Rask has been elite in a limited number of starts over the past few seasons, leading the league in goals against average and save percentage in 2009-10. With the spotlight squarely fixed on him for the first time, Rask should star en route to another division title.