In an abbreviated 48-game season, every single game is crucial. As a result, the Boston Bruins will need major contributions from every player on their roster in order to claim a third consecutive Northeast Division total.
Big names like Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, Tyler Seguin and Patrice Bergeron will bear the brunt of the intensified pressure as they attempt to lead the team into the playoffs. However, the Bruins' role players are likely to play equally critical parts in the fast-paced campaign.
Here are three Bruins who will need to step up in less glamorous roles to help make the team's lofty goals a reality:
Bruins' alternate captain Chris Kelly enjoyed a career year in 2011-12 and looks set to play an even bigger role in 2013.
He set career highs in goals (20) and points (39) last season as the pivot man on Boston's third line, but the two-way center's most impressive stat came in the plus-minus department.
Kelly tied for third in the National Hockey League with a spectacular plus-33 rating. The number speaks to his incredible efficiency on the ice and marks him as arguably the most reliable bottom-six center in the game.
Along with Rich Peverley, the 32-year-old Kelly will be held responsible for carrying Boston's third offensive trio, which could include the gifted but unestablished Chris Bourque on the left wing. If he can help Bourque finally realize his potential, then Boston will be one step closer to a division title.
Kelly spent a small portion of the lockout suiting up for HC Red Ice in Switzerland's National League B. He was highly effective in the second-tier Swiss league with nine points in eight games. Although the competition in the NLB is decidedly less than elite, Kelly's stint abroad should serve as a suitable warm-up for the coming season at least in terms of conditioning.
If he can give the Bruins production in the ballpark of 12 goals and 26 points over the 48-game season, coach Claude Julien will be very appreciative.
Johnny Boychuk should enjoy an expanded role in Boston this season after an exceptional 2011-12 campaign.
One of the younger members of an aging Boston defensive corps, the late-blooming Boychuk has only just entered his prime. With the 26-year-old Adam McQuaid recovering from October surgery and rookie Dougie Hamilton likely to be handled with kid gloves, Boychuk will be asked to make up for any energy lacking in the sprint-style season from the the 30-plus old guard, comprised of Chara, Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg.
Boychuk's physical play will continue to help set the tone for the Bruins as their staunch defense adjusts to new No. 1 goaltender Tuukka Rask, but his offense could use some improvement.
With just 46 points in his last three seasons, Boychuk will never be an offensive dynamo, but he does have a booming slap shot. If he lets it rip a little bit more often, the Bruins' scrappy forwards could hammer home a few more goals in the dirty areas on tip-ins and rebounds.
Boychuk mustered eight points in 15 games for Austria's EC Red Bull Salzburg during the lockout, showing that he has what it takes to make a bigger offensive contribution. Getting 10 to 15 points from Boychuk this season coupled with his usual top-notch defensive play would be huge for the Bruins.
Providence graduate Anton Khudobin will take over as Boston's backup goaltender in the wake of Tim Thomas' absence, and although Boston looks set to move a way from a platoon system in net, Khudobin's limited role will be magnified in importance by the short schedule.
The 26-year-old Kazakhstan native has only started five NHL games, but he has been up to the challenge in all of them. He has a 5-1-0 career record split between Minnesota and Boston with a superb 1.32 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage.
In his only start for the Bruins, Khudobin dominated the Ottawa Senators to the tune of 44 saves en route to a 3-1 win. Khudobin's jaw-dropping numbers should come down to earth with a larger sample size, but if he can produce a few gems in 2013, they would go a long way.
The netminder spent the lockout in the KHL with Atlant Moscow Oblast, putting up a 2.96 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage despite playing for a struggling team. Although his lockout numbers paled in comparison to Rask's, he did produce a handful of signature performances, including a 42-save effort to upset Alexander Ovechkin's Dynamo Moscow in late November.
Unable to afford many losses in their abbreviated pursuit of a division title, the Bruins will rely on Khudobin to fill in with strong efforts whenever Rask suffers from exhaustion or injury.