We're only a few games into the NHL Conference Finals, but the Boston Bruins are separating themselves from the pack. Having dominated the Penguins by a combined score of 9-1 in Pittsburgh, they head back to Boston with a 2-0 series lead. If they can keep their level of play up, they'll go on to win their second Stanley Cup in three years.
A lot of folks will say that the Blackhawks are the favorite to win it all, as they're also up 2-0 over the Kings. There's no shame in that. However, the team defense, strong depth and rock-solid goaltending of the Bruins will get it done.
It's hard to quantify, but the Bruins are the most well-coached team in the playoffs. Each player knows his role and executes it with serious tenacity. That's the case from star players like Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara all the way down to grinders like Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell.
Claude Julien's coaching is most apparent in the way the team plays defense. While special teams are part of the game, it's important to evaluate teams based on play at even strength. In five-on-five hockey, the Bruins have a stunning goal differential of 1.4 goals per 60 minutes (+0.5 ahead of second-place Chicago).
On a more basic level, though, you can see their team defensive strength by merely watching. In the first two games of the series, the Bruins have stifled the Penguins zone entries and controlled the neutral zone. This success, paired with their league-leading face-off percentage, allows the Bruins to dictate the pace of the game. In keeping the puck out of the hands of stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Bruins have dominated.
A common characteristic of most championship teams is depth. The Bruins have it in spades. Anyone could have foreseen production from their top two lines, but not many expected the solid offensive output of the "Merlot Line", consisting of Paille, Campbell and Shawn Thornton.
Boston's defense has suffered a few injuries along the way, but the emergence of Torey Krug has been a revelation. That, along with stellar play like this goal from Johnny Boychuk, has steadied the backend for Boston. Again, not only are they talented, but they're also deep.
Though Tuukka Rask has always been well respected, some may have anticipated a step back in net from the effervescent Tim Thomas. Put simply, they were wrong. Rask carries a 1.99 GAA and .935 SV% in 14 games played in these playoffs.
More importantly, Rask has gotten better as the playoffs have gone on. Despite an up-and-down series against Toronto, he has been nothing but stellar since then. If the Bruins are to win it all, they'll need him to continue that.
The Bruins still need two wins to close out the Penguins, but their play at TD Garden speaks for itself. Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks have to travel to Los Angeles, where the Kings are 7-0 in these playoffs. It remains to be seen whether they will capture the Cup, but the Bruins are playing the best hockey at the right time.
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