Why Boston Bruins Are the Only Legit Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Contender

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Why Boston Bruins Are the Only Legit Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Contender
Andy Marlin/Getty Images

After the Boston Bruins won their 10th straight game Tuesday—a 4-2 victory against the New Jersey Devils—Brad Marchand was asked if the team felt invincible or if guys in the locker room were thinking about claiming the Presidents' Trophy at season's end.

"We’re not really thinking anything,” Marchand said. “We’re trying to clear that out of our mind and take it game by game and day by day."

It's that mentality along with top-end talent, depth in all areas and perhaps the game's best goaltender that separate the Bruins from almost everyone in the NHL. When it comes to the Eastern Conference, with all due respect to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Bruins are in a class by themselves.

That's why when it comes time to size up Stanley Cup contenders, the Bruins are the only legitimate threat in the East.

And really, it's not even close.

Eastern Conference five-on-five goal differential
Team Goals For Goals Against Goal Differential
Boston 156 99 +57
Tampa Bay 132 110 +22
Pittsburgh 135 124 +11
Columbus 131 121 +10
NY Rangers 119 119 Even
Detroit 124 125 -1
Toronto 132 136 -4
Philadelphia 122 129 -7
Ottawa 137 146 -9
Montreal 108 122 -14
Carolina 115 129 -14
Washington 119 134 -15
Florida 130 145 -15
New Jersey 108 124 -16
NY Islanders 128 159 -31
Buffalo 83 137 -54

NHL.com

At five-on-five, the Bruins have been cratering opponents, especially in comparison to the rest of the East. They are first in the conference in five-on-five goals for (156) and goals against (99) and their plus-57 goal differential is the best NHL. The next five teams in five-on-five goal differential all reside in the West.

How important is winning the battle at five-on-five? It may be the most important statistic for predicting postseason success.

Of the past six Stanley Cup champions, three (Detroit, Chicago in 2013, Boston) finished first in five-on-five goal differential, two others (Chicago in 2010, Pittsburgh) finished fourth while the Los Angeles Kings finished with a minus-three in that category, although they were an entirely different team over the final three months of the regular season after hiring Darryl Sutter and trading Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter.

Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

There are only three other teams in the East besides the Bruins with a positive goal differential this season, and one of them—the Columbus Blue Jackets—aren't even guaranteed to reach the postseason right now. The other two teams—the Penguins and Lightning—could provide some resistance when healthy, but they still aren't worthy of breathing the same air as the Bruins.

If for some reason the Bruins have an off-night at five-on-five, they're also a top-10 team on the power play and the penalty kill and have the third-most shorthanded goals with nine.

They can win in every way imaginable.

The Bruins lack an individual as offensively gifted as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Steven Stamkos, but what makes playing them like climbing a brick wall coated in grease is their forward depth. When coach Claude Julien is rolling his four lines, opponents aren't afforded a breather.

A case can be made that the Bruins' third line of Loui Eriksson, Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg is the best in the NHL and without question the East. The same argument can be presented for Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton when it comes to fourth lines. They're not just a collection of checkers and grinders—they can create offense without being liabilities defensively.

Because of a falling out with general manager Steve Yzerman, the Lightning were forced to trade leading scorer Martin St. Louis to the Rangers. That move to acquire Ryan Callahan weakened a team that was already lacking in punch from its bottom-six forwards.

Eastern Conference Leaders, Fenwick Close
NHL Rank/Team Fenwick differential/60 Current position
4. Boston Bruins +7.0 First in East
5. New York Rangers +5.8 Third in Metro
6. New Jersey Devils +4.5 11th in East
10. Tampa Bay Lightning +3.1 Second in Atlantic
11. Detroit Red Wings +2.3 10th in East
12. Columbus Blue Jackets +1.6 Eighth in East
16. Pittsburgh Penguins +0.7 Second in East

ExtraSkater.com

The Penguins addressed their needs for bottom-six offense by picking up Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc at the trade deadline, but they are still lagging behind the Bruins in terms of forward depth. Is there anything the Penguins have done this season that makes you think they have any shot in the conference finals against the Bruins after they were dismantled by the Bruins in last year's conference finals?

The only team that might have a chance is the Rangers, but again, it would require a lot of things to break right in a seven-game series, one that has no guarantee of taking place. When it comes to possession teams, the Rangers are the only East team that can compete with the Bruins. Although he's had a subpar season, Henrik Lundqvist is the goaltender in the East who is most likely to steal enough games to give the Bruins a scare.

Then again, the Rangers are barely hanging on to a playoff spot as of Thursday, so maybe forecasting them to slay the Bruins in the third round of the playoffs is a bit whimsical and far-fetched.

If there's one area where the Bruins could have been exposed, it's on the blue line with Dennis Seidenberg out for the season since late December. He had been riding shotgun with Zdeno Chara since arriving in Boston in 2010, working with the perennial Norris Trophy candidate to shut down the best offensive players in the league.

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But the Bruins haven't missed a beat with Seidenberg sidelined. They've gone 21-7-3 in his absence and have allowed 2.29 goals per game over that time. The Bruins had their defensive depth tested, and players like Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski, Kevan Miller and Dougie Hamilton have answered the call.

And when things break down, the Bruins have Vezina Trophy front-runner Tuukka Rask anchoring things in net. He is the NHL's leader in save percentage (.929) among goaltenders with at least 30 starts and came two wins shy of a Stanley Cup last season.

The forwards. The defensemen. The goaltender. Think of the Bruins as an onion; you peel one layer, and there are two more behind it that are going to bring tears to your eyes.

The Bruins are talented, deep and battle-tested and the only legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup in the East. There's no doubt that the West is the superior conference, but if there's one team in the East that can win four of seven games during the first two weeks of June, it's the Boston Bruins.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

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