Are the Boston Bruins a Lock to Return to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014?

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Are the Boston Bruins a Lock to Return to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014?
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

They lost just once in regulation in the entire month of March. They've locked up the Atlantic Division title and are a win away from securing the Eastern Conference's regular-season crown as well.

The Boston Bruins are well on their way to another crack at the Stanley Cup.

Who's going to stop them from a third appearance in the final series in four seasons?

The Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins didn't fare too well a year ago in their Eastern Conference Final matchup versus Boston, when the offensive powerhouse Pens managed just two goals in the four-game Bruins sweep.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have a feel-good story going with a Vezina-worthy goaltender in Ben Bishop and newly promoted captain Steven Stamkos providing hope, but the underdog doesn't have the same teeth as the big bad bears.

The Montreal Canadiens in a grueling seven-game series? They don't have the size or toughness to keep pace.

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

The New York Rangers are backed by a world-class goaltender and have been hot lately, winning 10 of their last 14 games prior to Thursday night. But just three of those victories through March and April have come against teams currently sitting in playoff positions. Their one recent test against the Bruins was a miserable failure culminating in a 6-3 loss on home ice.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets...please, they'll be happy just to qualify for the postseason.

Winners of three of four meetings between the two in the regular-season series, the Detroit Red Wings may on paper appear to be the most capable foe. But those games were spread out over months, and beating the Bruins four times while playing every second night is a tall order for any team in the playoffs.

The Bruins are the smart bet in the Eastern Conference once again.

 

Depth up front

Only the St. Louis Blues (with 11) currently have more 30-point scorers than the Bruins, who have 10. Philadelphia is the only other team with double digits. Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Jarome Iginla form one trio and Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith make up a second deadly scoring line that is also responsible in the defensive zone. Chris Kelly, Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson form a third line that any team in the NHL would love to roll out there after the top two.

Bruins' 30-point club
Games Goals Assists Points
David Krejci 77 16 48 64
Jarome Iginla 76 30 31 61
Patrice Bergeron 77 28 31 59
Milan Lucic 76 22 33 55
Reilly Smith 77 19 30 49
Brad Marchand 77 23 25 48
Carl Soderberg 68 16 30 46
Torey Krug 74 14 23 37
Zdeno Chara 74 17 19 36
Loui Eriksson 56 8 22 30

NHL.com

The depth, which includes a pretty impressive fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton, has given the dynamically defensive Bruins the third-most potent offense in the NHL to go with it, scoring an average of 3.16 goals per game.

And one statistic that jumps off the page at you is the way they've dominated opponents in the third period, outscoring them 99-52 in the final frame this season.

 

Team Defense

The blue line is stellar in spite of the big loss suffered when Dennis Seidenberg tore up his knee in December. The acquisition of veteran Andrej Meszaros at the trade deadline has given the Bruins options, but the kids have been strong on the back end with Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski and Kevan Miller all proving capable of the extra minutes behind Johnny Boychuk and Zdeno Chara.

And when you can roll a monster like Chara out there for 25 minutes or so per game, you can neutralize some of the opponents' star power and rely on your own depth to get the job done based on the other matchups.

The chart below courtesy of ExtraSkater.com shows how evenly the minutes are spread out and the fact that head coach Claude Julien can put nearly any of his players against the best the other team has to offer. The higher up the chart, the harder the competition a player faces. The size of the circle indicates ice time. The farther left he is, the more he starts in the defensive zone.

ExtraSkater.com

So while it's clear Chara plays the most against the best, and Bergeron is the go-to forward in the defensive zone starts, there's quite a cluster of players behind them who play equally important roles—and do so very successfully.

 

Goaltending

The Vezina Trophy battle might be a two 'tender race. The Lightning's Ben Bishop is solid with a .926 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, however, is the clear front-runner with a .930 save percentage and 2.04 goals-against average.

The Rangers' Lundqvist is having a much better second half to his season, The Habs' Carey Price is solid if a little inconsistent. Sergei Bobrovsky is the Blue Jackets' MVP down the stretch, and Jimmy Howard has proven he's capable of big playoff performances.

Steve Mason still has a lot to prove in his rejuvenated career with the Flyers, and Marc-Andre Fleury may never again be trusted in the playoffs.

Any of these netminders, though, would be better off in Boston. The team is so good it could overcome goaltending as a weak link. But it's just another strength. Rask was backup when the B's won the Cup in 2011 and came two wins short of his own as the starter last year. If he's as good in the postseason as he's been in the regular season, the Bruins will be back in the final series.

 

They simply excel in every situation

The Bruins are third in the league and tops (by a wide margin) in the conference when it comes to goals scored at even strength. They're second in the league and first (by an even grander margin) in the goals-against category five on five.

Basically, they wear opponents down and take advantage of them at their weakest. And that's in a period-by-period scenario, never mind a seven-game series.

Special teams, yeah, they'll crush you there, too. The Bruins are third in the conference and league with a power-play percentage of 20.9. They're the seventh best in the penalty kill at 84.2% and have scored nine times while down a man.

The Bruins' best attribute when all is said and done might be work ethic.

Lundqvist told NHL.com's Jim Cerny about what makes the Bruins dangerous after that 6-3 loss at MSG:

They're a real good team, they have a lot of skill, and work hard. I think they are really good at battling in front of both nets, and that's where a lot of games get decided.

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