It's that time of year again in the "Hub of Hockey." The Boston Bruins are set to drop the puck on their fourth straight postseason appearance, and expectations are high in Beantown.
After a historic departure from the playoffs last season, the Bruins are certainly feeling the pressure to perform in 2011. Boston has never made it beyond the second round under current head coach Claude Julien, but the Bruins coach won't approach things any differently.
"Everyone knows what's at stake here," Julien said. "This year is not any different."
Of course, no one can deny the heat that is on the Bruins, playing in a city that has grown to expect excellence. The Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics have all won championships this decade, while the Bruins have not brought home the Stanley Cup since 1972.
So what has to go differently for the Bruins to bring Boston its sixth Stanley Cup?
It's no secret that the Boston Bruins aren't going to out-skate many teams. They lack a bonafide superstar up front, and instead rely on their depth and grittiness to physically wear down opponents.
What they do have is a deep lineup of dependable hardworking forwards. As long as they play within themselves, and play for 60 minutes, the Bruins can play with anybody in the league.
However, with their lack of star power, the little things will be magnified more than ever. Winning the one-on-one battles and getting to loose pucks will make the difference for this team.
Essentially, what they lack in talent, the Bruins must make up for in heart. It's not going to come from Claude Julien or Cam Neeley. The players have to search within themselves and play 60 minutes of disciplined hard nosed hockey one game at time.
One of the biggest issues with the Boston Bruins organizations over the past few seasons has been accountability, starting at the top.
Owner Jeremy Jacobs has failed to hold anyone in the organization accountable for their miscues. The complacency following their embarrassing exit from the 2010 NHL Playoffs is evidence of that.
Enter Cam Neely: The long time Bruins great was installed as president of the Boston Bruins following last season, and has brought his hard-nosed attitude from the ice to the front office.
Despite what Claude Julien and the players say, there is a significant amount of pressure for the Bruins this time around. If they once again fail to live up to expectations, heads should, and will, roll.
In Boston, making the playoffs is not the goal. If the Bruins aren't riding down Tremont Street with the Stanley Cup on duck boats, the season should be viewed as a failure.
That's the message Cam Neely is sending.
Make no mistake about it: Boston is a hockey town. The T.D. Banknorth Garden is a different animal come playoff time.
Once again, the Bruins will have home ice advantage for at least the first round, and it will be the catalyst to their playoff success if they are able to build momentum in round one.
Beating the Canadiens convincingly in front of the Bruins faithful would electrify the Garden and spring board the B's towards the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Of course, Boston will have to avoid burning themselves out in the first series. If they play a physical game, the Canadiens won't hold up in a seven game series and Boston will be rested and have some momentum heading into round two.
Zdeno Chara, Nathan Horton, Shawn Thornton, Milan Lucic and Johnny Boychuck are bringing back the "Big Bad Bruins." Is there a more physically imposing lineup in the NHL?
While it's true that Boston's roster is built for the pre-lockout NHL, it is difficult to ignore the size and physicality the Bruins possess both up front and on the blue line.
As previously mentioned, the Bruins are going to have to out-physical every team they play. They do not have an elite roster. The talent just is not there.
So can a team still win the Stanley Cup on pure grit and physical play? Time will tell.
During the 2010 NHL Playoffs, the Boston Bruins rode Tuukka Rask's hot streak to the Conference Semi-Finals, before he and the team simultaneously cooled down. That trend continued this season, except with Tim Thomas in net.
The former Vezina Trophy winner had a phenomenal season with a league best .938 save percentage and goals against average of 2.00. In addition, Thomas posted nine shutouts.
History shows that a hot goalie can carry the most mediocre of playoff teams. The Bruins are far from mediocre, but they certainly lack an elite offensive weapon.
If Tim Thomas or Tuukka Rask gets hot, they could make up for the lack of offensive fire power in Boston.
Heart, intimidation, grit and goaltending can only get a team so far. In today's NHL, which is driven by the speed and skill players, the most successful teams are those with star power.
Since the lockout every Stanley Cup Champion has had a player with at least 88 points. The Blackhawks had Patrick Kane, the Penguins had Sidney Crosby, the Red Wings had Henrik Zetteburg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Ducks had Teemu Selanne and the Hurricanes had Eric Staal.
The top point getters for the Bruins during the 2010-2011 season were Milan Lucic and David Krejci with 62 points apiece. Hardly the offensive fire power that inspires a deep playoff run.
Clearly, Boston needs someone to step up offensively and carry the load. Candidates include Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Meanwhile, fellow Eastern Conference contenders will have the services of such offensive playmakers as Mike Richards, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin.
WIll a star emerge for the Boston Bruins, or will they be forced to make due with their pre-lockout style of play and deep stable of dependable forwards?
Without the offensive prowess, it is hard to imagine a team built like the Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup.