The Boston Bruins are going to be the team raising the Stanley Cup when this 48-game shortened season comes to an end in June.
It will be the second Cup championship in three years for the Black and Gold, and it will cement Bostons status as an elite franchise worthy of being mentioned in the same lofty air of respect as organizations in Detroit and Pittsburgh.
There will be small valleys along the way and pockets of adversity through the four-month regular season for Boston, of course. The Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens have armed themselves for classic Adams Division bloodbaths. Stocking up on 6-foot-8 fighting beasts like John Scott, and sandpaper irritants like Colby Armstrong. Brandon Prust, will make the Habs more combative. Steve Ott will turn the Sabres into even more of annoying gnat than Patrick Kaleta could have ever dreamed about.
So it will be a battle to win the division for the fourth time in the last five seasons, but its the kind of brass knuckles brawl that the Bruins prefer.
Its going to add to the rivalries and the competitiveness, said Milan Lucic, who should be facing more on-ice warfare with a Buffalo club where hes become Public Enemy No. 1 over the last year. Teams are trying to make improvements and get better, but that should make it fun for us. Its the way that we play: that rough-and-tough style. But we can also score as well.
Were at our best when were playing with an edge and I think thats been a great focus for us. Were worried about what were going to do rather than what the opponents are going to do. Thats not going to change this year.
The willingness of the Bruins' divisional opponents to play their style and engage them on the level they prefer will just help them capture the division in the end. Teams like the Sabres and Canadiens werent built to play that kind of game, while team toughness is the mantra that guided the Bruins to their Stanley Cup championship.
As for the other division opponents, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a rudderless mess in the wake of Brian Burkes firing, and wont go anywhere until they get a legitimate NHL goaltender. The Ottawa Senators are perhaps Bostons biggest foe within the division, but the Bruins have also gone 19-5 over the last four years against the puck legislators while playing the role of schoolyard bully. Ottawa has some explosive talent in Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza, but there are still too many holes for them to overtake their big, bad older brother in Boston.
Like rolling through the division, the Bruins will also capture the top honors in the Eastern Conference and threaten for their first Presidents Trophy since the 1989-90 edition that made the Cup Finals before falling to the Gretzky-less Edmonton Oilers.
The advantages for the Bruins in this shortened campaign are many: They have the continuity of virtually the same roster, with the same coach, and the same offensive and defensive systems with little change from the way theyve done business over the last five years.
"You're going to see a good team," said Peter Chiarelli of the Bruins team he built. "You're going to see a highly motivated team."
The Bruins return 11 of 12 forwards with Chris Bourque looking like the only new face in the opening night roster, and the top two forward lines along with the vaunted fourth line will be exactly the same. The Bruins return five of six defensemen and will add 19-year-old prodigy Dougie Hamilton to the mix. Hamilton might be a rookie, but trading out puck-moving retreads like Tomas Kaberle and Joe Corvo for a legitimate franchise defenseman-in-training will only improve the Black and Gold.
Both goaltenders also return after appearing in games for the Bruins last season.
Sure, Tim Thomas is gone away to his underground bunker while waiting for the global economy to collapse so he can post about it on Facebook. But the Bruins have moved on, and will gladly take the 2.05 goals-against average and .929 save percentage that Tuukka Rask posted last season.
The biggest question surrounding the 26-year-old is whether Rask can handle the physical pounding of a long 82-game regular season followed by a full playoff run, but the slightly built goalie wont have to endure that this year. Instead the shortened campaign should be a perfect scenario, where he can play 38 regular season games and still hold plenty back for some elite playoff performances.
Only three years ago Rask led the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage as a rookie from Finland, and he's been waiting for a fair chance to establish himself ever since. He will do that this season, and find himself stopping pucks in Boston for a long time to come.
National pundits will laud the Penguins for their offensive explosiveness and strength down the middle with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Theyll fall over themselves to cite the acquisition of Tomas Vokoun as the kind of player that could be a difference-maker. But the Pens did nothing to shore up a defensive corps that allowed 30 goals in six unforgettable playoff games against the Flyers last year, and will instead allow on a group of raw, young blueliners that will get buried by on-the-job training.
The Rangers are the choice of many to capture the Eastern Conferences top spot, but they gambled depth, grittiness and good team chemistry on Rick Nash. On paper he looks like the final piece to the Blueshirts puzzle, but rarely do things that work on paper actually translate in the final hockey product. Kaberle certainly looked like the exact right move on paper when the Bruins brought him in from the Maple Leafs two years ago, didnt he? Sure they won the Cup that year, but the presence of Kaberle only made things more difficult rather than easier for the Black and Gold.
The Flyers have all kinds of new parts and are trying to replace Chris Prongers intimidating presence with newly acquired defenseman Luke Schenn. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, Ilya Bryzgalov attempts to play goal with the threat of a postseason contract buyout hanging over his head.
The New Jersey Devils have been decimated by the departure of captain Zach Parise and wont be returning to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders are all up-and-coming, but their time is not now. The Washington Capitals showed they had enough to take down an empty husk of a Bruins team wiped out from the previous years 27-game Stanley Cup run, but revenge will be on the minds of the Boston players this time around.
Unlike last season the Bruins once again feel like theyve got something to prove on the ice. The chip has been placed back on their shoulder and nobody should fool themselves into thinking that Jack Adams-winning coach Claude Julien wont remind them of that over and over during this sprint through the month of April.
Thats when the Bruins are at their best and that high motivation will be augmented by the NHL-best 12 players that Boston had playing over in Europe during the 119-day lockout that has finally ended.
Hockey fans in Boston were so upset with the NHL lockout for a seemingly endless number of good reasons. Of course its a hockey city were the sport is revered, respected and loved in an obsessive way that makes Bostonians proud. But they also sensed that a window to another Stanley Cup was being artificially closed or altered over petty motivations like selfishness, ego and avarice.
They know this Bruins team has what it takes to win another Stanley Cup this season with a nucleus of players in Lucic, Rask, Hamilton, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton and Adam McQuaid, who range in their hockey primes from ages 19-27 years old. Thats not even counting the snarling dominance of Zdeno Chara, still at the top of his Norris Trophy-worthy defensive game at 35 years old coming off one of his best NHL seasons.
The time is now for the Bruins to roll through the division, the conference and then the Stanley Cup playoff field for another championship thats well within their talent and reach. Not to mention hockey history is on their side as well: the last two times the Bruins organization won the Cup in 1939 and 1970, they won it all over again two years later.
The Bruins will do it again this year. Dont ever forget where you heard it first.