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Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Daily Debate: Bruins' playoff chances, West's tangled race

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the Bruins' chances for success in the playoffs -- especially against the Habs -- and try to dissect the playoff race in the West.

Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas leads the league with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage.

Burnside: Hello, my friend, hope you made it safely home from Bristol, Conn., after the trade-deadline fiesta. One thing that remains with me from our time in Connecticut is Barry Melrose's insistence that the Bruins are the real deal, that they are Cup-worthy. I am still not sold -- I guess memories of the B's blowing that 3-0 lead in Game 7 against Philadelphia in the second round last spring keep me from embracing their Cup hopes fully -- but they are sure on a roll coming off a 1-0 victory over an Ottawa Senators team that has played better of late. Tuukka Rask earned the win, which is huge for his confidence, as I think the Bruins will need to make sure Tim Thomas isn't burned out come April. But even though Tomas Kaberle has only one assist since joining the Bruins, they have yet to lose since GM Peter Chiarelli made his pre-deadline acquisitions of Kaberle, Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly. Peverley has one goal and Kelly has one assist since coming over, but these parts obviously have been able to move more or less seamlessly into a deep Boston lineup. The Bruins have won six in a row and are tied with Tampa for the second spot in the Eastern Conference. I still can't help but think that we're destined to see a Boston-Montreal clash in the first round, but the Bruins are slowly making believers of me.

LeBrun: You need to jump on the B's bandwagon, buddy; they are indeed for real. I think the Flyers and Bruins are the two most legit Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference, and I don't think for a second that last spring's meltdown will have any kind of carryover in April. Barring injuries, I love this Bruins team's balance, its physicality and obviously the NHL-best goaltending. It's a club built for playoff success, and GM Peter Chiarelli deserves huge props for filling his needs before the deadline. The statistic that jumps out the most to me for the B's is their plus-47 goal differential, second only to Vancouver's. You can't fake that stat. And if it is indeed the Bruins and rival Canadiens in the first round, the Habs don't stand a chance. But that's just me.

Burnside: Wow. Pretty dismissive of a Canadiens team that always seems to find a way to get it done, as it did Tuesday night in beating the Thrashers 3-1 here in Atlanta. Carey Price was terrific -- again -- making 40 saves. I think he's played his way into Vezina Trophy discussion, even if it's a forgone conclusion that Thomas is going to win his second Vezina in the past three years. With Montreal's win and the Rangers' loss to the new-look Buffalo Sabres (Brad Boyes scored in his debut for the Sabres), the Canadiens look pretty settled in that sixth seed and would play either Boston or Tampa Bay. Think the Quebec media would like to see Tampa and its heavy concentration of Francophone players and coaches in a playoff tilt with the hometown heroes?

LeBrun: Agree on Price. Although Thomas is indeed a lock to win, I see him, Price, Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo (top-five in both goals-against average and save percentage) as the top four candidates given the injury to Jonas Hiller. There's no question that a Tampa-Montreal matchup, one that I give the Canadiens a better shot in, would be a fun time given all the Quebec-born players on the Lightning. But let's move out West now. Calgary, Dallas and San Jose all won Tuesday night, and they're all big at this point given that Western race. The Sharks are now at 80 points and, thanks to a sensational 16-2-1 run since mid-January, are beginning to look like the team that's going to win that ultracompetitive Pacific Division. The Stars, meanwhile, have suddenly won three straight after a 2-10-1 run saw them tumble down the standings. Jamie Benn scored a power-play goal with 4.8 seconds left Tuesday night after Phoenix had tied it with two late goals. Wild!

Burnside: There's no way to even begin discussing possible playoff matchups in the Western Conference, but I will make a prediction that within a week, maybe 10 days, we're going to start to see some separation in that conference. I got a note from a GM who was marveling at the race in the West, and he asked the rhetorical question: Which teams will accelerate now that the trade deadline has passed, and which teams will take their foot off the gas? Dallas answered that question with a big, early win. Nashville, though, was a team that was silent at the deadline proper (I know the Predators added Mike Fisher earlier) and left another big point on the table Tuesday night, losing to Edmonton 2-1 in a shootout. Interesting that of the top eight in the West right now, three teams are riding winning streaks of three or more (San Jose, Dallas and Chicago) and seven of the top eight have won at least five of their past 10 games. That means those teams trying to sneak back in like Nashville, Minnesota, Columbus and Anaheim really have their work cut out for them.

LeBrun: The Ducks are three points out and will face the mighty Red Wings at home Wednesday night, and you have to feel bad for them considering the out-of-nowhere injury to Hiller. Just when he was having a Vezina-type season and fueling the Ducks' surprising run, a case of vertigo has shelved Hiller and perhaps his team's season. The Ducks have lost five of six games just when most of their Western rivals have been rolling along. Maybe a big win over Detroit can get things turned around. A final thought: The Flames, who are fifth in the West as of Wednesday morning although only two points out of the danger zone, pounded St. Louis 6-0 Tuesday night, and I have to tell you, I think that's a team the rival Canucks would rather avoid in the first round. Vancouver has had a spectacular season in leading the Western Conference, and the Canucks have a lineup that makes you think they'll have a Cup run, but there's something about a playoff series with a longtime rival where the standings get thrown out the window and it's old-time hockey.

Until tomorrow, my friend.