BOSTON -- The Chicago Blackhawks are the talk of the NHL, as they should be for their incredible streak of 24 consecutive games without a loss in regulation. But don't forget about the Boston Bruins, who might be just as good.
Due to the lockout-shortened 48-game season, the only way the Bruins would play the Blackhawks this year would be in the Stanley Cup finals, which would be a phenomenal series between Original Six franchises.
One Bruins player said recently when asked what it would be like to have a Stanley Cup matchup between Boston and Chicago: "I don't care who we play, as long as we're there."
Here are five reasons the Bruins will contend for the Stanley Cup in 2013:
1. Scoring touch: Brad Marchand has gone from league-leading chirper to one of the league-leading scorers. Sure, he's still chirping away, but not as much as he has in the past, and his new mindset has translated into point production. Through 20 games (he missed one game with an upper-body injury), Marchand has 12 goals and eight assists for 20 points. He also has an impressive plus-15 rating. Bruins coach Claude Julien spoke with the talented winger prior to the season about playing with a more stealthlike mentality. Marchand plays with a lot of emotion and is at his best when he agitates the opposition, but he's found a way to stay out of the penalty box this season, with just eight penalty minutes through 20 games (he had 87 PIMs last season). Marchand is still playing with an edge, which was on display Thursday when he clearly got under the Maple Leafs' skin. But while he was agitating the Leafs, he also chipped in with two assists and was plus-3.
2. Lining up: Of course, in order to advance deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it takes a lot more than just one player. The line of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin has been playing as well as any line in the NHL. As a unit, they have recorded 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points in the past nine games and are a combined plus-30. Bergeron currently leads the team in scoring with six goals and 15 assists for 21, including a plus-17 rating. Seguin got off to a slow start but has returned to form the past few weeks. He now has five multiple-point games and also has five goals with seven assists for 12 points in his past 10 games. This trio will need to continue its consistent play if the Bruins are to have success in the second half of the season and into the playoffs.
3. Puck stops here: There hasn't been a drop off in goaltending for the Bruins since former netminder Tim Thomas placed himself on a self-imposed hiatus. His former backup, Tuukka Rask has been solid as the team's No. 1 goalie, posting an 11-2-3 record in 16 starts, along with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. He served as the Bruins' starter during the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs and outdueled the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller in the first round. But Rask tired in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers and couldn't help the Bruins avoid a historic collapse after being ahead 3-0 in the series. Rask should have an opportunity to redeem himself in the playoffs this season. In addition to Rask, backup Anton Khudobin has been solid, posting a 4-1 record in five starts, with a 2.42 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
4. Trade market: With the trade deadline less than a month away, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has the resources to make a splash in the market if he believes the team needs it. Boston's GM has the cap space, with $7.6 million to spend if needed (even more if they decide to put Marc Savard on the long-term injury list). If Chiarelli is inclined to add a top-tier player -- Daniel Alfredsson, Corey Perry or Jarome Iginla -- he has the ammunition to do it. When the Bruins won the Cup two seasons ago, they received major contributions from all four lines. This season, the Bruins haven't had that consistency. The third line of Chris Bourque, Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley has struggled on both ends of the ice. Julien tweaked his lineup before Thursday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Bourque was placed on waivers and replaced in the lineup by veteran forward Jay Pandolfo. If the Bruins decide they need more help on the third line (or anywhere else), Chiarelli certainly has the money to make a deal.
5. Health report: Prior to the 2010-2011 season, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara brought back a horseshoe from Slovakia, and it hangs on the wall near the door of the team's locker room at TD Garden. Each Bruins player touches it with either his hand or stick when leaving the room before every game. It's been a staple in the room, and it seems to be paying off this season from a health standpoint. Other than the normal bumps and bruises, the Bruins have avoided major injuries this season. Like many coaches in the NHL, Julien has scheduled shorter practices and optional skates in order to maintain proper rest while trying to keep the players sharp. So far it's worked. Boston has a total of only seven man games lost, according to game notes. During the work stoppage, the Bruins had 12 players play overseas. But even players who didn't play overseas have been healthy. Marchand and Milan Lucic were two of the prominent players who remained in North America, which worried some in management, thinking they could be prone to injury. But that hasn't been the case, with Marchand having a career year and Lucic playing well, too.