|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
It's not just that the Boston Bruins are a fortress of a team. They are. Deep, physical, experienced, blessed with terrific goaltending and a nice jolt of youthful energy, they have the prototypical playoff team.
As we noted, a playoff fortress.
What sets the Bruins apart and what has led the ESPN.com hockey writers to anoint them our consensus Stanley Cup pick is that the Bruins, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, are a fortress surrounded by, well, mud huts.
This spring, a legitimate case could be made for five -- maybe six -- teams as Stanley Cup champions in waiting. And four or five of those teams are Western Conference teams.
And fair or not, that had a lot to do with our picking the Bruins.
Indeed, back in training camp, each of us ESPN.com hockey writers picked a team from the Western Conference to win it all.
Katie Strang had the San Jose Sharks. And there's no reason to believe Todd McLellan's talented, well-rounded team couldn't come up with the third championship for California since 2007. Except, well, the Sharks are going to play the Los Angeles Kings, a team that many believe could repeat its 2012 championship run, in the first round. In the fall, Craig Custance believed the Kings were capable of returning to glory back when he picked them to win it all.
And really, what's not to like about the Kings, who boast one of the NHL's top money goaltenders in Jonathan Quick and a team battle-tested and built to withstand the rigors of playoff hockey?
And what about the defending Stanley Cup champs from Chicago? Pierre LeBrun liked the team's core, its coaching and the young players who were set to assume larger roles so much, he believed the Blackhawks could do the almost impossible and win back-to-back championships. And they could yet do so. Except they were missing their top two performers in Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews down the stretch. Throw in their run to the finals late last June, the compressed schedule and the fact they had 10 players take part in the Olympics and, well, is it too much to ask for a second Cup in a row?
And oh yeah, they're going to play another Stanley Cup darling in the St. Louis Blues who, while slumping badly down the stretch, will not allow the Blackhawks to ease into the postseason as Chicago did last spring, when it started the playoffs against an overmatched Minnesota Wild team.
And what of the Blues (our personal pick to win the Cup a year ago), who are looking for their first championship, and while banged up physically and mentally thanks to a late-season swoon that cost them the Central Division crown, are built for the playoffs?
The addition of Ryan Miller at the trade deadline and a return to health in the early going by David Backes and T.J. Oshie make St. Louis a likewise formidable opponent.
|The revitalized play of Jarome Iginla has contributed to the Bruins' dominance.|
And what of the Anaheim Ducks, who once again will enter the postseason as the second seed in the Western Conference and are exponentially better than they were a year ago, but who will face the winner of the Sharks-Kings series in the second round of the California cage-death match, assuming they don't get knocked off by the Dallas Stars?
"How can you pick the best in the West?" one top NHL executive told ESPN.com. "All those top clubs are strong. It's a toss-up based on luck, goalies and health."
Which brings us back to the East and the Bruins. At the beginning of the season, we would have put the Pittsburgh Penguins in a similar "fortress" category in the East, but they have endured an ungodly number of injuries that will see them exceed 500 man games lost, by far the most in the league.
The injuries along with Marc-Andre Fleury's recent playoff foibles in net have led many to jump from the Penguins' bandwagon, and there is concern that the Penguins might not get out of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The NHL executive we spoke to still put the Penguins above the fray, but as for the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, he believes there is little to distinguish the group below the two division winners in the East.
Another NHL GM agreed that the Bruins have separated themselves from the pack in the East and look like they're ready to take on all comers.
"I think they're the favorites," he told ESPN.com.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli admits there might have been concern at the start of the season while faced with replacing the right side of his top three lines after the departures of Jaromir Jagr, Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton from last season's squad that advanced to its second Stanley Cup finals since 2011. But Loui Eriksson, Jarome Iginla and Reilly Smith, while representing players at varying stages of their respective careers, have all fit seamlessly with a Bruins team that led the Eastern Conference in both goals per game (third in the NHL) and goals allowed per game (second in the league).
The common denominator?
"They're all strong two-way players," Chiarelli told ESPN.com on the eve of the playoffs.
And strong two-way hockey is the hallmark of coach Claude Julien and the calling card of this team.
At the heart of the Bruins' strength is the core of players who have grown up in the organization over the past five years or so, first facing crushing disappointment by blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 before rebounding the following year to win the team's first championship since 1972, and then following it up with a return to the finals last spring.
If it sounds like a cliché, so be it, but guys such as captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Chris Kelly, Shawn Thornton and Johnny Boychuk simply know what it takes. You can see it in the way that players agreed to rest during the stretch run, something that is sometimes difficult to get players to buy into.
"I think that's a good indicator. They know what the goal is," Chiarelli said. "It sounds like it's kind of a hokey answer, but it's true."
The continued evolution of that core -- Bergeron, for one, has been on a torrid offensive pace while maintaining his strong two-way game en route to what should be another Selke Trophy nomination, while Chara is once again in the heart of Norris Trophy discussion -- has allowed for younger players to move seamlessly into important roles.
Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton have become key members of a deep defensive corps that is without veteran Dennis Seidenberg for the playoffs due to injury.
Carl Soderberg has proved to be a vital part of the team's important third line, while Smith, who came over in the deal that sent Seguin to Dallas for Eriksson, has been a revelation with 21 goals and 51 points.
"I think when guys come in, they're trying to fit in based on what the core guys have been doing for a few years now," Bergeron told ESPN.com.
The results have been, needless to say, impressive.
Eriksson, in spite of injuries, is playing his best hockey of the season and is looking forward to his first playoff experience since 2008.
"For sure, it means a lot," Eriksson told ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance. "I have a lot of good memories from the last one. That's where you want to be. You want to go in and try to win the Stanley Cup. We have a really good team here and we're in position for it."
The Bruins boast eight players with at least 15 goals (Krug has 14). They have not lost two games in a row in regulation since early January.
"I'm really happy with the consistency we've established as a team throughout the year," Bergeron said. "Obviously, I'm excited about the character that we have in the room."
Chiarelli is politely pleased to have been tabbed as our pre-tournament Cup winner. And he knows the buzz about the preponderance of contenders in the West, although he points out the Bruins have fared well against the big boys from the other side of the continent.
But if there is one thing about this Bruins team, it knows that all the mutterings and pronouncements and prognostications amount to, well, a hill of finely chopped beans.
"It's a little bit of white noise," Chiarelli noted charitably.
A year ago, the Bruins trailed Toronto 4-1 midway through the third period of Game 7 in the first round and rallied to win that game and go all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, where they might have won had injuries not worn them down to the nub against Chicago.
In 2011, they trailed Montreal 2-0 in the first round, having lost the first two games at home, and then had to come up with a Nathan Horton goal in overtime in Game 7 to survive. They then had to outlast the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 in the conference finals and rebound from 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits to defeat the Vancouver Canucks for the Cup in 2011.
Last season, the Penguins had the top seed in the conference while the Bruins were second in the Northeast Division to Montreal.
Didn't matter, as the Bruins swept the Pens in the conference finals.
This year, the Bruins will own home ice throughout the playoffs after capturing the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top regular-season team. Again, that means something only if you're still around in the finals.
"Anything can happen," Chiarelli said.
And everyone in the Bruins' room is aware of the upsets that lurk, especially early in the tournament.
"They're aware of the pitfalls that can happen in the first round," he said.
Are there butterflies even in the wake of such a successful season?
"It's a new set of butterflies every year," Chiarelli said. "Doesn't matter whether you're favorites or underdogs."
And still, the Bruins are where they are, sitting atop the conference with all of the signposts pointing to a long playoff run, and in our collective minds, a second championship in four years.
Let us see.