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A blistering finish to the month of November has put the Boston Bruins atop the Eastern Conference Standings, and they are starting to look like the East’s best bet to challenge Western dominance.
With one-third of the season in the books, the West is home to the league’s five best records. The NHL’s sixth best mark now resides in Boston, where the Bruins are 6-1-1 in their last eight contests. Claude Julien‘s gang was the last to bring the Stanley Cup east in 2011, and they might be the only team capable of halting the West’s title streak at two.
The Bruins have emphatically announced their intention to retain the Prince of Wales Trophy in recent weeks with victories over the Penguins, Hurricanes and Rangers.
Sidney Crosby nearly pushed the Penguins into first place on November 25, when he forced the Bruins into overtime with a last second strike. However, rookie revelation Torey Krug denied the Pens a second point with a lovely overtime snipe. The 22-year-old leads all first-year defensemen with 16 points, and he has four in the Bruins’ last eight games.
Krug hasn’t been the only dynamic presence on Boston’s blue line recently. Zdeno Chara has blasted his way to three goals in the last five games. All three tallies came in one-goal Boston victories. His Black Friday bomb left Henrik Lundqvist shell-shocked and edged the Bruins past the increasingly healthy New York Rangers.
The Bruins peppered Lundqvist with shots from the point throughout the matinée, putting Alain Vigneault‘s team squarely on its heels. The offensive-engagement of Chara and Krug in addition to that of Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton has been critical of late, especially as Boston’s second line has struggled to produce on a consistent basis.
Loui Eriksson has points in just three of his last eight games, though his three-point outburst against the Penguins was encouraging. On the opposite wing, Brad Marchand scored just once in the second half of November. However, he has mustered three points in two post-Thanksgiving skates, including a gorgeous one-time goal against the Rangers.
Though typically the playmaker in the group, Patrice Bergeron snapped a six-game pointless streak with goals against New York and Columbus over the long weekend. The trio of Bergeron, Eriksson and Marchand projected to be Boston’s best in the preseason, and it will need to fulfill that potential if Boston is to topple the Western goliaths.
Amidst all of their recent success, the Bruins’ two recent losses were discouraging for anyone clinging to an East-coast bias.
On November 21, the St. Louis Blues snuck out of Boston’s TD Garden with two points following a shootout victory, leaving a furious Tuukka Rask abusing his goalie paddle. The Finnish netminder went mental after conceding the game-winner to Derek Roy on the Blues’ fourth shootout try. His anger likely sprang from the harmless Roy tap that trickled by him in the first period. That goal tied the game at one and put the Blues on track to take the lead in the second. A Carl Soderberg shot evened the score and eventually necessitated overtime, but the rare Rask letdown strapped the B’s with an 0-0-2 mark against Western Conference teams for the month of November.
Six days after the disappointing loss to St. Louis, the Bruins were dismantled by the Detroit Red Wings in Hockeytown. Recent transplants from the West, the Red Wings put six goals on the board, outshooting their Atlantic Division rivals 28-17. It was Boston’s worst performance of the season, hardly excused by the three consecutive OT games that preceded it.
The Bruins were awful in all three zones against Detroit, making it look as if the Red Wings had truly moved to an inferior league. As a result, we still don’t know if Boston is prepared to legitimately challenge teams hardened out west.
An easy December schedule should allow the Bruins to stretch their conference lead. The Penguins’ December 7 visit will be Boston’s only battle against a team currently sporting one of the NHL’s top ten records. The B’s ought to pick up quite a few points in six games against team’s in the league’s bottom five.
Boston’s real test will come in the New Year. A daunting California road trip will pit the Bruins against the Ducks, Kings and Sharks in a five-day span, and a Finals rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks looms the following week.
As they have proven with two conference titles in the past three seasons, the Bruins are the most complete team in the East. However, they may not yet be ready to wrestle with the big boys out west. An offensive up-swing from the Bergeron line and continued production from the back-end will be crucial moving forward.
If Boston cannot keep up, the West could become the NHL’s only relevant proving ground.
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