(SportsNetwork.com) - Heading into the opening round of the playoffs, the Boston Bruins are once again the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Boston, which in 2011 won its first Stanley Cup since the days of Bobby Orr, is the defending East champions and enter this postseason as winners of the 2013-14 Presidents' Trophy. The club's 117 points were the most gained by the franchise since 1971-72 (119 pts) and Boston finished as the top team in the regular season for the first time since 1989-90.
Despite heading into the postseason with a ton of confidence, the Bruins know they can't afford to look past their first-round opponent. Boston made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three seasons last spring, but before it fell in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Bruins nearly lost in the first round to Toronto.
The Bruins blew a 3-1 series' lead against the Maple Leafs and needed to overcome a 4-1 third-period deficit in Game 7 to get past Toronto. Boston was a fourth seed in last spring's matchup with Toronto, but the B's shouldn't expect their No. 1 standing in the East to instill fear in the Detroit Red Wings this time around.
Boston is known best as a big, physical team that is really tough to score against, but the club made considerable strides in the offensive end in 2013-14.
The Bruins averaged just 2.62 goals per game during the lockout-shortened season before upping that scoring rate to 2.96 gpg in the 2013 playoffs. This season, Boston is third in the NHL with 3.15 gpg through 82 games and hopes to maintain that goal-scoring clip in the upcoming playoffs.
Six Boston forwards finished the season with over 50 points this season. Leading the way on offense were David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, the club's top two centermen. Krejci dished out a club-best 50 assists to help him pace the B's with 69 points, while Bergeron had 62 points and tied winger Jarome Iginla for the club lead with 30 goals.
Bergeron also is invaluable for Boston due to his stalwart defensive play. The 28-year-old won the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward in 2011-12 before finishing second in the voting last season. He is the leading candidate for the Selke again in 2013-14 and a true asset for Bruins head coach Claude Julien when it comes time to match lines with the opposition.
The 36-year-old Iginla hopes to help Boston get back to the Cup Finals after being on the losing end of a series against the Bruins last spring. The former Calgary Flames star turned down a trade offer to Boston at the deadline in 2013 and joined the Pittsburgh Penguins instead. However, after the B's swept the Pens in the conference finals last year, Iginla opted to sign a one-year, $6 million deal with Boston in the offseason.
Iginla had 30 goals an 31 assists in 78 games this season. He posted four goals and eight helpers in a 15-game playoff run with Pittsburgh last season.
Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith also had over 50 points for the Bruins in 2013-14. Lucic. a prototypical power forward, recorded 24 goals and 35 assists, while the undersized Marchand added 24 goals and 27 helpers. Despite being listed at 5-foot-9, Marchand is known to get under the skin of players much bigger in size.
Smith, the younger brother of Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith, had 20 goals and 31 assists this season, his first with Boston after coming to the Bruins last summer in the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas.
While Boston's forwards contribute to their club's overall stinginess on defense, immense blueliner Zdeno Chara and steady goaltender Tuukka Rask get most of the credit.
Rask is coming off a Vezina-caliber season, going 36-15-6 with a 2.04 goals against average and .930 save percentage. The 27-year-old Finn is looking to follow up his award-worthy campaign with another strong postseason. Rask was the anchor for Boston's run to the Cup Finals last spring, recording a 1.88 GAA and .940 save percentage in 22 playoff games.
The 6-foot-9 Chara is a unique talent who combines size and skill to create havoc at both ends of the ice. The 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner has a booming slap shot and recorded 17 goals and 40 points over 77 games this season and Boston's captain has racked up 54 points (13 goals, 41 assists) over 129 career playoff games.
Torey Krug had 14 goals and 40 points from the back end as a rookie in 2013-14, but this won't be his first go-round in the playoffs. A native of suburban Detroit, Krug had played in only three regular season games before providing four goals and two assists for Boston in 15 playoff tilts in 2013.
In addition to the 23-year-old Krug, the Bruins boast another emerging talent on the blue line in Dougie Hamilton, who had seven goals and 18 assists in 63 games this season. The ninth overall pick of the 2011 draft is still only 20 years old as he enters his second NHL postseason.
Boston added some in-season help to its defensive corps by acquiring Andrej Meszaros in a trade with Philadelphia. A countryman of the Slovakian Chara, Meszaros is an offensive threat from the back end and had two goals and three assists in 14 games with Boston following the trade.
The power play has been a trouble spot for the Bruins in recent years, but the club was third in the league this season with a 21.7-percent success rate on the man advantage. If it can keep the power play clicking in the postseason, Boston could be unstoppable in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Bruins were eighth in the league in killing penalties, stopping the opposition from scoring on the man advantage 83.6 percent of the time.
DETROIT RED WINGS
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 39-28-15 (2nd wild card, East)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Anaheim 4-3 in conference quarterfinals, lost to Chicago 4-3 in conference semifinals.
Some things never change.
The Red Wings may have moved from the Western Conference to the East prior to the 2013-14 campaign, but the end result was the same as Detroit qualified for the playoffs for a 23rd straight season.
On paper, Detroit doesn't match up well with the mighty Bruins but the club doesn't figure to be an easy out so long as Mike Babcock is behind the bench.
Babcock has been to the Cup Finals three times as a coach, winning it with Detroit in 2008, and also has led Team Canada to Olympic gold medals at the last two Winter Games.
Last spring, the coach helped the seventh-seeded Red Wings eliminate the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round. He also had the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on the ropes in Round 2, but the Hawks won three straight to oust Detroit in seven games.
This season, Babcock guided his club to the playoffs despite the club dealing with considerable injury problems all along the way. Detroit enters the playoffs reasonably healthy compared to other points of the season, but the club will begin the first round without captain Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery), fellow forwards Dan Cleary (sprained knee) Stephen Weiss (sports hernia surgery) and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (finger surgery).
Star forward Pavel Datsyuk also was limited to only 45 games this season, but he returned to the lineup earlier this month and is ready to go for Round 1. The Russian has amassed 103 points (36g, 67a) over 140 career playoff games.
Faced with injuries to numerous key veterans, young forwards Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar stepped up for the Red Wings in a big way down the stretch. That was particularly true of the 24-year-old Nyquist, who led Detroit with 28 goals this season in just 57 games.
Nyquist has two goals and three assists over 18 career playoff games, but he could be ready for a breakout postseason after showing Babcock and the hockey world what he can do with increased playing time.
Tatar, 23, added 19 goals and 20 assists in 73 games for the Red Wings this season. However, the young Slovakian winger has never skated in an NHL playoff game.
After Nyquist and Tatar, Detroit's next-best scoring threat this season was seasoned veteran Daniel Alfredsson. The 41-year-old Swede had 18 goals and 31 assists in his first season with the Red Wings after leaving his longtime club the Ottawa Senators to sign with Detroit over the summer.
Alfredsson spent 17 seasons in Ottawa, many of them as the Sens' captain, and recorded 100 points (51g, 49a) in 121 playoff games with his former club.
Like Datsyuk, Johan Franzen also spent a large part of the season on the shelf, but "The Mule" managed to post 16 goals and 25 assists in 54 contests. The 34-year-old Swede has 42 goals, including 12 of the game-winning variety, over 102 playoff games.
As a whole, Detroit's offense ranked 16th in the league this season with just 2.65 gpg. Babcock's team also was mediocre on the power play, converting 17.7-percent of the time to finish 18th.
Niklas Kronwall is the clear No. 1 defenseman for Detroit and has done a superb job of replacing fellow Swede Nicklas Lidstrom in that role. Lidstrom, of course, retired following the 2011-12 season, leaving seven Norris Trophy wins and a Hall of Fame legacy behind him.
Kronwall led Detroit in average ice time with 24 minutes, 18 seconds of action a game. His 49 points (8g, 41a) more than doubled the offensive output of the club's next-best defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who had 23 points on four goals and 19 assists.
Brendan Smith normally pairs with Kronwall, while Kyle Quincey serves as DeKeyser's partner. Elsewhere, Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff provide depth in front of No. 1 goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Howard is coming off a mediocre regular season that saw him go 21-19-11 with a 2.66 GAA and .910 save percentage. The 30-year-old American had posted a 2.13 GAA in each of the previous two seasons and his save percentage was .920 or better in both campaigns.
Over 42 career playoff games, Howard has compiled a 2.57 GAA and .918 save percentage.
Considering the Bruins and Red Wings played in opposite conferences for decades, this playoff meeting is a rare treat for NHL fans. In fact, the last time these Original Six foes met in the postseason was in 1957 when neither club's current coaches were born yet.
Boston and Detroit have met seven times in the playoffs with the Bruins taking four of those encounters, including the 1957 semifinal round matchup.
The Red Wings, however, have won three straight in the regular season against Boston and seven of the previous eight encounters.
Boston's only victory in the 2013-14 season series was a 4-1 home win back on Oct. 5, while Detroit beat the Bruins as recently as April 2, when it picked up a 3-2 regulation win in the Motor City.
The injured Zetterberg led the Red Wings with three goals during the season series, while Tatar had two goals and two assists. Nyquist added two goals and a helper, while Howard was 1-1-0 with a 3.00 GAA.
Rask struggled to a 1-3-0 record and 3.29 GAA in four games versus Detroit, while no Boston player had more than one goal in the series. Reilly Smith led the Bruins with four points -- all assists -- in four games.
Even if Detroit hadn't showed it could hang with Boston during the regular- season series, it would be difficult to pick the Bruins to breeze past the Red Wings in this playoff encounter. Babcock has the ability to squeeze the most out of his players when the odds are stacked against them, and it's unlikely Boston will be able to roll past its new divisional foes.
Still, the Bruins hold a serious advantage in depth over Detroit at both ends of the ice and should be able to move past the Red Wings in what should prove to be a tough first-round series for the reigning conference champs.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bruins in 6