Bruins Have a Lot to Prove to Be Listed Among Eastern Conference’s Elite in 2010-11

Bruins Have a Lot to Prove to Be Listed Among Eastern Conference's Elite in 2010-11 Just days after his club squandered a 3-0 series lead in a second-round loss to the Flyers last spring, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli provoked plenty of criticism for noting that the Bruins were "one of five teams to have been in the second round both [of the last two] years."

The comment elicited comparisons to Dan Duquette's infamous "more days in first place" quote, and certainly wasn't the most effective means of soothing the still-fresh wounds of Bruins Nation after such a historic collapse.

Still, the point stands that the Bruins have been teetering on the edge of entering the league's upper echelon for the last two seasons. Could this be the year they finally break through and join the elite in the Eastern Conference?

Here's a look at how the Bruins stack up with a quartet of clubs they need to get past to stake a claim to being the best in the East:

Pittsburgh Penguins
Why they are elite: The Penguins have already reached the mountaintop, winning the Cup in 2009 — the only team from the East to take it in the last four years. And they have the firepower to stay there with a nucleus of stars just entering their prime with Sidney Crosby, 23; Evgeni Malkin, 24; Jordan Staal, 22; and Marc-Andre Fleury, 25. Pittsburgh is the only Eastern team besides Boston to have gotten through the first round in each of the last two years and the only one to do it in each of the last three, as the Penguins also reached the Cup finals in 2008.

Where the Bruins have the edge: While most of Boston's forwards underwhelmed last season, there is still more promise in the Bruins' collection of wingers, especially with Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin added to the mix, than the patchwork crew flanking Crosby and Co. in Pittsburgh. The Penguins upgraded their defensive depth by signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek but didn't replace the offense lost on the blue line when Sergei Gonchar signed with Ottawa and have no one that can match the presence of Zdeno Chara.

Where the Bruins come up short: As strong as Boston's corps of centers is with Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci down the middle, no one in the league can match Pittsburgh's pivots with Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Fleury's numbers also might trail what Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas have done in the last two years, but the Penguins netminder has proven he can win when it counts most with a Stanley Cup ring on his finger.

Washington Capitals
Why they are elite: The Capitals have struggled to advance in the postseason, but no one has dominated the regular season like Washington in the last two years. They've topped 50 wins in each of those seasons while averaging 114.5 points. The offensive firepower in the nation's capitol is unmatched, both in terms of talent and depth. Alexander Ovechkin (50-59-109) leads the way, but Nicklas Backstrom (33-68-101) is not far behind and Alexander Semin (40-44-84), Brooks Laich (25-34-59), Mike Knuble (29-24-53), Tomas Fleischmann (23-28-51), Eric Belanger (15-26-41) and Eric Fehr (21-18-39) are all capable of piling up points up front, as is high-scoring defenseman Mike Green (19-57-76).

Where the Bruins have the edge: The Bruins can't match that prolific offense, but they do have a defense that actually defends. And while Washington rests its hopes on two unproven young goalies in Semyon Varlamov, 22, and Michal Neuvirth, 22, the Bruins have the past two league-leaders in goals-against average and save percentage in net with Rask and Thomas.

Where the Bruins come up short: Even with an improved offense, the Bruins don't have an answer for Washington's seemingly unending list of offensive weapons. And even Claude Julien's tight-checking system will be hard-pressed to slow that attack consistently.

Philadelphia Flyers
Why they are elite: The Flyers rebounded from an underwhelming regular season to reach the Cup finals, showing unprecedented resiliency along the way as they qualified for the playoffs in a shootout in their final game and rallied from the 3-0 deficit against Boston.

Where the Bruins have the edge: Like Washington, Philadelphia on paper doesn't have a lot of reason to trust its goaltending duo of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher. Netminding has been that franchise's Achilles' heel for years now.

Where the Bruins come up short: Despite trading away Simon Gagne, the Flyers still have a deep offense with Mike Richards (31-31-62), Jeff Carter (33-28-61), Daniel Briere (26-27-53), Claude Giroux (16-31-47) and Scott Hartnell (14-30-44), plus they'll get a full season from playoff hero Ville Leino and new addition Nikolai Zherdev. The Flyers do have an answer to Chara in the form of former Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger, who's surrounded by a deep blue line crew that includes the likes of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle. Add in a proven winner behind the bench in Peter Laviolette, who led the Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006, and last year's run to the finals might not be a fluke.

New Jersey Devils
Why they are elite: The Devils have done it before, winning three Cups in the last 15 years and qualifying for the playoffs in each of the last 13 seasons. Those championship memories are beginning to fade a bit though, as the Devils last won it all in 2003 and haven't advanced past the second round since, losing in the opening round in each of the past three years.

Where the Bruins have the edge: The Devils' vaunted defense has been devastated by defections in recent years, and a crew that won titles with the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski leading the way will now try to rebuild its blue line with free-agent additions Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder after also losing Martin to Pittsburgh this summer.

Where the Bruins come up short: Martin Brodeur may finally be nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, but it wouldn't be wise to bet against him having at least one more deep playoff run in him. If the club's latest contract proposal to Ilya Kovalchuk is approved by the league, the Devils will feature one of the league's top scoring tandems in Kovalchuk (41-44-85) and Zach Parise (38-44-82).

Like the Bruins, Buffalo and Montreal would love to move into the Eastern Conference penthouse. The Sabres won the Northeast Division last year, but couldn't get past the Bruins in the opening round in their first playoff appearance in three years. The Canadiens did make a surprising run to the conference finals in the spring, but after barely squeaking into the postseason as the eighth seed in each of the last two years, the Habs still have a lot to do to prove they belong in this conversation.

The Bruins have plenty to prove as well after back-to-back heartbreaking second-round losses the last two years. Those setbacks keep the Bruins a notch below their rivals atop the Eastern Conference entering this season, but they may not stay beneath them for long. 

"Of course, our objective is to win the Cup," said Chiarelli in May. "We feel that we're making progress towards that goal."

This season, the Bruins — and the rest of the East's elite — will see just how much progress has been made.

NESN.com answered one Bruins question every day in August.

Monday, Aug. 30: How will the Bruins respond to last year's playoff collapse against Philadelphia?

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