The Boston Bruins celebrated their first Stanley Cup Championship since 1972 this past June with a stunning road upset of the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7. The fans have celebrated pretty much non-stop since that day and the Stanley Cup has traveled all over the world with members of the team.
Now that the leaves have begun to fall and training camps are behind us, it’s time to focus on the new season which begins Thursday night.
After the new banner goes up into the rafters of the TD Garden and the puck drops for the opening face-off, the Bruins will try and climb a mountain that’s only been scaled once in the last two decades in the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings were the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions back in 1998, and worse yet, only the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins (who met in the Final in back to back years) are the only two teams since the lockout to even REACH the Final in consecutive seasons.
With that in mind, the Bruins likely face the most difficult road to a repeat of any champion in recent memory.
Repeating in any sport is difficult to begin with. Like all champions, the Bruins got every break imaginable during their playoff run, had great health for the most part, got major contributions from unexpected sources, and Tim Thomas was red hot after the first two games of the Montreal series. History says that all of those stars aligning again is highly unlikely.
To top it off, a defending champion has a huge target on its back every single night. Even teams that aren’t contending for a championship are going to treat a game against the Bruins as a playoff game. With a significant portion of B’s games on national TV this year, the opponents will be looking to make a statement every night. Over the course of a long season, playing these types of games night in and night out has a way of wearing a team down. By the time the playoffs roll around, the repeating team can simply run out of gas.
However, in addition to the normal pitfalls of trying to repeat, the NHL has long been the sport with the most parity among its teams. The advent of a hard salary cap following the lockout in 2005 has leveled the playing field for most teams and made it difficult for top teams to stay elite for long periods of time, or at least difficult to get too far ahead of their rivals in the talent department.
In the Eastern Conference alone, you could make a case that as many as seven teams could come away with a conference championship and appear in the Stanley Cup Final. The Pittsburgh Penguins look to be the biggest threat to the Bruins coming into the season thanks to the return of Sidney Crosby to an outrageously talented group of forwards that also includes Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
The Washington Capitals will continue to be among the league’s most potent offensive teams behind Alex Ovechkin, the Montreal Canadiens will be better this year after an off-season to get healthy, the Philadelphia Flyers appear to have solved their goaltending issues with Ilya Bryzgalov, and teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes will all contend for high seeds in the playoffs.
This doesn’t even count the Western Conference which is once again loaded with top talent. The Canucks obviously feel that they were the better team and let one slip away last year. They’ll be highly motivated to get back to the top of the mountain and finish what they started. Teams like the San Jose Sharks, Red Wings, and Nashville Predators were also very strong last year and have the potential to be among the league’s elite yet again.
With all those teams angling to knock the Bruins from their perch, there will be very little margin for error and even less room for the possible "Championship Hangover" that often grips a team that is full of first time winners unaccustomed to the difficulties of trying to repeat. They’ll need to be on their game right from the opening face-off and the new additions (see: Joe Corvo) will need to contribute at a high level throughout the year.
This isn’t to say that the Bruins can’t follow in the steps of the Red Wings and Penguins, because they certainly can. The team returns all but two key members of the team (Mark Recchi and Tomas Kaberle are the only two not on the roster) including playoff MVP and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas. Captain Zdeno Chara will continue to anchor one of the leagues stingiest defenses and Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic will lead a group of deep and diverse forwards that doesn’t have much difference between the first and fourth lines.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism that the B’s can hang up back to back banners lies in the fact that Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin are only going into their second seasons and should be able to take on much bigger roles. The experience that each gained during the playoffs last year will be invaluable as they move forward. Few teams that have won the Stanley Cup while developing major prospects during the season. This group is set up to be a contender for a long time.