The Bruins view themselves as "favorites" headed into a new year, but are they really?

The Bruins view themselves as "favorites" headed into a new year, but are they really?

BRIGHTON, Mass – Coming off a season where they made it as far as they could go to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins are grappling with a different kind of expectation headed into this year. Obviously all 31 NHL teams start off at zero and need to build their way toward the postseason over the course of a six-month regular season gauntlet, but there are pretenders, contenders and favorites among the Original 31.

By virtue of last season, the Bruins believe they have officially graduated to “favorite” status where everybody across the NHL is going to have a target on their back. Certainly it’s tough to argue based on last season, based on a deep, diverse roster and based on the high-end talent that players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy and David Krejci bring to the table.

That’s what B’s head coach Bruce Cassidy is certainly counting on headed into this week’s opening of the NHL regular season.

“I assume Tampa will be equally as good to last year. They lost a couple of guys, but I still expect them [to be very good]. Toronto had some turnover, but their core group is a year older. Montreal made good strides. Florida I assume will be better simply because they’ve added a great coach and their goaltending is going to be more solidified. So right away that’s five teams, to me, that are going to be hard to play against,” said Cassidy. “Obviously Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo are younger and have some strides to make, but there’s always a surprise team. I suspect it will be more difficult than last year.

“[Winning the Cup] is our goal. I think it’s every team’s goal, but is it always realistic. I think since we were right there last year it’s very realistic. I think, at least in our own minds, we’ve gone from more of a contender to a favorite. We’re up there. I think that’s good for the group and will help us move on from last year. This group is pretty good at that. They get dialed in and they play.”

But it all begs the question “Are the Bruins really favorites?”

Sure, the Bruins are the defending Eastern Conference champs and they came within 60 minutes of winning the Cup.

But it’s not even close to an automatic that the Black and Gold will get back there based on the competition around them along with the rickety makeup of their own roster. The Toronto Maple Leafs once again got better by bringing in Tyson Barrie and locking down all their major young talent culminating in the signing of Mitch Marner this summer.

One of these seasons the Maple Leafs are going to slay that Bruins dragon in the first round of the playoffs. So why wouldn’t it be a season where the B’s are going to be running on empty late this season with a core group that’s almost all past 30 years old?

Then there’s the Tampa Bay Lightning juggernaut that should be good and pissed off after last spring’s playoff choke. They already had the Bruins’ number last season and have proven to be a tough matchup for the Black and Gold. The only reason Boston got as far as they did last year is because the Lightning, Capitals and Penguins are showed unusual generosity by opting to unilaterally bow out in the first round of the postseason.

That’s a once-per-century event that isn’t likely to happen again anytime soon, so the chances are slim of the Bruins seeing teams like the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes in the latter rounds of the playoffs once again this spring. Certainly the general manager seems to understand that, and it’s an important part of not getting bogged down in great expectations.

“I think you have to prove that you’re worthy. You have to get in the playoffs, and it’s a hard process to get in. If you take it for granted, you can get kicked in the ass,” said Don Sweeney. “For me, as a group, we respect our players a lot and the approach that they take every day. We’re only worried about the next opponent and getting ready for that [next game]. I think our coaches do a great job of looking at it that way, and I think our players respond to it.”

Beyond all of that, there’s also the age factor with respect to Boston’s roster. Everybody saw some of Boston’s best players seemingly wear down by the fourth round of the playoffs when St. Louis began pounding them physically. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were held in check offensively throughout the series, and didn’t seem to have much left in the tank during the decisive Game 7 on the TD Garden ice.

‘Every year is the same thing. You worry about yourself and what you can control. But that being said you know the challenge is there [to get again] and that’s a good thing,” said Bergeron, who finished with one goal and a minus-4 in the seven games against the Blues in the Cup Final.

It will be the same concern for the older group of players this spring and going forward for the rest of their careers in Boston. Can Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, Chara and Co. remain healthy and effective for eight months through the regular season and playoffs, and can they continue to perform at their top levels when needed most?

It’s a fair question to ask and one that will continue to dog the Black and Gold until they add more elite, young players to their lineup. Given the quality of competition in the Atlantic Division and the unique challenges that their own roster will present, the Bruins should find it a much more difficult proposition to get back to the exact same spot again this coming June.

Understanding that and embracing it might just be the first step to overcoming it for a Bruins group running headlong into some great expectations at the outset of the NHL regular season.

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Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: How to watch NHL game online

Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: How to watch NHL game online

The Boston Bruins just beat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night at the TD Garden. After the Penguins scored the opening goal just seconds into the contest, the Bruins roared back and scored four unanswered to earn the win.

Now, they'll have to bring forth that same type of energy in a hostile road environment.

The Bruins are taking on the Penguins at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon in a marquee afternoon clash at the PPG Paints Arena.

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The Penguins (30-13-5) sit at second place in the Metropolitan division behind only the Washington Capitals, a team that has the most points in the NHL. Pittsburgh is coming off a 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night that will serve as a palate cleanser for the team.

Meanwhile, the Bruins (28-9-12) are coming off the win against the Penguins and have posted a modest 5-2-3 record in their last 10 games. They've made some roster changes in the past week with Brett Ritchie and David Backes being waived while Tuukka Rask is dealing with a concussion.

Rask's concussion means that Jaroslav Halak will likely start again in net. Halak had been in a bit of a slump before the game against Pittsburgh, allowing 17 goals in a five-game span in which he went 1-2-2 as a starter. Hopefully, he will be able to repeat his strong performance against Pittsburgh.

The Bruins will also be without second-line center David Krejci for another game. Par Lindholm will take his place in the lineup and will likely center the team's third line with Coyle playing on the second unit. Lindholm is on a two-game point streak and scored a goal on Thursday against the Penguins.


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Krejci (upper body) out for Sunday afternoon game vs Penguins

Krejci (upper body) out for Sunday afternoon game vs Penguins

BRIGHTON, Mass – The Bruins will be without playmaking center David Krejci again on Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Penguins as he’s been ruled out for the second half of the home-and-home series against Pittsburgh. 

It’s believed to be a lower-back issue for Krejci, 33, something he’s battled the past few years. He also missed the B's win Thursday over Pittsburgh in Boston.

The hope is that Krejci will feel good enough to play in the Tuesday pre-All-Star break finale against the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of a 10-day break around the bye week and All-Star weekend, then again an extended rest period of more than two weeks for the veteran second-line center might not be the worst thing in the world either.

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“He’s not traveling. He didn’t skate today so he doesn’t have a chance to play [on Sunday],” coach Bruce Cassidy of Krejci, who has 11 goals and 32 points in 41 games this season, but will miss his ninth game of the season due to injuries on Sunday. “We’ll look at Tuesday if he’ll skate on Monday, but then it becomes an issue of are you better off just getting a whole break in there. If he can come in and skate [on Monday] then that would be a good measure for [his readiness for] Tuesday.”

Charlie Coyle will bump up in his place between Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork and Par Lindholm will enter the lineup as a third-line center with Krejci still injured. It should be the same exact lineup as the one that scored a convincing 4-1 win over the Penguins on Thursday night.

Ahead of practice on Saturday the Bruins also recalled 6-foot-5 goaltending prospect Dan Vladar and Max Lagace was sent back down to Providence after he stopped 24 of 26 shots in the P-Bruins' 2-1 loss to Bridgeport on Friday night.  

Here are the projected Bruins line combos and D-pairings against the Penguins based on Saturday practice at Warrior Ice Arena: