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As Thursday night’s opening to the 2009-10 season nears, the hopes and expectations of Bruins fans everywhere continue to build. This is “the year.” After a surprisingly successful ’08-’09 season that saw the B’s finish the regular season sitting atop the Eastern Conference, visions of putting an end to the 37-year Cup drought here in Boston were dancing through fans’ heads, near and far. Sadly, it didn’t end well for Boston last spring, as a juicy rebound was flipped past Tim Thomas in overtime of the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals, ending the playoff run for the Black and Gold, as bad boy Scott Walker and the Carolina Hurricanes moved on and the Bruins did not.
Now, months later, the hunger to achieve more is even more prevalent for this year’s edition of the Bruins. But, it won’t be easy. Last season, the B’s were able to sneak up on their opponents. This year, they have targets on their backs. They are going to face nothing but the best efforts from their opponents, each and every night. Getting to the top is tough, but staying at the top is even tougher, and beginning with Thursday night’s tilt against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, the heat is on these Bruins to live up to the high expectations they have set.
With the season’s culmination just hours away, here is a quick skate around the NHL’s Northeast Division, focusing in on the five competitors’ chances, and looking at some of the faces in new places you’ll see around the league. In the coming days, I will be releasing previews for the Atlantic and Southeast Divisions, as well. All team profiles will be in my predicted finishing order in each division.
Players Sent Packing (Au Revoir): Phil Kessel, Stephane Yelle, Aaron Ward, Shane Hnidy, Steve Montador
Welcome Aboard (Bienvenue): Steve Begin, Derek Morris, Dany Sabourin, Drew Fata
Obviously one name jumps out at you from the guys above, and that’s the young Mr. Kessel, the team’s leading goal scorer from a year ago. But beyond that, the nucleus of this team is still intact, and beyond a few fringe moves by Peter Chiarelli, basically “staying put” was a good way to be for a team that achieved so much last year.
Coach Claude Julien will turn to the likes of a healthy Marco Sturm, veteran Mark Recchi, and developing youngsters like David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Blake Wheeler to make up for the goal scoring abilities lost with the departure of Kessel to Toronto, but there’s no doubt that by season’s end, Boston will be sitting atop the Northeast Division for the second year in a row.
Players Sent Packing (Au Revoir): Jaroslav Spacek, Mikael Tellqvist, Teppo Numminen
Welcome Aboard (Bienvenue): Mike Grier, Cody McCormick, Joe DiPenta, Steve Montador
After two deep playoff runs in ’06 and ’07, Buffalo has been on the outside looking in on the playoff picture the past two seasons, having finished 10th in the East last season, two points short of the final playoff spot. Key injuries were what cost Buffalo most during last season’s stretch run, especially that of goalie Ryan Miller, whose untimely ankle injury spelled doom for his Sabres.
This year, with a healthy Miller in net, I see Buffalo making a return to the postseason, even without making any impact offseason moves. If they don’t get a sniff of the playoffs come April, that may be the nail in the coffin for coach Lindy Ruff, the longest tenured head coach in the NHL.
Players Sent Packing (Au Revoir): Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Mike Komisarek, Mathieu Schneider, Tom Kostopoulos, Chris Higgins, Doug Janik, Robert Lang
Welcome Aboard (Bienvenue): Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, Travis Moen, Paul Mara, Curtis Sanford
After just barely squeezing their way into the playoffs in what was the franchise’s centennial celebration season, the Montreal Canadiens decided to clean house from top to bottom this summer. Oh, did they. Arguably the busiest team this offseason, the Habs and GM Bob Gainey sent several familiar faces packing, like Tanguay, Komisarek, and long-time captain Saku Koivu, while bringing in talented forwards Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, among others. Even ex-Bruins like Paul Mara and Hal Gill, fresh off his Cup run with the Penguins, will be seen in “bleu, blanc, et rouge” this season.
Will all of these new pieces gel quickly enough to make a postseason run? That job will be left to new coach Jacques Martin. Don’t be shocked if Boston sews up that No. 1 spot atop the conference again, they will see this Montreal team in a first round repeat matchup, as the Habs could get into the field of eight, but just barely so if they do.
Players Sent Packing (Au Revoir): Dany Heatley, Mike Comrie, Alex Auld, Brendan Bell, Drew Fata, Greg Mauldin
Welcome Aboard (Bienvenue): Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Alex Kovalev, Drew Bannister
The Senators saw their postseason streak of 11 years snapped last spring, when the team failed to make the playoffs after a disastrous 36-35-11 season, leaving them on the sidelines come playoff time. Couple that with the offseason drama led by leading scorer Dany Heatley, whose trade demands were finally granted when he was shipped to San Jose at the start of training camp, and Ottawa is facing the heat of a big rehaul of the roster.
Michalek, Cheechoo, and Kovalev are nice pieces to build around, on top of incumbent forwards Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, but the questions remain on the blue line and especially in goal, where 24-year-old Brian Elliott will battle Columbus castoff Pascal Leclaire for the starting nod. This is a team with lots of holes, but if their veteran forwards can put up enough points to cover those holes up, the Sens could make some noise. I’m not counting on it though.
Players Sent Packing (Au Revoir): Pavel Kubina, Kris Newbury, Jeremy Williams, Justin Pogge, Jeff Hamilton, Jaime Sifers, Olaf Kolzig
Welcome Aboard (Bienvenue): Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Garnet Exelby, Wayne Primeau, Joey MacDonald, Colton Orr, Tim Brent
Another busy team this offseason was the Maple Leafs, who had a mess of a roster on their hands leading into the July 1st free agent frenzy, and after looking at their roster, they still seem to have a hodge-podge mix of players, making a lot of “experts” wonder what this team will be all about this season. They were able to bring in some scoring punch by adding Phil Kessel, but beyond that, I’m just not sure where the offense will be generated from. That wasn’t even their biggest problem. After giving up a league-worst 293 goals last year, the Leafs defensive corps had holes-a-plenty. The additions of Komisarek from Montreal and Beauchemin from the Ducks should help, but they’ve got a long way to go. The Stanley Cup may be housed at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, but the rightful recipient of the hardware come June, won’t be from Toronto…that’s a guarantee.
In the coming days, watch out for Atlantic Division and Southeast Division previews, along with my final prediction of the Eastern Conference standings.