After reaching the Stanley Cup Final two out of the last three seasons (beating Vancouver in 2011; losing to Chicago in six games in June), we can safely say that the Boston Bruins have become the favorite to win the Eastern Conference in 2013-14.
They begin the pursuit of their seventh Cup in franchise history Thursday night against the Lightning at TD Garden (7 p.m., NESN).
With their recent postseason success, the B’s will also have to deal with something that has been foreign to them for most of the past decade: the pressure of being a powerhouse team. By returning 14 of the 20 guys that suited up in Game 6 vs. Blackhawks, including captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, the Bruins have the depth and skill to defeat anyone in a seven game series. It helps that Claude Julien has quietly become one of the top head coaches in the NHL and the Bruins’ farm system looks as stocked as it's been for years.
Some are worried about Boston’s new division: the Atlantic, which is the old Northeast plus Detroit, Tampa Bay and Florida. Playing the Red Wings four times a season is daunting, but exciting for fans. The challenge of that should be more than balanced out by the eight games against the cupcake Lightning and Panthers (who have Tim Thomas on a one-year deal, remember him?). One of the keys for the Bruins is not to fall into their usual regular season slumber: every team naturally goes through up and downs but with likely four other playoff teams in their division (Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Senators and Red Wings) they can’t afford to go into a prolonged slump for too long.
The other major new dynamic in Boston’s regular season is the break for the 2014 Olympics: the Bruins won’t play a game from Feb. 9 through 24. It’s hard to say how they’ll readjust when the NHL schedule kicks back into gear with many of the B’s likely representing their home country: Bergeron (Canada), Rask (Finland), Chara (Slovakia), David Krejci (Czech Republic) and Loui Eriksson (Sweden).
It, of course, takes time to build chemistry and to figure out each others’ games but solid veterans Jarome Iginla and Eriksson should fit seamlessly onto Boston’s top two forward lines. The infusion of youth in the form of Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski combined with a full season from Carl Soderberg, should help matters.
In the last two decades, things have never been better for the Bruins. The good feelings for the Black and Gold even extend off the ice where team president Cam Neely will reportedly reprise his role of "Sea Bass" in the Dumb and Dumber sequel. Any Bruins fan in their 20s or older has suffered through plenty of lean years, which makes this recent stretch all the more enjoyable.
Follow Metro Boston Bruins beat writer Richard Slate on Twitter: @RichSlate