COMMENTARY | As the Boston Bruins prepare for the stretch run of a lockout-shortened season, the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is starting to come into focus.
But perhaps of greater concern than where Boston will ultimately seed or who its first-round opponent might be, is the current makeup of this Bruins team.
Let's look at some of the main roadblocks standing in the way of the Bruins raising Lord Stanley's Cup once again in 2013:
5. Milan Lucic and his 5 goals
It's been a terrible year for the Bruins power forward, to say the least. Not only does Lucic have only 5 goals on the season, but he also has just one since February 26. And we can hardly fault the play of his linemates for Looch's lack of offensive output. Center David Kreci has had an impressive season, piling up 30 points in 37 games. And other winger Nathan Horton, who was having struggles of his own, has come alive recently.
The real cause for alarm might be the fact that Lucic has always been something of a disappointment in the playoffs, even after solid production during the regular season. He had no goals in the Bruins' first-round exit against the Washington Capitals last year. That he's already in perhaps the biggest funk of his six-year NHL career before the playoffs start is all the more worrisome.
4. Depth on the bottom 6
Even if the Bruins can live with the production they ultimately get out of their top 6 forwards, the third line, which was so important during their Stanley Cup run, has been a virtual black hole on offense. Chris Kelly, recently out with a broken leg, hasn't made much of an impact. After a 20-goal campaign last season, the defensive-minded Bruins center has just 2 goals in 24 games. Rich Peverley, another crucial two-way forward in years past, is a -9 this season.
The recent injury to Patrice Bergeron, along with the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr, has created a lot of shuffling of the third and fourth lines, but it's Kelly and Peverley, in particular, who need to find their game once the playoffs get underway.
3. One defenseman short?
One would expect the Bruins will repeat their recent playoff strategy of pairing captain Zdeno Chara with Dennis Seidenberg on defense. It's been a lockdown pair for Boston and can be matched up with confidence against the top forwards in the Eastern Conference.
But after that, it gets dicey. Johnny Boychuk continues to have a decent season, but he's usually paired with Chara. Dougie Hamilton is an offensive-minded rookie who has had more than his fair share of struggles in his own zone, and the benefit of being paired with Chara or Seidenberg. Factor in Andrew Ference's inconsistent play and the injury to Adam McQuaid, and the Bruins' defensive corps right now is probably one top 4 defenseman short of being a championship-caliber blue line.
2. Can goalie Tuukka Rask play his best in crunch time?
Rask has had a terrific season, ranking in the top 5 in the NHL in both save percentage and goals against average. But it was Tim Thomas that led the Bruins in net the past two postseasons. It hasn't been since the 2009-2010 season that Rask was the man, so to speak, between the pipes.
In today's NHL, goaltending is paramount, especially come playoff time. And I believe Rask has the tools and makeup to be an elite, No. 1 goaltender in the league, capable of carrying his team.
But it's tough to ignore the fact that the last playoff series he played was the historical collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers.
1. The health of Patrice Bergeron
As I wrote previously, the loss of Patrice Bergeron to yet another concussion is the biggest concern for a Bruins playoff run. He brings everything to the table and is a stalwart center in all three zones. Details of exactly how much time Bergeron is expected to miss are still sketchy, but if he can't play again anytime soon, this Bruins team isn't poised to make any kind of Stanley Cup push. They'd struggle to make it out of the first round.
He's that important.
Andy Vagos majors in Journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He has lived around Boston all his life and follows the Bruins on a daily basis.
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