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Bruins poised to challenge in the East

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A tremendous regular season was followed by the anticipation of a long playoff run. Unfortunately that long-awaited postseason came to a screeching halt when the Boston Bruins fell just short in their attempt to rally from a 3-1 deficit and beat Carolina in the second round.

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Tim Thomas(notes) won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie last season.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The pain of losing in overtime of Game 7 on home ice reminded the Bruins just how tenuous life is in the playoffs, regardless of the success a team might enjoy for the nearly seven months leading up to the NHL's second season.

While the loss was devastating for New Englanders – so many expectations dashed, especially so soon after the B's enjoyed one of the franchise's better moments with a four-game annihilation of archrival Montreal in the opening round – the fact is the Bruins appear to be much more on the way up instead of the other direction.

This isn't an old team, and this wasn't a one-year fluke. The Bruins have improved steadily since Peter Chiarelli took over duties as general manager, cleaning up the mess an ill-fated Joe Thornton(notes) trade left the franchise.

He might not always be pretty in goal, but Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in convincing fashion and the Bruins have one of the league's most dominating defenseman in Zdeno Chara(notes), last season's Norris Trophy winner. There's plenty of talented firepower up front. And it's all led by Claude Julien, a most deserving Jack Adams winner as coach of the year.

The Bruins transitioned last season from what was perceived as a good-defense, light-scoring offensive outfit. Julien had the reputation as a defense-first coach, but he showed he knows how to push the pace, too, as once the B's added more punch to the attack last season they displayed the knack to run opponents out of the rink.

The Bruins led the Eastern Conference with 274 goals, a total that was second only to Detroit's 295 in the league. And no one allowed fewer than 200 goals besides Boston (196). The Bruins were difficult to beat at home, rolling to a 29-6-6 record as hosts.

So while, yes, the season ended prematurely, it could certainly serve as motivation and a learning experience as Boston moves into the 2009-10 season as one of the teams that could challenge Pittsburgh's two-year supremacy in the East.

Last season: 53-19-10 (116 points), first in the Northeast, first in the Eastern Conference and second by only one point to San Jose in the overall standings. The Bruins enjoyed their best regular season since compiling 119 points en route to winning their last Stanley Cup in 1971-72. It was the team's first division title since 2003-04 and first conference crown since '01-02.

The postseason didn't go quite as well, despite a sweep of archrival Montreal in the opening round. The Bruins were stunned in overtime of Game 7 by visiting Carolina in the conference semifinals, a series in which Boston rallied from a 3-1 deficit.

Imports: C Steve Begin(notes) (Dallas), D Derek Morris(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), G Dany Sabourin(notes) (Edmonton), C Drew Larman(notes) (Florida), C Trent Whitfield(notes) (St. Louis), D Drew Fata(notes) (Ottawa).

Exports: C Stephane Yelle(notes) (Carolina), D Aaron Ward(notes) (Carolina), D Shane Hnidy(notes) (Minnesota), D Steve Montador(notes) (Buffalo).

Re-signings: G Tim Thomas, RW Mark Recchi(notes), C David Krejci(notes), RW Byron Bitz(notes).

Salary cap: The B's are pushing right up to the ceiling with maybe $1.7M left, but that's not going to be enough to re-sign Phil Kessel(notes), so Boston still has some work to do before the season starts.

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Zdeno Chara stood tall on the Bruins blue line by winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman.
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Three keys: The Bruins are deep up front, but not having Kessel under contract is something that needs to get resolved with the team keeping the fourth-year right wing instead of dealing him away.

Kessel's 36 goals led Boston by a wide margin during the regular season, and his six in the playoffs were tops on the team as well. Kessel's speed and skill epitomize the new NHL, and he's a fan favorite in Beantown.

Secondly, Zdeno Chara has to maintain his high standard of play at age 32 after winning a major award last season. Chara and Dennis Wideman(notes) chew up a lot of minutes, much like Scott Niedermayer(notes) and Chris Pronger(notes) did when Anaheim won the Cup in 2007. But like the former duo in Anaheim, Chara and Wideman have a nice supporting cast on the blue line as well.

Derek Morris comes over from the Rangers, youngster Johnny Boychuk(notes) has a one-way deal while Andrew Ference(notes), Matt Hunwick(notes) and Mark Stuart(notes) are of proven commodity. Drew Fata looks to compete early for additional depth on an impressive defense.

Third, the Bruins look to get Marco Sturm(notes) back for a full season. The only player left from the Joe Thornton trade, Sturm has struggled to stay healthy the last two seasons. Patrice Bergeron(notes) showed he'd shaken the difficult concussion issues from the previous season, but he needs to stay in the lineup as well to make it all work.

On the hot seat: Tim Thomas has spent his entire career scratching and clawing his way for a shot in the NHL, and at age 34 last season he exceeded everyone's expectations by playing better than every other goalie in the league. Certainly he had support, but Thomas employed his unique style of puck stopping to the max.

He's set the bar high in the eyes of his teammates and critics, and Thomas has to prove he can handle success. He has nothing to prove after last season. But he has to maintain a high level of play or Boston is not going to be in a position to meet heightened expectations.

Poised to blossom: Fenway Park as a hockey venue. That's right, it's a marketing dream – the Bruins hosting the Flyers on New Year's Day – and it's a great way to break up the monotony of a long season. Boston doesn't need gimmicks for its fans, who are some of the most hockey-savvy supporters in the 24 U.S. markets. This will be a fun event in a great venue. Just pray it doesn't rain.

Time has passed: Mark Recchi was a great addition at the trade deadline late last season – the perfect veteran to bring vast playoff experience to a locker room that needed a guy who has been through the Stanley Cup wars. And Recchi was plenty productive, more than earning a one-year deal to extend his career at age 41.

But the season looks a lot longer to a player such as Recchi as someone years younger. The offseason routine gets tougher to complete and the batteries take longer to recharge. The Bruins shouldn't expect more than the mentoring role Recchi can provide. They shouldn't be looking for big numbers.

Prediction: Everything broke right for the Bruins during the regular season last year with the exception of Sturm missing a lot of time. There's no doubt the Bruins should be in the hunt in the East, even if everyone doesn't match last season's numbers. Boston, too, will have a target on its back, clearly the Northeast Division favorite heading into the season. Sometimes that can be a dangerous scenario, but from what we see on the roster and the knowledge of how tight the locker room is, this could be the year Boston at least reaches the Stanley Cup finals.