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Where Bruins stand in NHL playoff race as halfway point of season nears

Where Bruins stand in NHL playoff race as halfway point of season nears originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins have, at least so far, exceeded pretty much everyone's expectations as the halfway point of the 2023-24 NHL season approaches.

Few people predicted the Bruins would be a lottery team this year. Even with the abundance of veteran departures over the offseason -- including the retirements of top-six centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci -- there was still enough talent on this team, especially in net, to make the playoffs.

Not only will the Bruins make the playoffs, they might finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. There's also a pretty good chance they repeat as Presidents' Trophy winners -- a feat that's actually happened seven times since the award was created in 1985-86.

The Bruins enter Wednesday with a 24-8-8 record. They rank 10th in goals scored, fifth in power-play percentage, sixth in goals allowed and fourth in penalty killing.

Here's where the Bruins stand in the playoff race and a look at what the team should prioritize over the second half of the regular season.

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The Bruins, barring a monumentally historic collapse, will make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. The only question is will they win the Atlantic Division for the second straight year, or finish No. 2 or No. 3? Dropping all the way down to one of the two wild card spots is very unlikely.

The B's have sat atop the division for the entire season so far, but winning it is far from a certainty. The Florida Panthers, who beat the Bruins in the first round of the 2023 playoffs, have been closing the gap in recent weeks. Florida has won eight consecutive games and sits just two points behind Boston for first place.

Maintaining first place won't be easy for the Bruins. They have the toughest remaining schedule, per Tankathon, while the Panthers are 15th in remaining strength of schedule. The Leafs are still a threat to win the division, too, although they have the third-toughest remaining schedule.

For what it's worth, the Bruins are projected to finish with 108 points atop the Atlantic, based on the analytics model made by The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn. He currently gives the Bruins a 53 percent chance to win the division and a 30 percent chance of finishing second.

What should Bruins prioritize in second half?

The priority for the Bruins over the last few months of the regular season needs to be health and figuring out which line combinations work best.

Seeding isn't all that important, frankly. The road to the Stanley Cup Final through the Eastern Conference is going to be very difficult no matter what the Bruins' path turns out to be. Even if the Bruins finished as the top seed and had a slightly easier path, it wouldn't be much of an advantage if the team sacrificed health to get there.

Injuries were a major factor in the Bruins' upset loss to the Panthers in Round 1 last season. Several players, including Patrice Bergeron, Hampus Lindholm and Linus Ullmark, were not 100 percent healthy. Going all out to finish first in the division just isn't worth the risk. If it happens organically, that's fine.

The Bruins are currently dealing with injuries to some key players. Rookie center Matthew Poitras and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Linus Ullmark both left Tuesday's overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes. Veteran defenseman Brandon Carlo didn't play against the Coyotes because he left Monday's shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche with an upper body injury.

Failing to win the division and/or get the East's top seed could result in the Bruins not having home ice advantage at some point in the playoffs, maybe even in multiple rounds. But home ice isn't the advantage it's often perceived to be, especially for the Bruins. They have won just 13 of their last 25 home playoff games dating back to the 2018 second round (and excluding the 2020 bubble playoffs). It's better to get home ice, but again, it's not worth risking injury to get.

Figuring out which lines are best also needs to be a top priority for the B's. They have integrated a ton of new veteran and rookie players into the lineup after the abundance of departures last offseason. Head coach Jim Montgomery has tried a bunch of different combos. Lots of forwards have played different positions. In total, 17 different line combinations have played 20-plus minutes at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

If the Bruins are mostly healthy going into the playoffs, that will help them more than winning the division and getting home ice for multiple rounds. Breaking records last season was fun for everyone to watch. Taking a similar approach this season would be a huge mistake.