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In the Words of Wayne Campbell; a Northeast Division Preview

Posted By Matt Preston On Oct 5 2011 @ 11:10 pm In Boston Bruins | No Comments

New England Sports Network (NESN), the local sports station up here in New England that telecasts Bruins games, has been running promos pimping the new season that show a montage from the Bruins’ locker room celebration following their 2011 Stanley Cup victory ending with the tag line, “To be continued…”

Well, the story of the Boston Bruins certainly did not end on that faithful night in Vancouver. In a little less than 24 hours, the banner will have been raised, the puck dropped and the 2011-2012 NHL season underway with the Boston Bruins doing something they have not done in 39 years: Defending the Stanley Cup.

The story is far from over.

How the story will continue is a different story. Last season was one for the ages for the Boston Bruins, historic on many accounts, providing memories that folks all over New England will long remember. The raising of the banner tomorrow night, however, starts a new chapter in Bruins history, one unrelated to the last, which begs the question, what are fair expectations for the 2011-2012 Boston Bruins?

At this point last year, the biggest question about the Boston Bruins was not whether or not they were good enough to win a championship, they certainly had the talent and a roster strong enough to make a deep playoff run, but did they have the fortitude to be a championship team? There are no longer any question about whether or not this team can win a Stanley Cup as the Bruins are returning virtually the same squad that won a Stanley Cup four months ago. There are certainly still questions that can be asked about this version of the Bruins, which will be dissected at length over the next seven months, but when trying to accurately assess what to expect from the Bruins this season the issue is less about them and more about how everyone else in the league has improved this offseason and how the B’s stack up. The Bruins should be making a trip to the playoffs for the fifth straight season, but how will the Northeast Division play out?

The Montreal Canadiens were a team on the ascent last season, finishing second in the division and coming within minutes of ending the Bruins’ Cup dreams before they really began. Most important for the Canadiens last season was the emergence of goaltender Carey Price, who, after two seasons of falling short of expectations, carried Montreal for much of the seasons and took his place amongst the league’s top goaltenders, leading the lead in wins, placing second in shutouts and seventh in save percentage. As he did in 2010-2012, Price will need to carry Montreal this season as much of the team’s success will fall on his shoulders. With a completely revamped defense that will be starting the season without top defenseman Andrei Markov and an offensive unit that is aging on the top end and produces a lot of question marks, Price is the constant and by far the cornerstone of the Canadiens.

After winning the Northeast in 2009-2010, the Buffalo Sabres stumbled out of the gates and took a step back in 2010-2011. After an ownership change midseason, however, the Sabres finished the season strong, taking third in the division and making the playoffs. With Ryan Miller in net, the Sabres are always a threat. The ownership change has brought stability to an organization that has long been cost-conscious, but spent like drunken sailors this offseason, right up to the cap, bringing in high-priced free agents Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, while signing Drew Stafford to an extension. The money should look to be well spent for the Sabres, returning them to the top of the standings, having built a team similar to the Bruins, being very well balanced, deep down the middle and tough.

Much like the Sabres, the Toronto Maple Leafs finished the year with a strong second half. After being the second worst teams in the league in 2009-2010, the Leafs showed great improvement last year, staying in playoff contention until late in the season, ultimately finishing in 10th in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has not made the playoffs since before the Lockout, but it seems the rebuilding process is nearly over. The Leafs’ 23 year-old netminder James Reimer was yet another goalie in the Northeast to emerge last season, coming on strong late in the season to take the Leafs’ starting job from J.S. Giguere and anchoring the team on the backend. Upfront, the signing of center Tim Connolly should work wonders for the Leafs offense, providing a solid pivot to play alongside Phil Kessel, if the oft-injured Connolly can stay on the ice. Much like how the Bruins improved from last season to this one simply by winning, Toronto’s cast of young studs should continue to see improvements with another year under their belts.

The Ottawa Senators, on the other hand, are a team going in the wrong direction. The Senators have been on a steady decline since winning the Eastern Conference in 2007 and the team fully gave into the rebuilding process as they shed many pieces throughout the course of the 2010-2011 season. While Ottawa has a set of established players in every phase of the game, many of those established players are in the twilight of their career and the majority of the roster is comprised of fresh faces looking to make their way in the NHL. There will certainly be flashes and surprises from the Ottawa Senators over the course of their next 82 games and they are not a team to be taken lightly in any one game, but it is hard to expect any kind of solid constancy from the Sens.

It is certainly dangerous to expect the Bruins to repeat upon their dream season. Based on the rest of the Northeast Division coming into this season, however, it is more than reasonable to expect the Boston Bruins to once again content for the division title, battling it out with the Sabres for the top spot, and make the playoffs. Despite the emergence of Price, with an already weakened d-corps a bit of a digression should be seen from the Canadiens this year, while the Maple Leafs should continue their ascent and those two teams will be fighting for third and fourth place in the Northeast, with the winner of that battle most likely sneaking into one of the last playoff sports in the East. Ottawa? The Senators are probably looking at one more year of going down before they start to make their upswing.

Once they are in the playoffs, anything can happen, as the Boston Bruins surely proved last postseason. As foolhardy as it may be to start stitching the seventh banner to be hung in TD Garden next October and call for the Bruins to be the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-1998, they have already proven they are a team that can win a Stanley Cup. Whether or not they are a team that can win two depends on how much the teams around them have caught up.

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