While the West is full of complete and deep teams with obvious and real Stanley Cup aspirations, in the East there is only one team that’s proven to be complete. And if Boston should get upset somewhere along the line, its conference will become available to anyone.
When you’re talking about who your pick is to come out of the Western Conference this playoff season, you’re talking about the strength of that team. But when you’re talking about who your pick is to come out of the East, you have to explain how that team will be able to outlast or overcome its weakness.
Unless you’re talking about the Boston Bruins.
Tampa Bay has a goalie who’s struggled since the Olympic break, and Tampa Bay minus Ben Bishop’s unreal performance this season is a non-playoff team again. Toronto has its much-publicized puck possession and sustainability concerns. Montreal has questionable size, Columbus has defensive issues. Even Pittsburgh has one, very important question to be answered: Just what is Marc-Andre Fleury?
But in Boston, everything is in place. They have the goal scoring and one of the best third lines in the league. They have plenty of Stanley Cup experience, but also some much-needed young, capable and fresh legs in support. They have the big, difference making No. 1 defenseman and the all-world goaltender who can consistently win games on his own if need be. They have the coach and they have the recent experience of both a championship and a championship loss.
Each Stanley Cup winner since, and including, Pittsburgh in 2009 has gone on a winning streak of at least six games at some point over the last 30 percent of the season. Boston is now on a nine-game winning streak and firing on all cylinders. Every positive stretch from early in the season goes out the window this late in the year – success in the Stanley Cup playoffs comes to those who get hot at the right time.
This year, the last 30 percent of the season started just before the Olympic break. So far, Boston is the only Eastern playoff team to go on a run that long. In the West, San Jose and Los Angeles have achieved that benchmark so far.
The Bruins have the pedigree, the depth, the confidence in every spot on the roster and even the obscure stat that makes them very hard to pick against. But playoffs bring upsets. The difference is, in the West, multiple big boys will inevitably fall. In the East, there is only one truly big swinger.
For completely different reasons, the Western and Eastern conferences will be wide open for the taking when the playoffs dawn this spring. Aside from two or three outliers in the West, each team is a high-level, finely-tuned and proven Cup contender with few, if any, reasons to pick against them.
But in the East, every team except one has a legitimate concern that makes it an unfavorable Stanley Cup pick.
And if Boston should fall, its conference becomes available to anyone.
Even – can’t believe I’m writing this – Toronto.