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Behind a young core of talented stars, the Pittsburgh Penguins captured the Eastern Conference title last season - and they figure to contend for that crown for years to come.
Right now, however, they're not looking like the team to beat.
Instead, that title belongs to the upstart Boston Bruins, who will try to win their ninth straight game for the first time in more than 25 years when they open a home-and-home set with the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Stocked with several years of top draft picks, the Penguins emerged last spring, losing only two games in the Eastern Conference playoffs en route to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals since their back-to-back Cup titles in 1991 and 1992. They eventually lost in six games to Detroit.
But it has been Boston that has surged to the top of the East this season. The young Bruins (27-5-4) were just the eighth seed in last season's playoffs, but they're 22-2-1 since the beginning of November, outscoring opponents 101-49 over that span.
They're also 13-1-0 since Thanksgiving, including their current eight-game winning streak - matching their longest since a nine-game run in January 1983. Boston's last four wins have come on the road.
"We have to understand that we're no longer under the radar," Boston defenseman Aaron Ward said. "We're not going to sneak up on anybody."
They certainly didn't surprise the Atlanta Thrashers, who gave them all they could handle in Boston's 2-1 win on Sunday.
Despite an early deficit, the Bruins battled back behind Phil Kessel's 22nd goal and Michael Ryder's league-leading seventh game-winner with six minutes to play.
"We're getting pretty good and creating a lot of offense," Ryder said. "We're doing what we do best and not trying to be too handsome."
Not only have the Bruins scored a league-high 130 goals, but they've allowed an NHL-low 76. Their 2.11 team goals-against average easily leads the league, and goalies Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas rank second and third in the NHL in GAA.
Fernandez made 32 saves to earn the victory on Sunday, but it's likely Thomas will bring a personal six-game winning streak back to the crease on Tuesday. Thomas has allowed two goals on 56 shots in his last two starts.
Facing the Penguins' offense is often a fearsome task, but that unit has been sputtering in recent games. Even though Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL with 59 points and Sidney Crosby is tied for second with 49, Pittsburgh (19-13-4) has just three goals in their last three games, losing two of them. Malkin has no goals and one assist over that span.
The Penguins have also lost three in a row at home, part of a disappointing midseason slump that has seen them go 4-7-0 in the last 11 games.
Still, coach Michel Therrien's club is hoping it is on the verge of a turnaround after Saturday's 3-2 home loss to Montreal. Despite the defeat, the Penguins outshot the Canadiens 34-19 after averaging just 19.6 shots on goal in their previous five games.
"I think we deserved to win tonight," left wing Pascal Dupuis said. "The big thing is the whole team battled hard tonight. Unfortunately we didn't get the win, but if we work like that every night I think we'll give ourselves a chance to win."
The Penguins didn't need much offense to beat the Bruins on Oct. 20, winning 2-1 in a shootout at the TD Banknorth Garden - one of only two Boston losses in 15 home games.
But before the clubs meet in Boston on Thursday, they'll face off at Mellon Arena, where the Bruins won 2-1 last Feb. 13. Boston went 2-1-1 overall against the Penguins last season.
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