Second place in the Eastern Conference is up for grabs Thursday, and the No. 2 spot in the West just might be after the night is over.
The Tampa Bay Lightning
will be in Boston to play the Bruins while the Detroit Red Wings
are in San Jose to face the surging Sharks. Both games feature the No. 2 and No. 3 teams from each conference, as these clubs will try to climb past each other while attempting to chase down Philadelphia and Vancouver for the No. 1 seeds in the forthcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Boston and Tampa Bay have identical 37-19-7 records, so the Bruins are currently in second place by virtue of the new tiebreaker (non-shootout wins), but one of these teams will have 83 points by about 10 p.m. ET. The winner could also be within 3 points of the Flyers if the Toronto Maple Leafs
keep their push for a playoff spot rolling.
The Bruins just completed their first 6-0 road trip since the 1971-72 season. That was also the last year Boston claimed the Stanley Cup, and this could the first Bruins team to do the same since Bobby Orr
and Phil Esposito
helped the franchise win the Cup twice in a three-year span.
is a heavy favorite to capture the Vezina Trophy, and he has combined with a strong defensive structure to lead the League in fewest goals allowed. Boston may lack elite scorers, but the Bruins are deep and diverse and have produced the fifth-most goals in the NHL.
"We've talked about consistency and when you win six in a row, to me that's consistency. We've had some real big challenges along the way but what we wanted to do was win this game and set ourselves up for a real good match against Tampa Bay Thursday at home, so we've got that now." -- Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien
"We've always believed in those guys and it's just a matter of putting it together," coach Claude Julien
told reporters. "We've talked about consistency and when you win six in a row, to me that's consistency. We've had some real big challenges along the way but what we wanted to do was win this game and set ourselves up for a real good match against Tampa Bay Thursday at home, so we've got that now."
General manager Peter Chiarelli has also bolstered the roster with a trio of February acquisitions -- adding offense from the blue line with Tomas Kaberle
and depth at center with Chris Kelly
and Rich Peverley
. Even without Marc Savard
the Bruins might boast the best depth down the middle in the League.
Tampa Bay is the surprise member among the League's elite this season. The Lightning went through an overhaul in the offseason -- new ownership, new general manager, new coach -- and the turnaround has happened sooner than most pundits expected.
The Lightning have led the Southeast Division since Dec. 30, and new GM Steve Yzerman
has made a pair of key additions since to boost Tampa Bay's chances of a deep playoff run. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson
was acquired on Jan. 1 and has been a big upgrade at the position, while veteran defenseman Eric Brewer
came on board Feb. 18.
and Martin St. Louis
are two of the leading candidates for the Hart Trophy this season and currently sit second and third in the scoring race. Captain Vinny Lecavalier might be the hottest player on the team with 7 goals in the past 9 games.
"You can't get chemistry until you accomplish things," coach Guy Boucher
told Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune. "You can just be a bunch of guys that likes to be together, but real chemistry is battling together and accomplishing things together, going through adversity together and getting through it together and finding ways together and getting the feeling that the guy beside you is going be there for you when you are in trouble, fight when it's time to fight and he's not going to fly away or freeze. And we've got that."
The Canucks and Red Wings have safely occupied the top two spots in the Western Conference since Christmas, but the Sharks could close the gap on Detroit to three points with a win against the Red Wings at HP Pavilion.
San Jose had fallen to 12th place in the West after a six-game losing streak in mid-January, but the Sharks are 16-2-1 and have broken free of a the jumbled pack of teams between fourth and 11th in the conference. Goaltender Antti Niemi
has played a huge role in the streak, and was rewarded with a four-year contract extension Monday.
The Red Wings dealt with a myriad of injuries in the middle portion of the season, but nearly everyone is back in good health. Henrik Zetterberg
is pacing the team with 69 points, while Danny Cleary
has already set a career high with 22 goals in only 50 games played.
Even Detroit, second in the West, isn't completely free from danger in the compacted conference standings. Any kind of prolonged struggles could put the Red Wings in danger of falling back into the pack of teams behind them.
"It will be tighter every year because the cap is doing what it was designed to do," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "This is the tightest race in the history of the league, but it'll be topped in the years to come."