NHL analyst and former All-Star Jeremy Roenick pens a weekly blog for NHL.com. "World According to JR" appears every Wednesday and includes Roenick's sharp, can't-miss opinions on What's Clicking and What's Missing in the National Hockey League.
It's that time of the season, and the frontrunners are gearing up and the pretenders are fading away. There are few teams establishing themselves as teams to contend with like the Pittsburgh Penguins
I think Pittsburgh is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference without Sidney Crosby
, so you can imagine how I feel about them with Crosby and potentially Kris Letang
returning to the lineup Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2). Imagine how difficult that team is going to be to beat.
I truly believe that top to bottom, Pittsburgh's core group of players is as solid as there is in the NHL.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 38 | ASST: 46 | PTS: 84
SOG: 277 | +/-: 12
is the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy. He's carried the team all season and has been a model of consistency. Marc-Andre Fleury
has continued a very high level of play, again. Chris Kunitz
has played well. James Neal
is having a career season. Jordan Staal
is one of the most attentive and responsible players in the National Hockey League.
You just continue to go down their lineup and they are just solid, solid players. They play strong and hard every night. And if everybody is healthy in that lineup come the playoffs, I don't know if there is a team that can beat them four out of seven games, especially when you have a world-class coach like Dan Bylsma
Bylsma not only is likable over the television screen, but likable in person. Those players love going on the ice and playing for him every night.
In a way these Penguins remind me a lot of how the Bruins were last season. They're a very close, very tight-knit group that fights for each other and is having fun with each other while doing all it takes to win hockey games. I'm just extremely impressed.
And think about this for a second: Here we are wondering where Sidney Crosby
is going to fit in. What kind of question is that, asking where the best player in the world fits into your lineup?
It's the kind of question that speaks volumes for what Pittsburgh has done without Crosby.
The flip side to the Penguins has got to be the Boston Bruins
' fall from grace.
Not having Nathan Horton
in the lineup has hurt this team offensively. The Bruins haven't battled and rallied around Horton being out like they did in the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Center - BOS
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 38
SOG: 99 | +/-: 16
But an even tougher injury to deal with has been the one to Rich Peverley
, who is probably the most improved player in the NHL over the past two seasons. During last season's playoffs, and especially in the Final, Peverley put himself on the map as a player who is very valuable to the team. He opened up a lot of eyes because he kills penalties, plays on the power play, is a strong offensive threat and a valuable defensive player.
When you take a versatile guy like Peverley out the lineup, it is going to really hurt, more so than when you have to take Horton out of the lineup. We're seeing evidence of that now with the Bruins. They can't seem to get out of their own way and they're not nearly as strong defensively as they have been.
The injury to Tuukka Rask
has tested their goaltending depth, but this is a team filled with holes that is making a lot of mistakes. Tim Thomas
has not been able to save the day as well as he did last season.
The good thing for the Bruins is they are going to be in the playoffs, but no one is looking at them now and fearing them like they did earlier in the season. The Bruins have to find a way to change that, either by becoming the Big Bad Bruins again or by playing the team game they found in the playoffs last season.
Their identity has been diminished over the last month and a half, and it's a heck of a lot tougher in the NHL to go into games when you're not feared by the other team. The Rangers and Penguins don't fear the Bruins.