NHL East’s top teams build momentum

This shortened National Hockey League (NHL) season has certainly been interesting. While some claim that a shortened or lockout season often can taint results, there is no denying that two of the teams facing the most adversity in the league, the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, have been two of the most dominant teams in the NHL this year.

The Bruins are currently in first place in their division, which in itself is an impressive feat. However, the recent tragic events in Boston seemed to have put a halt on what was an extremely impressive year. The Bruins had lost their previous four games, an unfortunate streak that took place right in the middle of the Boston Marathon bombing. After defeating the Florida Panthers 3-0 on April 21st, however, they reached a tie for first place in the Northeast Division.

The game proved especially important as afterwards, thousands of fans remained for a ceremony to honor those who assisted the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, as well as members of law enforcement. Something truly special about sports is that it gives a community the chance to come together and rally for a cause. Professional sports in Boston can be used as a potential healing tool for residents who have been forced to deal with this wildly unfortunate tragedy. Pittsburg has faced its own adversities this year, albeit of an entirely different variety.

Sidney Crosby has long been seen as the “golden boy” of the NHL. Unfortunately, over recent years he has also been known as someone who gets injured. Sid “The Kid” is currently the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and was the number one overall draft pick of the 2005 NHL draft. He was the youngest player to win the scoring title in the NHL, making him the only teen to do so. He also won the MVP in his second season and later became the youngest captain in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup.

Naturally, Crosby has been extremely integral to Pittsburgh’s success in recent years. Thus, when he suffered concussions in back-to-back games in the 2011-2012 season, it appeared as though it would be a huge blow to the Penguins. The Penguins, however, have suffered only slightly as they still made the playoffs. Evgeni Malkin was named league MVP and while Pittsburg suffered an early first round exit, he and Crosby seemed prime and healthy for the upcoming year. With a healthy Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins seemed poised for another championship season. Sure enough, for the majority of the shortened season, the Penguins dominated.

Unfortunately, while they were both healthy for the beginning of the year, both Malkin and Crosby have suffered as of late. On March 30, Crosby suffered a puck to the jaw. A devastating blow for the man dubbed “the Next One,” Crosby has been out the past six games. Malkin has also been out with a shoulder injury. Star winger James Neal was benched with a concussion. Still, the Penguins have won 21 out of their last 23 games as of Sunday. Now, the Pens are beginning to see Malkin and Neal return to play. Both practiced on Sunday, yet neither traveled to Ottawa. With these stars out, how are the Penguins doing it?

Perhaps it’s the key trades the Penguins made at the deadline. They secured Jussi Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, and Douglas Murray. All three were integral in their win over the previously mentioned Boston Bruins. Perhaps it has been the goaltending. Both Marc-Andre Fieury and Tomas Vokoun have been extremely resilient.

The Penguins have already clinched the NHL Eastern Conference title. There is something to be said about a team who loses two former MVPs and still maintains the consistency and poise to win a conference. This makes fans wonder, is there anyone in the East who can knock off the Penguins? This brings us back to Boston.

Can an emotional, yet unified city help Boston regain supremacy and take on the Penguins in the playoffs? While Boston did finally break its losing streak, it was against the Panthers, a team that had lost seven of their last eight games. They were indeed competitive against an undermanned Penguins lineup, yet they still lost and “undermanned” is quite a subjective term with regard to Pittsburgh this year.

My honest opinion is that Boston’s playoff hopes will come down to two things: consistency and Jaromir Jagr. Boston’s play has been sporadic this season. They have indeed had stretches of great play (which shows as they are first in their division). Yet they have struggled mightily at times, losing form and offensive momentum. When they narrowly lost out to Jarome Iginla (who ironically ended up in Pittsburgh) at the trade deadline, they decided to look elsewhere for offensive options. They instead “settled” for Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, a future Hall of Famer, is certainly not in his prime anymore. However, if he is even the player that he was with the New York Rangers a few years ago, Jagr will definitely be a vital catalyst. So far, it has simply been the typical case of a new player on a new team with a new system. It doesn’t help that the Bruins are mightily inconsistent and have struggled tremendously on offense. Once Jagr meshes, the offense will build around him and both Jagr and his supporting players will help one another.

It remains to be seen if Boston can put together a patch of consistent offensive play and get hot for the post season. Hey, maybe Neil Diamond will even randomly show up to sing Sweet Caroline like he did with the Red Sox the other day. It really is a fun tune.

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