Leafs challenging Bruins in Northeast

The Northeast Division has become the goliath of the Eastern Conference in the early portion of the lockout-shortened, 48-game 2013 season.

With the exception of the last place Buffalo Sabres, the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators would all be within the final eight for a playoff spot right now.

If these teams continue to play at this pace, the second half of this season will showcase some incredible divisional games.

Last season, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens finished fourth and fifth respectively in the Northeast, but this year it's a different landscape for both teams. The Canadiens currently find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Leafs are fifth with 30 points after beating Ottawa 5-4 on Wednesday night. The Senators are sixth with 28 points. Toronto is now just one behind Boston (31 points), although the Leafs have played four more games.

One area the Leafs have excelled this year is winning on the road. The Leafs are currently 9-4 away from home, trailing only Chicago (10) in road wins.

Meanwhile, after a six-game winning streak, the Bruins have struggled in their past two games -- a regulation loss to the Canadiens and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals that saw Boston blow a 3-0 first-period lead.

"Defensively, we need to be a lot better and we're certainly not as good as we're capable of," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters after Tuesday's game in Washington. "Again, that's an issue and we've got a lot of guys who have to be better for us."

When the Bruins are at their best, Julien can roll all four lines and receive production from each one. That was certainly the case for the Bruins in 2011 when they hoisted the Stanley Cup. It was that way a season ago when Boston won the division title before losing in seven games to the Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

While Boston's top two lines have been solid this year, the Bruins' third line has struggled.

The trio of Chris Bourque, Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley has registered just 15 points and the three players are a combined minus-21. Last season, Kelly recorded 20 goals and 19 assists for 39 points in 82 games. He also registered a plus-33 rating. This season, he only has one goal and four assists with a minus-7. Peverley is minus-8 and Bourque is minus-6.

"Somehow, if you're not going to produce, you have to be able to at least keep the puck out of your own net," Julien said Tuesday. "Right now, we're not getting either from that line. It's a concern we need to look at."

Because that line has failed to produce at both ends of the ice, Julien has been forced to make recent changes to his lineup, attempting to find an answer. If that answer does not come from within, then general manager Peter Chiarelli will find help via the trade market.

The Bruins had Wednesday off in preparation to host the Maple Leafs on Thursday night. In the teams' only meeting this season, Boston won 1-0 on Feb. 2 at Toronto. The Bruins' third line produced the only goal that game with Bourque scoring the winner.

The Canadiens recently showed that they can stick with the Bruins in the Northeast Division, with an impressive win in Boston. Can Toronto do the same thing Thursday?