The Boston Bruins are at the midway point of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with an 17-4-3 record good for 37 points. With only 24 games remaining in the Bruins' schedule, the second half of the season is poised to be good one in both the Eastern Conference and the Northeast Division.
Here are the seven questions for the second half of the season:
1. Are the Bruins the best team in the Eastern Conference?
Joe McDonald: Even though the Bruins have uncharacteristically surrendered three third-period leads in the past week, I still consider them the favorite to finish atop the Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season. Currently the Bruins are among the tops teams in a tight race in both the conference and the division. The Bruins still have some improvements to make in the second half, including a better power play and more of a consistent effort throughout the lineup, but this team is showing signs of what made it successful when it won the Stanley Cup in 2011. Since Northeast teams are dominating the Eastern Conference, the remaining 24 games will be exciting hockey.
James Murphy: At this point, yes, the Bruins are the best team in the Eastern Conference. They have hovered around the top spot in the conference despite playing the fewest games of any team in the NHL. Of course, they still have to win their games in hand over to catch up to conference leaders such as the Penguins and Canadiens. But the Bruins seem to have the most balanced game of any team in the East and they have an elite goalie in Tuukka Rask.
2. Will the Bruins make a big splash in the trade market?
Joe McDonald: Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli will make a deal before the April 3 trade deadline. How significant depends on whether or not he believes the Bruins need help in a certain area. He'll want to add to the team without subtracting from the current roster and core chemistry. Because he has managed his salary cap wisely, Chiarelli has the resources to make a splash if he believes the team needs it. He'll proceed with his due diligence and $7.6 million in cap space. The difference this season with the condensed schedule, more teams are still in the playoff contention, so teams might not be as willing to part with talent.
James Murphy: This is a tough question to answer because once again the standings are tight across the NHL, which might make it harder to get deals done. But if there is one team that is positioned to do so, it's the Bruins as they have the cap space to absorb salary. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has proven that he will make bold moves at the deadline, as he did in 2011 when he made some key moves that helped propel his team to the Stanley Cup. If the deal is there to be made, he'll make it.
3. How will Tuukka Rask handle the workload in the second half?
Joe McDonald: Rask has proved to be a true No. 1 in Boston. He's 13-2-3 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 18 games. He has been able to handle the condensed schedule in the first half, and Bruins coach Claude Julien is trying to balance both rest and playing time for his top netminder. Rask is playing with confidence, and he's also healthy. There's no reason to think he'll have a drop-off in the second half. But he still needs to prove he can handle a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and he should have that chance this spring.
James Murphy: Rask will handle the second half the same way he handled the first half, with poise, focus and an even-keeled approach. Rask is once again proving that he is a legitimate No. 1 NHL goalie. While the workload will be much heavier in the second half, the dominance he has shown in the first wasn't just a result of rest. Rask is a technically sound and skilled goalie taking advantage of finally being a true No. 1.
4. Can the Canadiens make a real challenge to the Bruins in the Northeast?
Joe McDonald: The Montreal Canadiens are for real once again. A season ago, they finished in last place in the Eastern Conference, but things have changed. With a new coach in Michel Therrien, and strong goaltending by Carey Price, Montreal has regained its identity. Watching the Canadiens and the Bruins fight for the top spot in the conference and the division will make the second half an exciting one.
James Murphy: Considering the Habs beat the Bruins on TD Garden ice in a game with plenty of physical play, this question already has been answered. The Canadiens are for real and they will pose a solid challenge for the Bruins and other Eastern Conference contenders.
Joe McDonald: Despite not playing overseas during the work stoppage, Marchand has played well in the first half of the season. He's currently leading the Bruins with 12 goals and is playing at top of his game with the help of linemates Patrice Bergeron and Seguin. Along with his 12 goals, Marchand has 9 assists for a total of 21 points in 23 games (he missed one game with an upper-body injury). If he can continue to play well, he should finish the regular season with 22 goals and 22 assists for 44 points. Seguin's offensive game was a bit sluggish to start the season, but he has found his scoring touch recently and has 5 goals and 2 assists for 7 points in the past five games. Overall he has 9 goals and 11 assists for 20 points. He could finish with 25 goals and 25 assists for 50 points.
James Murphy: Brad Marchand has had a monster first half of the season and doesn't seem to be slowing down. While he's likely to hit some walls in the hectic second half ahead, I don't see him slowing down. Marchand will finish with 25 goals. Seguin on the other hand started off slowly but has been getting better of late. While the goals may not be coming at the pace he and the Bruins would like, his hard work should pay off. I see him finishing with 20 goals.
6. Which player do the Bruins need the most improvement out of in the second half?
Joe McDonald: While the Bruins do need a more consistent effort from their entire lineup, the line of Nathan Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic needs to be better in the second half. From an individual standpoint, more production from Lucic is needed. The power forward has only 4 goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 23 games. If the Bruins are to have continued success, Lucic needs to set the tone more than he is right now.
James Murphy: Well, not to beat a dead horse but Chris Kelly is an obvious choice for improvement. But Kelly may not get the chance to improve depending on how long he is out of the lineup after suffering what appeared to be a knee injury Monday night against the Ottawa Senators. My real choice would be the Bruins' team defense as a whole instead of one player. For the past 10 games, the defensemen seem to be struggling to start a clean transition game and the forwards aren't coming back to help enough. That needs to be corrected before the playoffs.
7. How far will the Bruins end up going?
Joe McDonald: As part of our preview heading into the lockout-shortened 2013 season, I picked the New York Rangers to beat the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals and ultimately win the Stanley Cup. Now that half of the season is over and there are only 24 games remaining in the condensed schedule, I have changed my pick and believe the Bruins will win their second conference title in three years. Before I pick them to win it all, let's wait and see how they're playing on April 27.
James Murphy: Back in January I predicted the Bruins would win the Stanley Cup and do so by beating the Vancouver Canucks once again. The Canucks are starting to slide a bit but the Bruins still seem on track, so I'll stand by my preseason pick that the Bruins will win the 2013 Stanley Cup.