Hockey’s meanest feature is also its most exciting one: There’s only a minor relationship between being the best team in the league from October to April and actually winning the thing that everyone wants in June. The list of teams to win both the Presidents Trophy (for the best record in the league) and the Stanley Cup (for, well, you know) stands at a comically short eight. No team has done it since the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are among the more challenging postseasons to sort out ahead of time. They’re a physical grind. Beards grow. Goalies shrivel. The “best” team usually bows out.
If the 2022-23 Boston Bruins keep with the trend, though, it’ll be an all-time brutal pill. The Bruins are, in terms that require no exaggeration, the most impressive professional hockey team ever. Their 65 wins and 135 regular-season points are both league records. They gave up 2.12 goals per game, 0.44 fewer than any other team. They scored 3.67, more than anyone except the Connor McDavid–led Edmonton Oilers. They not only lack flaws; they lack characteristics that aren’t overwhelming strengths. They’ve ascended to levels of good so historic that it will be a tremendous disappointment if they don’t win 16 more games and lift the Cup. And yet they’re in immense danger of falling short—because everyone is in danger in this tournament.
The Bruins will probably lose at some point. It’s an insane thing to say about a team that had wrapped those all-time points and wins records with two games still to play. But the Athletic’s simulation model puts the team’s playoff-opening chances of winning the Cup at 26 percent. FiveThirtyEight has it at 37 percent. Betting markets are around 23 percent. These predictors are being reasonable. There are so, so many good hockey teams right now, and it takes little imagination, in a vacuum, to see another being the last team standing. The Oilers have both McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, one of the best forward duos ever. The Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and New Jersey Devils have depth on depth. The New York Rangers have loaded up. None of this even mentions the reduced but still defending champion Colorado Avalanche or the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the previous two Cups before them.
So, in case things go badly, let us extend the Bruins some grace: They’re as good as any group that’s ever played the sport. They had a better season than any of Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers teams, or Gordie Howe’s Detroit Red Wings, or Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins. No team has ever looked this scary entering the playoffs. And if they lose—whether in a shocker to the Florida Panthers in the first round or some time later—the more refined part of my brain will still know that the 2023 Bruins made a unique contribution to the sport. But that’s no fun; there’s no sense in being a non-Bostonian watching a Boston sports team if we cannot give in to our baser desires to build a thing up before toppling it and dragging it from the town square. Therefore: The Bruins must win it all or take their place as losers and frauds.
There’s a long story of how the Bruins got this good, but the shorter version revolves around timing. The NHL, a salary-capped league since 2005, is not really supposed to be a place where any team can be this great. If a team has as many good players as the Bruins do, some of them will get too expensive, and the team will rebuild. You can be competitive for many years at a time, but the Bruins have crossed a threshold that looked uncrossable in general and especially so in the modern league. This happened to be the final season of the existing contract for superstar winger David Pastrňák, whose cap hit goes from $6.67 million to $11.25 million next year. (The current salary cap is about $84 million, and a team needs 22 or 23 players to fill out a roster.) Center Pavel Zacha’s cap hit will rise by another $1.25 million next year. Very good backup goalie Jeremy Swayman, whose cap hit is a mere $925,000 this year on a rookie contract, will be due a huge raise in restricted free agency. The Bruins have a great team for numerous reasons, but their 2023 roster being this great has been the result of a perfect storm.
Naturally, those young players working at discount rates have been critical, and some old guys have helped them. Pastrňák scored 61 goals and would be on the verge of winning MVP if McDavid weren’t so annoyingly McDavid and scoring 64. Pastrňák was the only Bruin to score more than 67 points, but the Bruins have so many other quality forwards. When it’s played together, a “second” line of Jake DeBrusk and veterans and franchise icons Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand has overrun opponents at even strength. Other times, Pastrňák has slotted in with Bergeron and Marchand. The Bruins have lots of good players to shift around. Altogether, it’s an embarrassment of offensive depth, which the Bruins added further to when they traded for Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi at the trade deadline.
The back end is stout, too. Boston has one of the NHL’s best defensemen on each of its top two pairings: Charlie McAvoy on the first and Hampus Lindholm on the second. They picked up Capitals Stanley Cup winner Dmitry Orlov at the deadline and have slotted him with McAvoy, to substantial success. The Bruins’ third defensive pairing of Connor Clifton and the recently injured Derek Forbort is beatable and maybe the closest thing to an exhaust port in the Death Star, but coach Jim Montgomery can lean on his upper pairings. The Bruins’ penalty kill is the best in the league by a mile, preventing goals with an 87.3 percent success rate when they have a player in the box through the regular season. That’s the 30th-best penalty kill in league history.
Even if you outplay Boston’s skaters, tall an order as that might be, the team’s goalies pose another problem. Linus Ullmark, a former Buffalo Sabre who joined Boston in free agency a few years ago, is going to walk to the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder. His 0.88 goals saved above expectation per 60 minutes lead the league, according to MoneyPuck, as do his 1.89 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. Swayman, who only started 33 games, is a star in his own right. He’s third in goals saved above expectation per game and fifth in goals-against average among goalies to play at least 20 games. The Bruins are the first team to ever have one goalie win 40 games and another win 20. In the event that one goalie gets hurt or gets the yips, the Bruins have a low-deductible insurance policy.
Who has the best chance to beat Boston? Should it come to it, the Oilers would be a compelling pick for the simple reason that McDavid and Draisaitl could make any series their own. But the Eastern Conference’s best possibility looks—to my eye and to CBS Sports’ Chris Bengel—like the Rangers. The Bruins drubbed almost everyone this year and beat the Rangers by multiple goals in all three meetings, but New York only played Boston once with winger additions Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko. Neither Kane nor Tarasenko scored a bunch after the Rangers traded for them midseason, but they’re both excellent players with Cup-winning backgrounds. (Kane won three in Chicago, and Tarasenko won one in St. Louis.) The Bruins’ first-round matchup with the Florida Panthers also might not be a total snoozer, as Florida has a trio of big-time forwards in Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, and Carter Verhaeghe.
But every hypothetical case against the Bruins comes with myriad caveats. The Rangers are relying on stars past their primes to push them over the top against a better team. The Oilers will need a rookie goaltender, Stuart Skinner, to make sure McDavid’s efforts don’t go to waste. The Devils have young talent all over, and theoretically bouncy legs to match, but teams don’t tend to make big runs in their first playoff appearance since prehistoric times. The Leafs have the dudes, but they are the Leafs (and their goaltending is just OK). Someone may well get between the Bruins and hockey’s prized silver chalice, but it will take everything going right for someone and everything going wrong in Beantown. That’s what the Bruins’ greatness has really bought them. If they lose, it won’t happen on the margins, but because of the kind of meltdown that hockey sometimes spares for even its best teams.