Why the Bruins are going to win it all

"How can you pick the best in the West?" one top NHL executive told ESPN.com. "All those top clubs are strong. It's a toss-up based on luck, goalies and health."

Which brings us back to the East and the Bruins. At the beginning of the season, we would have put the Pittsburgh Penguins in a similar "fortress" category in the East, but they have endured an ungodly number of injuries that will see them exceed 500 man games lost, by far the most in the league.

The injuries along with Marc-Andre Fleury's recent playoff foibles in net have led many to jump from the Penguins' bandwagon, and there is concern that the Penguins might not get out of the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The NHL executive we spoke to still put the Penguins above the fray, but as for the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, he believes there is little to distinguish the group below the two division winners in the East.

Another NHL GM agreed that the Bruins have separated themselves from the pack in the East and look like they're ready to take on all comers.

"I think they're the favorites," he told ESPN.com.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli admits there might have been concern at the start of the season while faced with replacing the right side of his top three lines after the departures of Jaromir Jagr, Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton from last season's squad that advanced to its second Stanley Cup finals since 2011. But Loui Eriksson, Jarome Iginla and Reilly Smith, while representing players at varying stages of their respective careers, have all fit seamlessly with a Bruins team that led the Eastern Conference in both goals per game (third in the NHL) and goals allowed per game (second in the league).

The common denominator?

"They're all strong two-way players," Chiarelli told ESPN.com on the eve of the playoffs.

And strong two-way hockey is the hallmark of coach Claude Julien and the calling card of this team.

At the heart of the Bruins' strength is the core of players who have grown up in the organization over the past five years or so, first facing crushing disappointment by blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 before rebounding the following year to win the team's first championship since 1972, and then following it up with a return to the finals last spring.

If it sounds like a cliché, so be it, but guys such as captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Chris Kelly, Shawn Thornton and Johnny Boychuk simply know what it takes. You can see it in the way that players agreed to rest during the stretch run, something that is sometimes difficult to get players to buy into.

"I think that's a good indicator. They know what the goal is," Chiarelli said. "It sounds like it's kind of a hokey answer, but it's true."

The continued evolution of that core -- Bergeron, for one, has been on a torrid offensive pace while maintaining his strong two-way game en route to what should be another Selke Trophy nomination, while Chara is once again in the heart of Norris Trophy discussion -- has allowed for younger players to move seamlessly into important roles.

Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton have become key members of a deep defensive corps that is without veteran Dennis Seidenberg for the playoffs due to injury.

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