With renaissance seasons in a number of important markets like Chicago and Washington, the Boston Bruins' return to the postseason has flown under the radar. But that's pretty much how the Bruins play, which isn't a bad thing.
Boston had developed a reputation for lacking heart, character and leadership over the previous decade, but it displayed all those qualities down the stretch. Despite the losses of leading scorer Marc Savard (back) and point-producing forward Chuck Kobasew (broken shinbone), not to mention the absence of Patrice Bergeron, who hasn't played since Oct. 27, the Bruins collected points in nine of 10 games to lock up their first playoff berth since the lockout.
Tim Thomas has shed the "career minor leaguer" label and can stand alone on his considerable accomplishments, as his .921 save percentage was fourth in the NHL heading into Sunday's games. Zdeno Chara should appear on Norris Trophy ballots around the league, as he averaged 26:50 a night in ice time, fourth in the league, and made an ordinary blue line look passable.
Now, the bad news. The Bruins have little hope of advancing. That's not because the Montreal Canadiens beat Boston eight straight times this season (which they did) or because the Habs have beaten Boston 11 straight times overall (which they have), but because Montreal is superior in almost every category. Picked by most (including this writer) to miss the playoffs this season, the Canadiens saw homegrown talent like Mike Komisarek, Chris Higgins, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and rookie netminder Carey Price take flight. Alexei Kovalev went from locker-room cancer to hero, and the Habs are talking destiny for the first time since 1993.
1. The Price is right. Remember the collective "Ooooh" that followed GM Bob Gainey's trade of starter Cristobal Huet to Washington for a second-round draft pick at the trade deadline? Eyebrows raised at the tremendous risk he was taking, handing over the Habs' goaltending chores to the 20-year-old Price and untested Jaroslav Halak. All that seems pretty funny now that the Habs have surged into the playoffs on a 14-4-1 run. And Price? The man who won gold at the World Junior Championship last season, guided Hamilton (AHL) to a surprise Calder Cup championship and morphed effortlessly into a front-line NHL netminder, seems completely unfazed by the whole thing. Want a positive indicator that Price is up to the task? After he was sent down to the AHL for a brief stint, he returned and became the first under-20 goaltender to win 20 games since Patrick Roy (remember him?) and Tom Barrasso did so more than 20 years ago.
2. My aching back. Even if the playoffs make for tighter-checking affairs, the Bruins still are in a big hole when it comes to trying to match the Canadiens' offense. Montreal ranked second in goals per game during the regular season, while the Bruins were a distant 24th. That's why Savard's health will be a key factor for the Bruins. Savard has been skating but remains sore. Even if he's ready to start the playoffs, it's hard to imagine he will be at his playmaking best. Still, some Savard is better than no Savard. He still finished the season 22 points ahead of the Bruins' second-leading scorer, Marco Sturm, despite missing the last seven games while nursing a broken bone in his back. The other interesting issue if/when the 30-year-old center returns? He will be playing in his first postseason contest.
3. Depth, depth, depth. When the playoffs begin, the Bruins' lineup will boast one 20-goal scorer (Sturm) and three players who topped the 50-point mark. Montreal? The Canadiens will throw out four 20-goal scorers (Kovalev, Plekanec, Kostitsyn, Higgins) and seven players with 50-plus points (Kovalev, Plekanec, Kostitsyn, Higgins, Mark Streit, Andrei Markov and Saku Koivu, who is out with a foot injury but is expected to play at some point during the series). That kind of depth puts a tremendous amount of pressure on a team that isn't particularly deep along the blue line.
4. Two degrees of separation? Interesting coaching matchup here, as longtime Habs hero Guy Carbonneau gets his first taste of playoff coaching action, while former Habs bench boss Claude Julien gets a chance at postseason redemption. The highly respected Julien was dumped by the Habs after he coached them to a first-round upset of the Bruins (holy symmetry, Batman) in the 2004 playoffs. Julien then went to New Jersey, where GM Lou Lamoriello canned the coach in the last week of the 2006-07 regular season. Given a new lease on coaching life by Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, Julien has made the most of it with an undermanned Bruins team. If he gets the better of Carbonneau early in this series, watch for the rabid Quebec hockey media to make it a cause celebre.
5. The man's got Hart, you say? There has been growing buzz that Kovalev deserves a place on the Hart Trophy ballot as the league's MVP (or, more specifically, as the player deemed most valuable to his team). It's a bit of a stretch, considering Alexander Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, Evgeni Malkin and Martin Brodeur are the other names out there. But the buzz illustrates what has been a seismic reversal of fortune for the talented forward. Last season, there were stories both in North America and Russia suggesting Kovalev and Carbonneau couldn't coexist, that Kovalev was undermining Carbonneau's influence, that he had lost his touch and was dragging the team down. This year, Kovalev has acted as mentor to the Kostitsyn brothers (Andrei and Sergei), both of whom have been integral parts of the Habs' success. Kovalev leads the club in goals (35) and points (84), and his 17 power-play markers were tied for fourth in the league. With Koivu nursing a broken bone in his foot, Kovalev will be counted on even more for his leadership.
" Montreal's power play vs. Boston's penalty killing. The Canadiens boast the NHL's most potent power play, and the Bruins have the 28th-ranked penalty-killing unit. That's not a matchup; that's a mismatch. If the Bruins can't find a way to shut down the Habs on the power play, this series will be over in a hurry.
" Canadiens: Kovalev has 21 points in his past 18 games. Plekanec has scored just once in his past 13.
" Bruins: Center David Krejci, filling in for the injured Savard, has nine points in his past 11 games. The Bruins have not advanced to the second round of the playoffs since 1999 and haven't advanced to a conference championship since 1992.
The Bruins won't go away easily, but with 11 first-time playoff performers, go away they will. Canadiens in six.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.