Bruins are officially in playoffs, and officially a Cup contender

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The Bruins didn’t look like true Stanley Cup contenders for long stretches of this season. They didn’t have enough offensive firepower, they were too inexperienced and too banged-up on defense, and they had gone a full month without winning back-to-back games from mid-February to mid-March.

But Don Sweeney hit the bullseye with his trade deadline moves, the team has played much better in the three weeks since then, and they’re getting healthier. The Bruins officially clinched a playoff spot Monday night, and we can now officially declare them a Cup contender.

What are you looking for in a “contender”? You’re looking for a team that can score, that can defend, that has great goaltending, and that has no glaring weaknesses. That may not have been the Bruins a month or two ago, but that is them now.

The addition of Taylor Hall has completely reshaped the Bruins offense. Putting him on a line with a Craig Smith that has stepped up big-time in the second half and a David Krejci who looks like he found the fountain of youth now that he has real top-six wingers for the first time in years has given the Bruins their best top six since at least the heyday of the Milan Lucic-Nathan Horton/Jarome Iginla era, and arguably longer than that.

The Hall-Krejci-Smith line has scored 11 goals and given up just one so far. They are tied for the seventh-best goal differential of any line in the NHL, and they’ve done it in just 12 games. One of the six lines ahead of them is of course the one above them on the depth chart, Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak (third place at plus-16).

Since the April 12 deadline, the Bruins have the second-best record in the NHL at 10-2-0 (behind only the 9-1-1 Minnesota Wild), and they have scored the fifth-most goals with 3.58 per game. They have been the best defensive team in that time (1.58 goals against per game) and have the best goal differential.

That is in part because they have gotten excellent goaltending. After a 20-save shutout on Monday, Tuukka Rask is now 6-0-0 with a .943 save percentage since he returned from injury, while rookie Jeremy Swayman is 6-2-0 with a .942 save percentage in his eight starts this season.

The defense, which has been down one and often multiple key pieces for the vast majority of the season, is finally on the verge of full health, or at least as close to it as can be expected this late in the season.

Brandon Carlo is set to return Tuesday night after missing the last month with an oblique injury, and at some point this week he, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller could all play in the same game for the first time since Feb. 10. Add in deadline acquisition Mike Reilly, who filled one of the team’s biggest needs as a left-shot puck-moving D, and it will give the Bruins the most complete blue line they’ve had all season, and one of the most complete in the league.

That’s not to say the Bruins are a perfect, finished product with no question marks. They’re still in the process of solidifying their third and fourth lines, although both have looked good the last few games, with the new-look Nick Ritchie-Sean Kuraly-Charlie Coyle third line, in particular, scoring four goals in the last three games.

They also still need to find a way to get their power play, which is two for its last 22, going again. Between a top unit that features Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak and a second unit with Hall, Krejci and Smith, there is too much talent for them to be struggling like this. It may require some personnel shuffling between the units, something Bruce Cassidy has been reluctant to do.

And it is also worth pointing out that of their 10 wins post-deadline, five have come against the Buffalo Sabres, who have the worst record in the NHL. But beyond the record and stats, what’s really encouraging is the way the Bruins have been playing. They’re playing hard, they’re playing clean, and they’re not taking shortcuts, going through the motions or playing down to the competition (with the exception of one loss to Buffalo that came on the second night of a back-to-back).

“You play for an opportunity to play for the Cup. So we’ve accomplished the first part of that -- getting into the playoffs,” Cassidy said Monday night. “…I think we’re starting to play some really good hockey now. I know the last games were against teams that are eliminated, but for us, I watch how we’re winning, how we’re playing, and we’re playing the right way. So I think guys are preparing themselves for how you need to play in -- normally it’s April and May -- but I guess it’ll be May and June and hopefully July.”

Being a Cup contender doesn’t guarantee a deep playoff run. Beating two of the Capitals, Penguins or Islanders to get out of the divisional portion of the postseason won’t be easy. But the Bruins do look like the team that is playing the best of those four right now, so the expectations should be high.

Not too long ago, we were wondering if this was going to be a lost season for the Bruins, with a deep run looking highly unlikely and a playoff berth itself looking like no guarantee.

What a difference one great trade deadline can make. The Bruins now look like as complete a team as anyone, and absolutely deserve to be labeled a Cup contender.