By Matt Kalman, CBSBoston

BOSTON (CBS) – Regardless of what the NHL’s convoluted standings systems might still say, the Bruins proved Saturday they are the best team in the Eastern Conference.

After the Bruins crushed Philadelphia 6-0, they and Flyers are now tied atop the East in points with the same amount of games played. While the Bruins have one more victory, three of those wins came in shootouts. So technically, the Flyers are still in first place based on more regulation victories.

That probably won’t last long.

Boston, which should be granted an extra standings point just for demolishing Philly on its home ice, should take over sole possession of the top spot between now and Christmas Eve. And then it’s time to reassess the Eastern Conference and figure out if there’s anyone that can challenge the Bruins’ supremacy.

The Flyers were certainly one of the biggest contenders until they received the worst news possible – outside of a cheesesteak shortage – the City of Brotherly Love could’ve gotten Thursday. Defenseman Chris Pronger, the team’s captain and best defensive force, will not play against this season in the regular season or playoffs. The Flyers players beat Montreal the night before they got the news from the media after the victory. Today in sleepwalking through the Bruins’ rout, Philadelphia looked like it just got the news.

Philadelphia might find a way to swing a deal for one of Nashville’s star defenseman – Shea Weber or Ryan Suter – or Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen or Tim Gleason, or someone else with a top-two defenseman cache, between now and the trade deadline. Until then, the Flyers are going to struggle. And if they opt to hold onto their best trade chips and go a lower-key route to make up for Pronger’s loss, the Flyers won’t be in the Bruins’ way come spring.

So with that nemesis out of the way, who’s left? Pittsburgh sure looked like it was going to soar away from the pack once Sidney Crosby returned from his lengthy concussion absence. Then a not-so-funny thing happened on the Penguins’ way to the Eastern Conference Final – Crosby had to leave the lineup again. Scarier than the hits Crosby took last season that forced him from the lineup were the routine hockey plays that took their toll on Crosby this time around. At this stage, you have to figure Pittsburgh isn’t counting on having Crosby at its disposal for the long haul.

The Penguins, if the rest of their team can get and stay healthy, are still a formidable bunch. They’re still not the Bruins, who now boast a fourth-line left winger with six goals (Daniel Paille, who had three goals in two games) and now have 10 players with 15 or more points on the season.

The New York Rangers have come out of the gates flying this season. An unexplainable NHL schedule has kept the Bruins and Rangers from meeting this season, so we don’t really have a measure of the Rangers against the defending Stanley Cup champs yet. Like the Bruins, the Rangers can ride their all-world goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, to victory. What they lack on their back end without Marc Staal and up front beyond their top six probably puts the Rangers a notch below the Bruins right now.

Preseason darlings Washington and Tampa Bay have cleared themselves from the picture, although the Capitals have played better of late. Florida beat the Bruins at the TD Garden, but has struggled against some of the other best teams since then. We know that the Bruins don’t lose sleep thinking about Buffalo, Toronto or any other team from the Northeast Division.

Here’s maybe the one threat to the Bruins’ Eastern superiority: Team Injury. Zdeno Chara, who returned from his two-game absence with a goal, an assist and a fight victory, goes down for just those two games. Other players, including David Krejci and Andrew Ference, have missed a few games here or there. The Bruins get by without those players because of their depth and system, but also because they hardly have time to miss those guys before they return.

A long-term injury to Chara, Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin or Dennis Seidenberg might push the Bruins down a rung. Hopefully for them, we’ll never find out what that lineup would look like.

As we approach the 2012 portion of this year’s schedule, the Bruins are healthy, and just like last May they’re the cream of the Eastern Conference crop.


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