How Bruins' brutal January schedule will test their contender status

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The Boston Bruins have played better to begin the New Year, but a difficult January lies ahead.

If the Bruins are going to be a true Stanley Cup contender this season and give general manager Don Sweeney a reason to be a firm buyer ahead of the March 21 NHL trade deadline, they need to have a successful next few weeks.

Boston's upcoming schedule is a tough one.

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Eight of their final 12 games in January are against teams currently in a playoff spot, including three games against division leaders in the Tampa Bay Lightning (Jan. 8), Washington Capitals (Jan. 10) and Nashville Predators (Jan. 15).

Two of the four teams on the B's January schedule not currently in a postseason spot are the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars, both of whom are within four points of a playoff berth in the Western Conference. 

The Bruins have struggled against quality opponents in 2021-22. They have a 4-8-1 record versus teams in a playoff spot right now, including Thursday night's 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden.

They are 1-4-1 versus Eastern Conference teams occupying a postseason berth entering Friday. Why is this difficult upcoming schedule and the Bruins' lack of success against good teams a problem? Well, let's look at the division and wild card standings. The B's have a wide gap to erase in both.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

 TeamGPRecordPoints
1stLightning3623-8-551
2ndPanthers3422-7-549
3rdLeafs3222-8-246
4thBruins3017-11-236
5thRed Wings3416-15-335

WILD CARD

 TeamGPRecordPoints
1Penguins3320-8-545
2Bruins3017-11-236
 Red Wings3416-15-335

The Penguins have won 10 consecutive games to open up a 9-point lead on the Bruins for the first wild card spot. That's a pretty large cushion, even though the B's have three games in hand on the Penguins. 

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The division battle is an even tougher uphill climb for Boston. The Leafs have a 10-point advantage on the Bruins with only two more games played than Boston. 

The Bruins are still a very strong bet to make the playoffs. In fact, The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn gives the Bruins a 96 percent chance to make the playoffs and a projected final position of the second wild card spot in the East.

The issue for the Bruins is that unless they go on a long run of successful results, it's unlikely they will climb higher than the second wild card spot. If that's where they finish, a first-round series with the Panthers or two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning likely will await. 

If the Bruins are able to get through January with a strong record and beat several quality opponents along the way, it will be much easier to feel good about this team's chances of making a deep run during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If they don't, it will be tough to justify giving up prospects and/or draft picks to improve a roster that just isn't capable of beating good teams.

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