Seems like almost every time the Penguins are preparing to play a game these days, a coach or player -- or both -- suggests that facing them will provide a good "measuring stick" for his club.
Makes sense. The Penguins have hovered near the top of the league standings in recent years, won a Stanley Cup in 2009 and employ some of the game's most gifted individuals.
And, if the Penguins' 16-7-4 record is an accurate barometer, not many of those opponents have been able to meet the standard they've set.
It will be different when they face Boston at 7:08 tonight at Consol Energy Center, however.
The Bruins not only won the Stanley Cup in June, but are on a 13-0-1 roll that is the franchise's best since a 15-0-2 run early in 1983. If any team is playing better hockey at the moment, it's doing it in another solar system.
- Matchup: Boston Bruins at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Tim Thomas for Bruins.
- Penguins: Need victory for second winning streak of three or more games this season. ... D Paul Martin hasn't scored goal since getting two Dec. 4 , 2010. ... Are 3-5-1 when trailing at second intermission after going 0-19-1 in such games last season.
- Bruins: Will be playing on road, where they are 6-2, for just ninth time in 25 games. ... LW Brad Marchand has three goals in past five games. ... Have not won season series from Penguins since going 4-0 in 2005-06.
- Hidden stat: Bruins have scored two goals in fewer than 30 seconds six times this season.
All of which means that yes, even though the Penguins have a three-point lead over Boston in the overall standings -- not coincidentally, they have played three more games than Boston -- the Bruins will give the Penguins an opportunity to assess just where their game stands at this point of the season.
"Right now, they're the team to beat, not us," right winger Arron Asham said. "We were out in the first round [of the 2011 playoffs] and they won the Stanley Cup."
The Bruins staggered out of the gate in October, winning just three of their first 10 games, but went on a 12-0-1 tear in November and extended it with a 4-1 victory against Toronto Saturday.
"They had a little bit of a hangover the first few games of the season," Asham said. "But they're playing some great hockey now."
It's reasonable to assume the Bruins will lose again at some point, since going 72 without a regulation defeat is a bit much to ask of any club. The question, though, is "When?" And, maybe, "How?"
A reality of the salary-cap era is that most teams have at least one soft spot in their lineup, simply because there isn't enough cap space to pay everyone fair market value. Boston, though, doesn't appear to have any significant weaknesses that opponents can count on being able to exploit.
"When you look at their team, the only time they get in trouble is when they try to get too fancy or try to get outside their game," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
"They obviously have highly skilled guys like [David] Krejci and [Patrice] Bergeron, but as skilled as they are, they buy into the system they play. [Coach Claude] Julien did a really good job of that."
The payoff for doing that is reflected by Boston's lofty ranking in a variety of team-related statistics. The Bruins are:
• First in goals-against, averaging 2.08 per game.
• Second in goals-scored, averaging 3.4.
• Sixth in penalty-killing, 85.7 percent.
• First in faceoffs, 55.5 percent.
What's more, 10 Bruins have reached double-digits in points and only two, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton, have appeared in more than three games and own negative plus-minus ratings.
"When you have a good team like they have and you play within your system and realize and accept that what's going to make you successful is to have a strong team game, success is something that continues to happen," Penguins left winger Matt Cooke said.
The cornerstone of the Bruins' success is Tim Thomas, who earned the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last season. Other than that, he didn't accomplish much.
"Tim Thomas played his heart out, and [winning the Smythe] was well-deserved," Asham said.
While it's a little early to be picking the Vezina winner, Thomas looks like he intends to be in the mix again. He has won his past nine starts.
Championships are not won by goaltenders alone, however. Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara, who is slightly larger than several New England states, is a perennial Norris Trophy contender, and the Bruins' collection of forwards is a nice blend of skill -- Tyler Seguin has superstar potential -- and physicality.
All of which makes it easy to understand how Boston has been able to outscore its past 13 opponents, 63-26. And why the Penguins will be able to use tonight's game to help gauge their current spot in the NHL's hierarchy.
"They obviously have to be one of the top teams in the league," Cooke said. "It will be a measuring stick, for sure."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.