BOSTON (CBS) — Finally, the Bruins have some issues to worry about.
And I’m not just talking about the unfortunate seeding that matched them up for the upcoming first-round playoff series against a Detroit Red Wings team that beat them three times in the regular season.
There are concerns about the Bruins just days before the start of the playoffs, even though a few weeks ago it was hard to see any reason why they wouldn’t just sweep their way to a second Stanley Cup championship in four years.
March was the Bruins’ month of dominance, as they romped to a point in 16 straight games (15-0-1) and won 12 games in a row during one stretch of that streak. With the exception of Reilly Smith’s non-existent contribution on the score sheet, everything else was clicking both offensively and defensively for the Bruins. Both goaltenders were limiting the opposition to two or few goals, four lines were rolling and the defense corps was only suffering the occasional gaffe (which the goaltenders quickly prevented from turning into disasters).
Although I believed that they weren’t peaking too soon because there’s no such thing, some were worrying that a lack of adversity might make the Bruins get used to living high on the hog. Last season, they flipped the switch after playing poorly in the regular season and then went to the Stanley Cup finals. Could it be that this year they’d have to flip the switch just to make sure they didn’t take foes too lightly after steamrolling through such a large portion of the schedule?
Well, there’s no reason now to push the panic button. But the Bruins finished just 2-2-3 in their final seven games. And a couple of those shootout losses were the type that they didn’t deserve the standings point or to still be in contention for a second point by the time the shootout rolled around. The Bruins were resting players and managing minutes, but you still would’ve liked to have seen them handle someone other than the shorthanded, basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres with a performance worthy of their Presidents’ Trophy just once.
Instead the Bruins coasted over the final couple weeks of the regular season. The rest should do some of the veterans well, and some extended minutes for the younger guys should have them feeling sharp for the postseason. Heck, even Smith scored a goal during regulation hockey (he had two shootout goals in the final weeks of the season too).
Don’t get me wrong. The Bruins, as built and if healthy, have no business needing more than five or six games to beat the Red Wings. Detroit is a solid veteran team that plays its structure well. But they’re depth on defense is questionable and their bottom six forwards can’t match Boston’s. Jimmy Howard in net seems like the type of goaltender the Bruins can rattle.
Nonetheless in the days leading up to the series with Detroit, and during the best-of-seven the Bruins are going to have to tackle some issues the way mere mortal teams typically do. The biggest issue to clear up is the injury situation. Although the Bruins are hopeful to have Chris Kelly and Daniel Paille back for Game 1, those two players seem most likely to be at best game-time decisions. If both or one can’t go, the Bruins will have to decide if Jordan Caron is ready to fill in or if they need to summon someone like Justin Florek or Matt Lindblad from the Providence (AHL) farm club. This could hamper the Bruins’ four-line attack.
Patrice Bergeron and Jarome Iginla also missed time with undisclosed medical issues. If they’re hindered in any way, the Bruins will feel the impact.
Beyond their health matters, the Bruins have to make a decision about which six defensemen are in the starting lineup. I’d guess they’re going to go with the six that’ve played for them throughout the season and keep late-season addition Andrej Meszaros in reserve. That’ll put the onus on Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug to give the Bruins even more than they did last season in the playoffs as rookies.
Then from among those six defensemen, coach Claude Julien will have to determine if Dougie Hamilton is ready to form a playoff top pair with Zdeno Chara in the role typically reserved for the injured Dennis Seidenberg. If not, Julien will have to go with Johnny Boychuk next to Chara and the Bruins won’t be as balanced on the back end. Some combination of Bartkowski, Krug, Hamilton and Kevan Miller would have to become a reliable second pair against a balanced Red Wings squad, or really any team the Bruins meet in the future.
Up front, Julien has only one minor question to ponder assuming he has all 12 of his regular forwards healthy. That’ll be the decision to go with Smith on the Patrice Bergeron line or switch him with Loui Eriksson. My gut says Julien sticks with the lines that worked best in March. But then he’ll have to act quickly to switch things up if there’s a slow start involved.
For those that wanted the Bruins to hit a few bumps in the road and be battle-tested for the playoffs, your wish has been granted. They should be talented and determined enough for a long run. We’ll see if they can pass the first postseason test during the next two weeks.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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