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Bruins

Bruins-Red Wings: What To Watch For

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Patrice Bergeron (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Patrice Bergeron (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — Prior to the start of this season, many fans of old-time hockey were happy to see that the Bruins and Red Wings would be playing in the same division under the NHL’s most recent realignment. And now at the end of the regular season, they’re getting more than they could have realistically hoped for.

The two Original Six teams will meet in the postseason for the first time since 1957, introducing a new generation or two to a whole new brand of playoff hockey.

Though the Bruins finished the regular season as the best team in the entire NHL, this matchup of the top seed versus the eighth seed is expected to be a close one. That’s in part due to the Red Wings winning the season series three games to one against Boston, and it’s in part due to the mystique — if you will — of that Detroit sweater in the playoffs. It’s true that the Wings haven’t made it deep in the playoffs since losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, but they’re a team with a firm base, a solid coach, and a home rink that is sure to be packed and loud for Games 3 and 4 and Game 6 if necessary.

The Bruins are the better team on paper, but in the NHL’s postseason, truly anything can happen. And usually, it does.

Here are four items to watch during what should be an entertaining series between two of the NHL’s classic franchises.

Who’s Healthy?

Nobody wanted to wait from Sunday until Friday for this series to get under way, but considering the number of injured and/or sick players involved, both teams are likely happy to have had a few extra days to recover and regroup.

Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, Kevan Miller, Chris Kelly and Matt Bartkowski were all absent from the Bruins’ first practice of the week due to a flu bug (and back issues for Kelly), though all but Kelly and Bartkowski were able to return to the ice by Thursday. Daniel Paille sustained what has to be assumed as a concussion on Saturday, and he’s yet to skate since taking a hit from Buffalo’s Jake McCabe. Dennis Seidenberg, a long shot to return this postseason, also got in some intense skating work as he tries to pull off a rapid recovery from a torn ACL.

For the Red Wings, the long break has provided hope for the return of captain Henrik Zetterberg to the lineup. He’s been out since the Olympic break with a herniated disc, but he has returned to the ice and could be available to play when the series heads to Detroit.

It’s hard to make an accurate prediction for a series when you’re not entirely sure who will actually be playing, and the lineups for Game 1 could look a whole lot different when the series returns to Boston in Game 5.

Aggressively Non-Aggressive Play

The Bruins have a very distinct style of play, one that is typically very easy to observe as soon as the puck is dropped. They have plenty of skill, to be sure, but they also play a very heavy, physical game. Many times, that spills over into old-fashioned fisticuffs, as evidenced by the Bruins’ 46 fighting majors this season.

Of course, fights are a rarity in the playoffs, and the likelihood of any gloves dropping in this particular series is close to zero. The Red Wings were the NHL’s pacifists this season, registering just seven fighting majors all year. That’s the equivalent of one nasty week for the Bruins.

It’s been interesting over the past few years to see how teams try to combat the physicality of the Bruins. Last spring, the more-talented Penguins tried to turn their series with Boston into a street fight and ended up getting swept in four games.

Don’t expect the Red Wings to take that type of approach, and instead try to see how the Bruins adapt to a team that may be able to goad the Bruins into taking some penalties. The Red Wings’ power play was middle-of-the-pack at 17.7 percent, but often in playoff games, it only takes one goal to make the difference.

Between The Pipes

Tuukka Rask did just about all he could have done last spring to put the Bruins on his back en route to a Stanley Cup victory.

Of course, the effort fell apart in the final minutes of Game 6 of the finals, when Rask allowed two Chicago goals and the Bruins’ season ended abruptly on home ice.

Though Rask posted outstanding numbers (.940 save percentage, 1.88 GAA) in that 22-game playoff run, he’ll no doubt have a sour taste remaining in his mouth from the Cup loss when he takes the ice for this postseason. Expect a hyper-focused Rask to stop every shot he can see. The Red Wings are going to have to get creative to sneak one past him.

On the other end of the ice will be Jimmy Howard. The netminder owns a Stanley Cup ring, but like Rask, it came in a postseason when he never took the ice during a game. And like Rask last year, Howard has something to prove with regard to postseason performance.

As a starter, Howard is 20-22 in the playoffs, posting a .918 save percentage and 2.57 GAA. He got lit up two years ago against Nashville, allowing 13 goals in five games, but he bounced back decently last spring, when he held the Blackhawks to just 2.14 goals per game in the seven-game series. (By comparison, Rask allowed 2.29 goals per game in the Bruins’ six-game series against Chicago.)

So for as much as Howard’s regular-season numbers this year were pedestrian, he showed last year that he can play great against the league’s top team on the game’s biggest stage.

First-Round Malaise?

This should not be a problem for the Bruins, but then again, it should not have been a problem for them last year, either.

The B’s finished the 2013 regular season on a 2-5-2 stretch, but they were able to quickly shake it off to take a 3-1 series lead over Toronto. A couple of uninspired efforts in Games 5 and 6, however, allowed the Maple Leafs to force a Game 7, which they led 4-1 midway through the third period. Obviously, you know what happened next, with Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron scoring to tie the game in miraculous fashion before Bergeron netted the game-winner in overtime.

While it made for an unforgettable night at the Garden, it’s a dangerous way to live, and the Bruins were lucky to survive beyond the first round.

This year, despite winning the President’s Trophy, the Bruins finished the season on a 2-2-3 run after having won 15 out of 16 games. They let off the gas pedal, but it made sense, considering there wasn’t much to play for in the final two weeks of the season.

But they’ll need to look like that team that was the best in the NHL for the entirety of the month of March in order to fend off the Red Wings. Any lapses of effort, and the Bruins likely won’t be as lucky as they were last May against Toronto.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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