By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins are playing some heavy-duty, playoff-style hockey this week. Clearly, they’re ready for the postseason.
Before those playoffs begin on April 11, though, quite a bit needs to get sorted out in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. With teams still having a handful of games remaining, with a number of teams separated by very few points, and with the existence of three-point games and head-to-head matchups, it’s too difficult to begin laying out conditionals to try to forecast which teams will end up finishing in certain spots. We’re not at that point just yet.
If the season were to end today (it does not), then the Bruins would sit in the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. Based on that standing, they’d face off against the lower-seeded wild card team, which is currently the New Jersey Devils. If Bruins were able to win that series, they would move on to play the winner of the Maple Leafs-Lightning series. And if the Bruins were to advance to the conference finals, they’d be facing whichever team emerged from the Metropolitan Division playoffs, which currently includes the Capitals, Penguins and Blue Jackets, as well as the Flyers as a wild card.
A lot can change though. The Lightning trail the Bruins by just one point, and the two teams meet head-to-head next week. The Panthers are three points behind the Devils, and they have three head-to-head matchups with the Bruins remaining on their schedule. The Flyers (92 points) could catch the Blue Jackets (93 points) and/or the Penguins (94 points). The Devils (89 points) could either move up or slide out of the playoff picture altogether.
Clearly, there’s a lot to be sorted. As it relates to Boston, the biggest factor to monitor over the Bruins’ final six games (in nine games) will be securing that No. 1 seed. Doing so will ensure a first-round matchup not only against a lesser team but also against a team that likely will be playing hard through the final day of the season. Perhaps the Bruins won’t be able to build a comfortable enough cushion to rest some key players for the final game or two, but if Tampa drops one of its two games before Tuesday’s game against Boston, the Bruins might be able to have that luxury.
In any event, looking ahead to potential playoff opponents, here’s how the Bruins have fared so far against the other seven teams in the postseason, plus Florida.
Tampa Bay Lightning: 3-0-0 (1 meeting remaining)
Toronto Maple Leafs: 1-2-1
Washington Capitals: 0-2-1
Pittsburgh Penguins: 2-0-1
Columbus Blue Jackets: 1-0-2 (1 SO loss/1 OT loss)
Philadelphia Flyers: 2-0-0 (1 meeting remaining)
New Jersey Devils: 3-0-0 (1 SO win)
Florida Panthers: 0-1-0 (3 meetings remaining)
The Bruins have impressively handled the Lightning all year long, which could bode well for a second-round meeting. But those two teams, barring a completely unlikely scenario, won’t face off in the first round.
If the Bruins end up dropping to second place, a first-round series against Toronto won’t easy. The Leafs most recently won a tight contest on a Saturday night in Toronto, 4-3, over the Bruins, and they did that without Auston Matthews. The Bruins had won comfortably, 4-1, in their meeting before that, but the Maple Leafs did win both legs of a home-and-home in early November. Patrick Marleau netted the OT winner in Toronto on Nov. 10, and backup goaltender Curtis McElhinny stopped 38 Bruins shots in a 4-1 win the next night in Boston.
Of course, the Bruins are a bit of a different team than they were early in the year, but still, they have had their struggles with the Maple Leafs, and avoiding them in the first round would not be the worst development. Plus, the Lightning are 3-1-0 against Toronto this year. The Bruins could get a first-round matchup with the likes of New Jersey, all while having the Lightning do their dirty work for them.
That might be the ideal scenario, as the Bruins clearly have had their way with both the Flyers and Devils. It’s yet to be seen how the Bruins can handle the Panthers, but we’ll get a good idea of it on Saturday and then the following Thursday and Sunday. In their lone meeting thus far, James Reimer stopped an absurd 46 shots to blank the Bruins, who started Anton Khudobin in net for that one. It would be a rather unique situation for the Bruins to play the Panthers three times in an eight-day span to end the season, only to then open up a seven-game series against them a few days later. But it’s a distinct possibility.
If the Bruins are fortunate enough to advance to the conference finals, they be hoping to see the Penguins emerge from the Metro. In their last meeting, the Bruins stomped the Penguins, to the tune of an 8-4 final score. The Penguins did win a wide-open 6-5 overtime game in early January in Pittsburgh, but the Bruins have a victory from a spirited affair on Black Friday under their belt as well. There would be no “easy” matchup in the conference finals, but given the Bruins’ struggles with Columbus and Washington (both this year and over the past five or so years), Pittsburgh would figure to be the best bet.
So, if you could map out an ideal road to the Stanley Cup Final, it would probably go New Jersey, then Tampa Bay, then Pittsburgh. That’s obviously looking ahead quite a bit, but it certainly speaks to a drastic shift from the way the Boston area has been monitoring the final week of the season for the Bruins over the past three years. In those seasons, everyone was busy applying advanced arithmetic to try to figure out how the Bruins could simply qualify for the playoffs. Now, clearly, the goals are much higher.