By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins won three out of four regular-season meetings against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they also won Game 1 of their second-round series 6-2. Clearly, despite Tampa Bay’s place atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Bruins were more than capable of playing competitively against the Lightning.
In that sense, getting eliminated in five games would qualify as a disappointment. The events of that series — the questionable calls and non-calls, the lineup decisions, the licking controversy, the lack of 5-on-5 scoring — are certain to leave a bitter taste in some mouths in the Boston area.
But taking a step back and looking at the big picture, the Boston Bruins still managed to exceed expectations overall for the season.
Really, looking back to last summer, the story on the 2017-18 Bruins was much like the story on the Bruins from the previous three seasons. They had some top-end talent, they’d be filling in a lot of gaps with younger players, and they’d most likely be a fringe playoff team for the second straight season. If they could secure a playoff spot within the Atlantic Division instead of the wild card? That would likely be considered a success.
Those meager expectations are easy to forget now, after the Bruins wiped them all away with a preposterous stretch of hockey between December and March, during which they went 28-5-3 and ended up sitting in first place not only in the division but in the entire conference. They were in the mix for the Presidents’ Trophy, too.
This was, to be sure, well ahead of schedule. Yes, the Bruins still employed Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, David Pastrnak. But a number of things developed along the way that made that type of success unreasonable. Playing through his 41st birthday, Zdeno Chara turned back the clock in a big way. Rookie Charlie McAvoy handled a heavy workload with relative ease. So did Matt Grzelcyk. Rounding out the defense, Kevan Miller played his best season.
Up front, nobody saw Danton Heinen’s 47-point season coming, not after he tallied zero points in his eight NHL games one year prior. Jake DeBrusk’s 16-goal, 43-point season was likewise more than could have been expected from the rookie. Fourth-liners like Tim Schaller, Noel Acciari and Sean Kuraly carved out reliable roles, while youngsters like Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork contributed offensively in their brief opportunities.
From that sense, the fact that we can sit here in early May and discuss a top-of-the-conference level performance from this year’s Bruins is something that would have been laughed at in September. There should be no doubt about that.
At the same time, there is something to be said about elevated expectations. While, again, there is no shame in losing to the Lightning, there is an element of disappointment in winning just one game in the series.
Surely, officiating didn’t help, most notably with Nikita Kucherov’s hold of Charlie McAvoy in Game 4, which caused a turnover and immediately led to a game-tying goal from Steven Stamkos. But as any Stanley Cup champion will tell you, every team deals with suspect officiating from time to time. It takes a championship-caliber team to overcome those obstacles.
And it was that step which the Bruins were just unable to make. Outside of the top line of Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron, nobody on the Bruins could score goals. The Bruins went silent offensively when it came to 5-on-5 play, thus leaving them entirely reliant on their power play. They also relied too heavily on their goaltender, which can be overcome occasionally but becomes a problem when it’s a recurring theme. Head coach Bruce Cassidy made a curious lineup decision in Game 4, one that seemingly backfired in a most inopportune And defensively, the Bruins were just a little too careless with the puck to really be able to stay afloat against a team with as potent an offense as the Lightning.
“They played a very good system 5-on-5. They were better than we were,” Marchand said after the Game 5 season-ending loss. “You can’t rely on special teams every night to win games. They help, for sure, but you have to be able to produce 5-on-5. We obviously didn’t do enough of that.”
An excuse that no Bruins were taking after the loss was the one of fatigue, but it most certainly played a factor in the Lightning looking like a much faster team for the entirety of this series. The end of their regular season was a grind, one which gave them two consecutive days off just once between Feb. 24 and April 8. And they did themselves no favors by failing to win just one more regular-season game at the end of the year. Doing so would have meant a first-round matchup with the New Jersey Devils. Instead, they had to take on the much more talented Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was no surprise, then, to see the Bruins toil in a seven-game series against the Leafs, while the Lightning were able to rest and recover after dispatching the Devils in five games. That difference no doubt played a significant role in the way this second-round series played out.
Ultimately though, Marchand said it best: The Lightning were better. There should be no outrage that the Bruins aren’t moving on. There should just be some lamenting the fact that the Bruins couldn’t have made it more competitive. The Bruins that we came to know this season were too good to lose any series in just five games.