By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The road portion of the Bruins’ schedule is through, and with two games left on home ice the Bruins are going to need help if they’re going to overtake the Tampa Bay Lightning atop the Eastern Conference.
The Bruins, though, can’t spend too much time worrying about seeding. They have to get healthy and in sync now that they’re on just their second streak of three or more losses this season.
Here are some thoughts about the Bruins’ recent road trip and their upcoming two-game home set against Ottawa and Florida to conclude the regular season:
*The Bruins and their fans were spoiled this season. Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy missed significant stretches of time, sometimes at the same time, and the Bruins hardly missed a beat. They were so successful they’re not going to finish lower than second in the East.
But the way the Bruins have played lately is more what you would expect from a team that’s missing Riley and Rick Nash, and Sean Kuraly, and working Chara and McAvoy back into the lineup. Chara and McAvoy are obviously a bit rusty. Without Riley Nash and Kuraly the Bruins are asking the likes of Noel Acciari and Colby Cave to play important minutes at center. And Rick Nash’s time with the Bruins before his injury was so brief, people seem to have forgotten the impact he was making as David Krejci’s right wing.
There should be a couple of objectives for the Bruins this weekend: get rested and get ready. If resting a couple of guys while working a few into the lineup (the Nash boys and Kuraly could be back) results in points in the standings and the Lightning stumble, that’ll be an added bonus. But Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak (who along with Tim Schaller is one of two Bruins to play every game this season) seemingly could use some time off. Although it would take locking him in his car, Torey Krug might also benefit from recuperation time. He’s playing the best hockey of his career at both ends, but every time he gets hit a certain way that “upper-body” injury makes him wince and regardless of what it is, a weekend off could make him closer to 100 percent by Thursday’s playoff opener.
*As for the first-round matchup, I’ve been among the leaders of the “anyone but Toronto” campaign for months. But here’s the reality of the situation: despite their struggles against the Maple Leafs in recent years, the Bruins should be deep, talented and experienced enough to beat Toronto. The Bruins probably have an edge in a position-by-position breakdown, especially defense. Even with their injuries the Bruins should have enough firepower up front to exploit a star-less Maple Leafs defense corps. And at the other end we’ve seen the success Patrice Bergeron has had against Auston Matthews. That should allow Bruce Cassidy to put the Chara-McAvoy pair against Toronto’s second line and tamp down the Maple Leafs’ offensive ability.
Facing Toronto in the first round is not ideal, but that’s the way the NHL has structured its playoff format and that looks like the task ahead. If the Bruins really are the team that challenged for the Presidents’ Trophy until Thursday night, they should be able to take out a Maple Leafs team that’s still in the early stages of its organizational turnaround.
*It’s difficult to measure urgency. No professional athlete shows up to the rink and says “I’m going to give 95 percent tonight.” That doesn’t mean the Bruins’ secure position in the standings didn’t affect them while going against desperate Philadelphia, Tampa Bay (desperate to an extent) and Florida teams. Had they not been facing a Flyers team featuring the human giveaway Andrew MacDonald last Sunday, the Bruins might not have gotten any points on their road trip. And in a way, that miraculous game-tying goal by Bergeron might have given the Bruins a false sense of safety and led to their poor starts in the next two games.
Another way to measure urgency is in aggressiveness within the game plan, and the Bruins’ execution has been poor, especially at the blue lines. Cassidy’s system stresses cutting off plays at the entry and exit points of both zones, and the Bruins’ gaps have been loose. The Panthers and Lightning seemed to be in possession of the puck below the dots most of those two games. And when they weren’t making plays from there, they were exploiting the Bruins with perfect setups for their point men.
If you want to look for signs the Bruins are ready for the playoffs this weekend, watch the Bruins’ defensemen, especially the pair of Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller, and see if they get back to avoiding defending deep in the Boston end by better preventing opponents’ exits and entrances. The Bruins could definitely use more back pressure from their bottom-six forwards as well, an area the Bruins have really been missing Riley Nash and Kuraly.
*If Danton Heinen’s goal against Florida, his second in 12 games, is a sign the rookie is turning things around after a late slump, we’ll find out in the next couple of games. But all Heinen did was clean up the garbage after Krejci and Jake DeBrusk did the dirty work before the goal, and that was Heinen’s only shot on net in 13:54 of ice time. If all the Bruins’ forwards are healthy for the playoffs, Heinen is still the likely candidate to be sat out and it wouldn’t be a punishment as much as a sign that the Bruins are deep with the additions of Rick Nash and Ryan Donato in the past couple of months. But Heinen, a second-year pro, shouldn’t be forgiven for his tail-off at the end of this season nor should one goal be viewed as a referendum on him being back in midseason form.
*It’s been 13 games since Brian Gionta’s last point. The Bruins will only be able to make a run in the postseason if they’re healthy enough that he’s a spare forward rather than a lineup regular. There’s more similarities between Gionta and Brian Rolston in his second go-round with the Bruins than the uniform No. 12. The game’s too fast for Gionta right now and he’s not finding any room to operate at the offensive end. It would be a fairy tale if Gionta made an impact in the postseason, but right now it looks like he might best suited to locker-room morale booster.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.