By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins didn’t do themselves any favors this season, and not just because they lost their regular-season finale to set up an Eastern Conference first-round matchup with Toronto rather than New Jersey.
By challenging for the top seed in the East until the final day of the regular season, the Bruins accelerated the timeline for when they’re supposed to challenge for the Stanley Cup, and that challenge could already be here.
A surprisingly sensational regular season that raised expectations multiple notches, however, doesn’t mean that anything less than a Cup championship will tarnish what the Bruins accomplished through the first 82 games. Regardless of results, this postseason can only be seen as an extension of a successful year, even if some will still see a postseason that ends with a loss as a premature thumbs-down referendum on general manager Don Sweeney’s plan.
Everyone should think of these playoffs as the dessert after the feast; dessert never ruins the meal.
Heading into this season, the Bruins weren’t expected to be more than a bubble team again. They were guaranteed to get younger, but no one knew just how young Sweeney and coach Bruce Cassidy were willing to go. By opening night we found out they were willing to skate at least four rookies a night, sometimes six when injuries hit.
The Bruins’ commitment to the youth movement, as evidenced by the opening night roster and the lineup they fielded all season, bought them praise and patience. As long as the future was bright – and the play of Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork certainly signaled the Bruins were heading in the right direction – the Bruins could entertain and compete without being judged on their win-loss record.
But a funny thing happened while the Bruins were crossing their bridge year — they found out there were building the Golden Gate and not some troll’s drawbridge. The Bruins became an elite team. They went two months without a regulation loss. They were able to overcome injuries to Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes and McAvoy. They didn’t miss Brad Marchand when he was suspended. Even once they became a team to beat and ran into opponents’ best games, the Bruins found ways to prevail.
Having passed their 82-game exam, the Bruins will now face their stiff test because the playoffs are a whole other planet. McAvoy and Sean Kuraly got a taste last year, but DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk and Ryan Donato have never experienced them. The Bruins are bringing Rick Nash and Kuraly back from injury and are missing Riley Nash. Still the intriguing matchup with Toronto is one that the Bruins should win, even though their recent results against the Maple Leafs aren’t indicative of the dominant team they were this season.
With four forward lines that are capable of playing shutdown defensive hockey, and a solid top four on defense, the Bruins should be able to slow the Maple Leafs’ top two lines centered by Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri. Even if the Bruins’ penalty kill doesn’t solve Toronto’s power play, Boston’s power play should be productive enough to cancel out any man-advantage goals against. The goaltending battle should go Boston’s way based on experience and freshness (Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen played 66 games each of the past two seasons; Tuukka Rask played 54 this season).
A loss in the best-of-seven series would be a major disappointment. No second seed should ever go out in the first round regardless of the caliber of opponent. Even when the Bruins started this season with low expectations, the hope was they’d win a round this season after losing in the first round in their postseason return after a two-year playoff hiatus last year.
Assuming they get past the Maple Leafs, the Bruins will have accomplished something they were expected to do. From there they should be allowed the freedom that comes with knowing anything else they achieve is gravy, and not just because they’re so young and would have already exceeded expectations.
The same playoff structure that has Boston and Toronto, the second- and fourth-best teams in the East, respectively, meeting in the first round is set up to have Boston and Tampa Bay, the top two teams in the East, meet in the second round. If seeding holds, the second round is basically the East finals. Those who judge the Bruins on whether they reach the final four or not every year should be placated. There will be no shame in losing to the Lightning.
The Bruins are going to learn a lot about their lineup during this series and any subsequent series. Are they deep enough on left defense? Are they too small on defense? Was it a mistake to think that regular-season success with such a youthful lineup would translate in the postseason? Can Boston’s older players still stand strong in the second season?
A loss in any round won’t erase the improvements Boston’s younger players made this season. It won’t change the fact that there’s a legion of prospects that could make an impact as soon as next season. It won’t reverse the idea that Sweeney’s plan is working.
Of course, no one aspires to lose in the first or second round, and athletes worth their salt won’t be satisfied without playing at least past Mother’s Day. Fans and pundits have a right to feel the same. But thinking the Bruins should win the Cup and thinking they have a bright future are not mutually exclusive sentiments. If the Bruins fail to achieve the former, the latter will still be true and there will be no reason to have a gross overreaction to a Cup-less, or even conference finals-less, postseason.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.