By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — What do we make of the ol’ Boston Bruins? They were, as you surely recall, the best team in hockey from October through March, buzzing through the league and racking up 100 points and boasting the leading goal scorer and a Vezina finalist and a Jack Adams finalist. After losing the Cup Final a year ago, the Bruins came back as focused and determined as ever, and the results showed it.
That was, of course, before the league shut down due to the pandemic. Everything we’ve seen from the Bruins after the bubbled-up restart in Toronto has been different. Very, very different.
If we include the exhibition vs. Columbus, the Bruins have lost all four of their games thus far in the bubble. While the results of their round-robin games don’t “matter” in the normal sense of playoff seeding, the concern the team has generated has less to do with the final scoreboard and more to do with the team’s inability to do much of anything well during the games.
Including that exhibition, the Bruins have been outscored 13-5. Counting only the round-robin games, they’ve still been outscored 9-4. In 180 minutes of hockey, they’ve yet to hold a lead. Against Philadelphia, they trailed 3-1 after two periods. Against Tampa, they trailed 2-0 after the first 20 minutes. Against Washington, they allowed a last-minute goal to go down 1-0 before the first intermission.
The pushback from those points has been varied, but the team clearly lacked the urgency and overall force that made them who they were during the regular season.
Part of that is understandable. It’s difficult to manufacture inspiration when there’s clearly nothing real on the line. With the lower half of the conference already in a jumble and with no home-ice advantage, the difference between the first seed and the fourth seed isn’t quite what it normally might be. Comments from some players — like veteran goaltender Tuukka Rask — indicate the team seemingly didn’t care much about the outcomes of the round-robin games.
“Well I think these first round-robin games, or whatever they were, you just kinda try to shake the rust off and get your team game in a place you want it to be. I think we’ve kind of improved over these three games,” Rask said after allowing two goals on 30 shots against on Sunday. “Obviously we worked very hard for our goals, we just seemed not to get rewarded. I’m sure that’s going to come if we keep plugging away. But I think it doesn’t matter what seed you’re in, because you’ve gotta beat every team anyway if you want to advance. So I think we’re gonna feel good. It’s over now and we start real hockey.”
Fair enough. If the Bruins were taking it easy, knowing they can ramp up their intensity and execution in a series with actual stakes, then those lamenting the look of the team through three round-robin games and an exhibition game will be proven to have wasted their energy. On the other hand, if the inconsistent results continue into their first-round series against the Hurricanes, it won’t be wrong to look back at these past few games as a missed opportunity to start the engine before rolling into the playoffs.
For now, they’ll have their hands full with the Carolina Hurricanes. Here will be some keys to that series if the Bruins hope to kick-start another long run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
THE LAYOFF FACTOR
The Bruins are entering the playoffs with all of the momentum of a three-legged tortoise. The Hurricanes, by contrast, have to be riding high after sweeping away the Rangers. In that three-game series, the Canes outscored the Rangers 11-4. Carolina trailed for just 3:06 of that series, getting David Quinn to replace Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist in net for Game 3 and getting some clutch scoring in the decisive final game.
The Hurricanes came off that series buzzing.
Alas, that clinching Game 3 was on Tuesday, Aug. 4. Since then, the Hurricanes have been kicking around the bubble, not playing any competitive games outside of “Call Of Duty” or a spirited game of doubles table tennis. With Game 1 of the Bruins series coming a full week after the conclusion of that qualifying series, the Hurricanes will have had a whole lot of cooldown time by the time the puck drops on Tuesday evening. That’s not ideal.
“This is going to be tricky, to be quite honest,” Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said after his team won its qualifying series. “We could have a week off, and that’s probably the worst thing to have when there’s really not anything to do. We’re going to have to get creative and find things to keep the guys together and mentally sharp. The down time is what kills you in this kind of setting.”
After shaking off the rust and getting their legs underneath them and any other tired cliche you’d like to use, the Hurricanes may get set back to square one or close to it.
Will that help even the scales for a Bruins team that kinda-sorta-maybe sleepwalked through the round robin? Surely, if the Canes come out a bit shaky, we’ll all understand why.
A TOP LINE AWAKENING
David Pastrnak tied for the league lead with 48 goals during the regular season. His linemates — Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand — ranked second and third on the team with 31 and 28 goals, respectively.
That trio accounted for just shy of half of Boston’s 227 goals scored on the year.
When it came to scoring goals, those three were pretty good.
Thus far in bubble life, they’ve been nonexistent. The Bruins’ four goals in Toronto have been scored by Chris Wagner (2), Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk. Bergeron picked up one assist for winning an offensive zone faceoff, while Marchand and Pastrnak have been kept off the scoresheet completely.
The Bruins have shown an ability to stay afloat when that top line goes cold for stretches with some depth scoring. That, though, is only a temporary fix. Sooner than later, the top line needs to awaken.
For what it’s worth, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday that he has some good feelings about the Bergeron line’s chances against the Hurricanes.
“You look at our top line, they’ve been held off the scoresheet. And I believe that it’s going to be a tough task for Carolina to do that on a consistent basis,” Cassidy said. “I think that those guys will be able to get their game going.”
Perhaps Cassidy is encouraged simply by knowing full well what that trio is capable of. Perhaps he’s spirited from their performance vs. Carolina last year in the playoffs, when Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak combined to score six goals in the four-game sweep. Or perhaps he’s just got a positive spirit about him.
Whatever the case may be, it’s difficult to envision the Bruins making much of a run at anything without that top line doing the things that the top line likes to do.
THE GOALIE SITUATION HAS CHANGED
Even if we don’t want to, we’re all going to look back at last year’s playoff series between these two teams to try to find parallels. It’s only natural. There’s only so much you can do to resist it.
Yet there’s a massive, significant change from last year’s series to this year’s series standing inside the blue paint.
Last year, Petr Mrazek was Carolina’s playoff starter, leading the Canes past the Capitals and to a 1-0 series lead over the Islanders with his .914 save percentage and 2.22 GAA. But he suffered a lower-body injury in Game 2, sidelining him for the remainder of the Islanders series.
Mrazek tried to return to face the Bruins, but he allowed 10 goals on 52 shots in his two games in Boston. In stepped Curtis McElhinney, who wasn’t much better in Games 3 and 4, when he allowed five goals on 53 shots.
This year, the Bruins won’t be so fortunate as to catch an injured starter and a backup in his late 30s with almost no playoff experience to his name. Mrazek started two of the Canes’ three games vs. New York, stopping 47 of the 50 shots he faced.
Granted, if the Bruins are able to shake Mrazek’s confidence, then they could earn themselves a meeting with James Reimer, the owner of one of the single worst playoff memories any athlete could ever possess — a nightmare which was of course delivered by the Boston Bruins.
That soft landing, though, shouldn’t be expected, as Mrazek figures to be a much more capable goaltender than he was last year.
NHL teams and players can deal with and adapt to minor changes and line-tinkering made before and during games. That’s part of the sport.
Still, teams ideally want to have a general idea of their lines as they enter win-or-go-home series. (“Win or go home” has never been more apt than during bubble life.)
The Bruins may have found that on Sunday. At long last, Ondrej Kase skated on David Krejci’s right side, with Jake DeBrusk on the left side. The second line had been in constant shuffling, due largely to Kase’s extended absence while being “unfit to play.” If that line stays together — and it should, and likely will — then it helps solidify the entire lineup, with Nick Ritchie and Anders Bjork skating on Charlie Coyle’s wings on the third line.
DeBrusk — who scored Boston’s lone goal on Sunday, after receiving a subtle feed from Kase — admitted that moving up and down the lineup didn’t help him find a rhythm. Perhaps carrying the same four lines from one game to the next will have the Bruins looking more like the Bruins we remember from the regular season.
AHO. SO HOT RIGHT NOW. AHO.
Sebastian Aho had a decent little three-game run against the Rangers. He scored three goals and tallied five assists, scoring once on the power play and once while shorthanded. He’s tied for second in playoff points, despite playing just three games.
Again, it was quite decent. So slowing him down will be rather critical if Boston wants to try out something new by playing with a lead and/or winning some games.
Boston did a solid job of containing Aho in last year’s series, holding him to one goal and two assists in the series. The 23-year-old Finn, though, wasn’t entering that series quite as hot as he was last week vs. New York.
Outside of Aho, Andrei Svechnikov did some damage against the Rangers, getting himself a hat trick in Carolina’s Game 2 win.
Those two figure to be the most dangerous scoring threats on Carolina’s roster, so they’ll likely get the full attention of Boston’s defense.
There’s this longstanding tradition in Boston where seemingly everyone suggests that Tuukka Rask is afraid of big moments or chokes in the clutch or some other narrative that helps explain why the Bruins don’t win the Stanley Cup every year. It’s strange.
The reality is that Rask is not only an excellent postseason goaltender; he’s one of the best of all time. Among goaltenders with more than 50 playoff starts, Rask ranks second all time with a .927 save percentage — one point behind Braden Holtby’s .928. His 2.19 GAA ranks ninth among that same group. Rask’s .932 even strength save percentage ranks third among that group, and he’s one series win away from passing Gerry Cheevers for most playoff victories in Bruins franchise history.
No matter the spin anyone puts on it, Rask’s postseason resume is strong to quite strong, and that includes his showing last year against Carolina. Rask allowed just five goals in last year’s conference finals vs. Carolina, good for a .956 save percentage. He accentuated that series with a 24-save shutout on the road to help punch the Bruins’ ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
The stakes are slightly lower for this first-round meeting, but it will be interesting to see how and if Rask will be able to jump into postseason mode so quickly after showing an open disdain for the round-robin games. He’s certainly got the experience to respond, but the first period of Game 1 figures to be a very significant 20 minutes for the Bruins’ netminder if he wants to start the real playoffs the way he wants to start them.