By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As far as entertaining schedules go, this year in the NHL stiiiiiiiiinks.
Granted, it’s better to have a season than to have no season at all. But the NHL configured this season in a way that could drive anyone mad, with each team playing its seven divisional opponents eight times apiece. Eight. Times. Apiece.
It’s even worse in Canada, as the seven “North Division” teams have to face the same six opponents nine or 10 times this season.
That is … perverse.
Fortunately, we’re almost to the end. Sort of. The regular season ends in less than a month, but it will of course be followed by two postseason rounds featuring intradivisional play before teams can finally see an opponent from another division in this year’s equivalent to the conference finals. It’s not a true conference final, as the four remaining teams will be ranked according to regular season point total, which means the Stanley Cup Final could feature two teams from the same conference (in regular years).
It’s a weird year. Obviously.
And among the wildest quirks of this strange year will play out in the next 12 days, as the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres will face each other five times between now and next Saturday.
Give that the full Rooney voice for effect: Five times.
It’s not quite nine times, but it’s sure going to feel like it.
The Sabres, as you surely know by now, are not good. At 12-26-7, they are in fact the very worst team in the National Hockey League. They have the NHL’s worst goal differential (minus-43), they’re playing under an interim coach, their star player is out for the year, their big free-agent signing has been traded away, and they endured an utterly pathetic 18-game losing streak that mercifully came to an end in late March.
The Buffalo Sabres have been bad bad this year. (That’s worse than regular bad, for those not hip on such lingo.)
The Bruins, for all of their ups and downs of the year, have remained in the playoff picture (top four in the division) all season long. They’re still in playoff position, albeit in the last slot in the East, and they really don’t have too much to worry about. They’re four points ahead of the Rangers, and they’ve played two fewer games than New York. It would take a notable Boston slide and an improbable Rangers surge for that playoff security to be lost, so in no way are the Bruins facing a desperate situation.
That being said, the Bruins can really make the final few weeks of their season a lot easier for themselves if they can just beat the ever-loving bag out of the Buffalo Sabres over the next two weeks.
The Bruins are currently 3-0-0 against Buffalo. They beat them 4-1 on March 18, 3-2 on March 27, and then via shootout on April 13 after the teams were tied 2-2 after 65 minutes.
This is what the near future looks like for Boston:
Tue. April 20: @ Buffalo
Thu. April 22: @ Buffalo
Fri. April 23: @ Buffalo
Sun. April 25: @ Pittsburgh
Tue. April 27: @ Pittsburgh
Thu. April 29: vs. Buffalo
Sat. May 1: vs. Buffalo
Good gravy, that’s a lot of Buffalo.
Obviously with the five games, 10 points can be won for Boston. It’s likely asking too much of the Bruins for them to nab all 10 points. Beating any team — even a bad one — five times in a 12-day span and eight straight times in one season is difficult. Plus, the Sabres have been merely subpar since ending that 18-game losing streak, going 6-3-2 since March 31. The Bruins needed a shootout to earn the two points vs. Buffalo a week ago, so it won’t be “easy,” per se.
But it’s about as easy as it gets in the NHL. So if the Bruins can earn, say, eight of a possible 10 points in these five games, they’ll simply be doing themselves a wonderful favor for the final two weeks of the season.
With the playoff format being what it is, there’s really no “ideal” spot for the Bruins to finish. One way or another, they’re going to have to face either the Capitals, Islanders or Penguins in the first round, and then another team from that group if they make it to the second round. There’s no easy route to the league semifinals, so the exact seeding in the division won’t really matter for the Bruins, especially considering they won’t know where their East Division brethren will finish.
All that will really matter for the Bruins is ensuring that they secure their playoff spot so that Bruce Cassidy and Co. can ensure that the team is as healthy, rested, and prepared for the postseason when it does begin in mid-May.
As a quick aside: Tage Thompson is no doubt hoping that Kevan Miller opts out of all five of these upcoming games.
Youch. Still hurts to look at.
OK, back to business.
If the Bruins can go ahead and snag eight out of 10 points against the Sabres — while also splitting the back-to-back with Pittsburgh — in the coming weeks, they’ll likely be able to shift the van into cruise control for their final six games of the year, having created enough space to either eliminate the Rangers’ from realistic playoff contention or make them somebody else’s problem.
That’s what is at stake for a Bruins team that has gone 4-0-0 while outscoring opponents 15-6 since the trade deadline. Taking care of business against a bad Buffalo team can and will go a long way in removing any and all stress from the final weeks of the season.