By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — By taking care of business in Game 5 in Washington, the Bruins find themselves in very unfamiliar territory.
They’ve got some time to relax.
After playing 56 games in 117 days in the regular season, the Bruins — like the rest of the NHL during this COVID-condensed season — entered the playoffs likely feeling a bit worn out. Yet with their 4-1 series victory completed, they now have the luxury of resting up and getting healthy while the Islanders and Penguins fight for the right to play Boston in the next round. And with that series knotted at two games apiece, it’s guaranteed to stretch through Wednesday, with a chance for a Game 7 on Friday.
Ultimately, a Game 7 may be the only thing the Bruins are openly rooting for, as it will ensure some more playoff mileage on the bodies of whichever team emerges from that heated series.
But on the outside, we can take a clearer look at the two teams to try to make a determination on which might be a better matchup for Boston.
No. 1 Seed in East Division, 37-16-3, 77 points
Head-To-Head Vs. Boston: 3-4-1
After a 5-5-1 start to the season, the Penguins didn’t exactly emerge from their long offseason on fire. Suffice it to say, they figured things out.
Pittsburgh went 32-11-2 from mid-February until the end of the season, putting together a six-game winning streak, a five-game winning streak, and a four-game winning streak en route to earning the division crown.
That story of the Penguins’ season is worth remembering as we look at their overall record vs. Boston. Two of Boston’s victories came in late January, with the Bruins winning 3-2 in overtime and then winning 4-1 two nights later, with both games happening in Boston.
After that, it was split city between the two teams.
When the two teams met for a back-to-back set in Pittsburgh in mid-March, they split the two games.
When they met for a back-to-back set in Boston in early April, they once again split.
And when they met for a couplet in late April? You guessed it, another split.
In those six split games, the Bruins scored 14 goals. The Penguins scored 16. It was rather evenly matched.
Tristan Jarry posted a solid .931 save percentage and 2.18 GAA in his five starts vs. Boston, going 2-2-1. Both of those losses were the ones that came in January.
Unsurprisingly, Sidney Crosby led the way in the points department, scoring two goals with six assists in the eight games vs. Boston. Jake Guentzel led Pittsburgh with four goals vs. the Bruins, while Jason Zucker and Cody Cedi also scored a pair of goals vs. the Bruins.
What may be the biggest check in the Bruins’ column if they meet Pittsburgh will come between the pipes. Tuukka Rask was almost unblemished against the Penguins this year, winning both of his starts while allowing just three goals on 56 shots for a .946 save percentage and 1.44 GAA. (He also had an assist, just for good measure.) Factor in Rask’s playoff history vs. Pittsburgh (4-0, .985 save percentage, 0.44 GAA, 2 shutouts in 2013 conference finals), and the Penguins will likely not be at all excited to face Boston.
The other major factor could be Brad Marchand. He recorded 11 points in eight games vs. Pittsburgh this year, with six goals and five assists. Linemate David Pastrnak had 3-3-6 totals in six games vs. Pittsburgh, while defenseman Charlie McAvoy recorded six assists in his eight games vs. Pittsburgh.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
No. 4 Seed in East Division, 32-17-7, 71 points
Head-To-Head vs. Boston: 5-2-1
It’s impossible to think of a potential Bruins-Islanders playoff series without thinking back to the one-sided dominance from the Islanders earlier this season.
The Islanders beat the Bruins 1-0 on Jan. 18. Then they beat the Bruins 4-2 on Feb. 13. Then they walloped the Bruins 7-2 on Feb. 25. Then they won in a shootout over the Bruins on March 9. And then they beat the Bruins in overtime on March 25.
For the Bruins, in technical hockey terms, this is what you’d call an Extreme Yikes situation. Losing five straight games to an opponent and getting outscored 17-8 in a season where the schedule consists solely of divisional matchups, that’s going to leave a mark.
But the Bruins were able to shake that off, winning their final three games against the Islanders to make the season series at least somewhat respectable.
The fact that the Islanders kind of stumbled down the stretch, going 6-7-3 in the final month of the season, might help paint a better picture of the team that might await the Bruins, rather than going all the way back to those early-season matchups.
The Islanders have split their starts in net thus far, giving two starts to Ilya Sorokin and two starts to Semyon Varlamov. Sorokin’s clearly had the edge thus far, winning his two games while posting a .944 save percentage and 1.76 GAA. Varlamov’s 0-2 with a .903 save percentage and 3.61 GAA.
If Sorokin can seize the starting job, it might actually be good news for Boston. Varlamov went 5-1-0 with a .943 save percentage in seven starts vs. the Bruins this year, while Sorokin went 0-1-1 with a .921 save percentage in two appearances (one start) vs. the Bruins.
And despite the overall team record vs. the Islanders, Rask played pretty well for Boston. He went 2-2-0 with a .925 save percentage and 1.86 GAA, while Jaroslav Halak did most of the goaltending struggling for Boston (.859 save percentage, 4.36 GAA). If it did come to Jeremy Swayman getting any time, he fared rather well in his lone game vs. the Islanders this year with a 25-save shutout.
Offensively, Jean-Gabriel Pageau was a handful for Boston, as he scored five goals (one game-winner) with three assists for eight points in his eight games vs. Boston. Pageau was also a team-best plus-6 vs. Boston. Mathew Barzal was a problem as well, with three goals (one game-winner) and four assists.
Interestingly, the player tied for being Boston’s leading goal scorer vs. the Islanders this year was … Taylor Hall, a player acquired on April 12. He tallied four goals (including an OT game-winner) in three games vs. the Islanders this year. That was quite an improvement from his 1-1-2 totals in six games vs. the Islanders during his time with Buffalo this season.
Marchand led the Bruins with seven points (four goals, three assists) vs. the Islanders this year, David Pastrnak posted 2-5-7 totals in seven games, and David Krejci tallied six assists in his six games played vs. New York this year.
Obviously, no playoff series are easy, especially in a year where these opponents have seen each other eight times. And just as obviously, whichever team emerges from the first round will have proven to be better than the other team, thus making this entire exercise somewhat fruitless.
But, well, we’ve got some time to kill in Boston, so it was at least worth going over the season to see where the Bruins stand.
Overall, a series against Pittsburgh should be fairly even, based on them splitting each of their three two-game sets in March and April. But the Bruins’ advantage in net should be the major difference.
The Bruins should feel like a better team than the Islanders, who fizzled late in the year and lost three straight to Boston. While the overall record favors the Islanders, the more recent results — and Rask’s individual performance — should give them confidence in a playoff series.
Ultimately, the margins may be razor thin. There may be no true advantage. So the ideal situation for Boston would be the Islanders winning in quintuple-overtime of Game 7, before being forced to play Game 1 three days later.
Seems like a simple enough thing to wish for.