Sizing up Bruins possible first-round opponents
Tampa Bay Lightning
If the season were to end on Monday afternoon, then the Bruins would be the road team taking on the Lightning in what’s the worst possible matchup for Boston in the first round. Sure the stats and analytics crowd would point to Boston’s dominance in the series, and that the Bruins are 8-3-1 over the last three seasons against the Lightning. But that record doesn’t matter much when it comes to a Bruins/Bolts playoff pairing, and the same goes for the middling numbers for the Lightning this season based off a very slow start to the year. They have an embarrassment of speed and skill, and a group of forwards that can exploit a slow, older Bruins defensemen corps in what will eventually be Boston’s postseason undoing. Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan are all capable of doing major damage to the B’s, they have the best D-man in the series in Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop will be able to match Tuukka Rask’s play between the pipes. Simply stated, Tampa Bay is the better team and this would be a quick death for the Black and Gold in the first round. Boston’s only hope would be that the Stamkos contract/possible imminent departure becomes a playoff distraction for the Lightning, and causes them to majorly underachieve as a group.
B’s chances of advancing: Not bloody likely.
The Florida Panthers are much the opposite of the Tampa Bay Lightning. This Panthers hockey club would be a welcomed first round opponent against the Bruins for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the Bobby Lou factor, and the odds that the Panthers goaltender would soil his underwear yet again playing a high pressure game against the Bruins at TD Garden. It’s been a running theme since he was murdered between the pipes in Boston during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, and continued on last season when he was beaten for a goal at the Garden that effectively dashed Florida’s sputtering playoff hopes. Couple that with a very young playoff team with many of their best players (Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad among them) as first timers this postseason, and they could be very ripe for the picking after a season that’s sagged bit toward the end. There’s also the simple fact, as anybody that watched the 2013 Bruins playoff run can attest, that Jaromir Jagr starts to run low on gas in the playoffs, and can’t be expected to be the focal point offensively for Florida if they hope to have a successful run.
B’s chances of advancing: This is Boston’s best hope to get two rounds worth of playoff gates.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are a wildly inconsistent bunch, and have been forced to start doing some serious soul-searching on their own roster if they want to actually even qualify for the playoffs. Petr Mrazek has cooled off considerably after giving them some incredible goaltending earlier in the season, and their leading goal-scorer is a rookie named Dylan Larkin. He’s fast and skilled, and dangerous enough that Paul Holmgren jokingly threatened to lock him in the bathroom prior to a showdown earlier this month against the Flyers, but he’s also a young player that might experience some difficulty in the cold-hearted, unforgiving competition of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That would seem to be reflected in the fact that Larkin has only two goals along with a minus-3 rating this month, and has been slowed down under the intense physicality of late season defense played by teams all across the league. On the other end of the spectrum, Henrik Zetterberg really seems to be slowing down this month as well after years of quality time served in Detroit. Still, a series against players like Justin Abdelkader, Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall along with the speed of Larkin, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist could be problematic for the Black and Gold. The Bruins have scored 11 goals in three games against the Wings this season, so offense hasn’t been an issue. The B’s play the Wings in the second-to-last game of the regular season at home, so that may be a big factor into things at that late juncture of the season.
B’s chances of advancing: Better than a 50/50 shot against a Red Wings team with some holes to exploit.
I put all three teams into one category because they each present problems to the Bruins, and would give them a battle in the first round. They also are the least likely opponents given that the Bruins would have to nab the Atlantic Division title to play them, and I’m not sure they have it in them. The Rangers have the goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, they still have the big, experienced D-men corps that will make it tough to get to the New York net, and they have the kind of attacking speed at forward that can cause Boston a ton of problems. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, and Marc-Andre Fleury is having one of his best seasons. But they would also likely be without Evgeni Malkin, which could make it a difficult road for a team that’s underachieved most of the year. Plus, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan still has a lot to prove as a head coach in the postseason after his Bruins teams always underachieved once they got there. The Islanders will be a handful with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo and some competitive guy named Johnny Boychuk on the back end, but they also have a big weakness in goal whether it’s Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss.
B’s chances of advancing: Strictly a 50/50 proposition against the Isles and the Penguins, and less than those odds against the Blueshirts.
This would be the quick death option for the Bruins if they end up falling into the No. 8 seed as the lowest wild card team. They can’t score on Braden Holtby, they can’t stop Alex Ovechkin when it’s 5-on-5 or the power play and they now get pushed around by the bigger, stronger Capitals whenever they play each other. They haven’t beaten Washington at all since the calendar last read 2014, and it was at the very end of the 2013-14 hockey season. The Black and Gold have dropped each of their last six meetings with the Capitals while getting outscored by an 18-4 margin, and the games haven’t really been close aside from their last matchup. But the Capitals were playing their second night in a back-to-back situation against a well-rested Bruins club, and Boston still couldn’t come out with two points. Many are predicting a playoff implosion for the Capitals because Alex Ovechkin and Barry Trotz, among others, have so much to prove in the postseason after years and years of early exits. But the Bruins don’t have the firepower, the defensive tenacity or the size and strength to take down the Washington giants, and it would be over quickly were they to slide into the No. 8 seed against the likely President’s Trophy winners this season.
B's chances of advancing: There's a better chance of the city of Boston embracing a chance to host the Olympic games at this point.