BRIGHTON, Mass – Coming off a season where they made it as far as they could go to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins are grappling with a different kind of expectation headed into this year. Obviously all 31 NHL teams start off at zero and need to build their way toward the postseason over the course of a six-month regular season gauntlet, but there are pretenders, contenders and favorites among the Original 31.
By virtue of last season, the Bruins believe they have officially graduated to “favorite” status where everybody across the NHL is going to have a target on their back. Certainly it’s tough to argue based on last season, based on a deep, diverse roster and based on the high-end talent that players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Charlie McAvoy and David Krejci bring to the table.
That’s what B’s head coach Bruce Cassidy is certainly counting on headed into this week’s opening of the NHL regular season.
“I assume Tampa will be equally as good to last year. They lost a couple of guys, but I still expect them [to be very good]. Toronto had some turnover, but their core group is a year older. Montreal made good strides. Florida I assume will be better simply because they’ve added a great coach and their goaltending is going to be more solidified. So right away that’s five teams, to me, that are going to be hard to play against,” said Cassidy. “Obviously Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo are younger and have some strides to make, but there’s always a surprise team. I suspect it will be more difficult than last year.
“[Winning the Cup] is our goal. I think it’s every team’s goal, but is it always realistic. I think since we were right there last year it’s very realistic. I think, at least in our own minds, we’ve gone from more of a contender to a favorite. We’re up there. I think that’s good for the group and will help us move on from last year. This group is pretty good at that. They get dialed in and they play.”
But it all begs the question “Are the Bruins really favorites?”
Sure, the Bruins are the defending Eastern Conference champs and they came within 60 minutes of winning the Cup.
But it’s not even close to an automatic that the Black and Gold will get back there based on the competition around them along with the rickety makeup of their own roster. The Toronto Maple Leafs once again got better by bringing in Tyson Barrie and locking down all their major young talent culminating in the signing of Mitch Marner this summer.
One of these seasons the Maple Leafs are going to slay that Bruins dragon in the first round of the playoffs. So why wouldn’t it be a season where the B’s are going to be running on empty late this season with a core group that’s almost all past 30 years old?
Then there’s the Tampa Bay Lightning juggernaut that should be good and pissed off after last spring’s playoff choke. They already had the Bruins’ number last season and have proven to be a tough matchup for the Black and Gold. The only reason Boston got as far as they did last year is because the Lightning, Capitals and Penguins are showed unusual generosity by opting to unilaterally bow out in the first round of the postseason.
That’s a once-per-century event that isn’t likely to happen again anytime soon, so the chances are slim of the Bruins seeing teams like the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes in the latter rounds of the playoffs once again this spring. Certainly the general manager seems to understand that, and it’s an important part of not getting bogged down in great expectations.
“I think you have to prove that you’re worthy. You have to get in the playoffs, and it’s a hard process to get in. If you take it for granted, you can get kicked in the ass,” said Don Sweeney. “For me, as a group, we respect our players a lot and the approach that they take every day. We’re only worried about the next opponent and getting ready for that [next game]. I think our coaches do a great job of looking at it that way, and I think our players respond to it.”
Beyond all of that, there’s also the age factor with respect to Boston’s roster. Everybody saw some of Boston’s best players seemingly wear down by the fourth round of the playoffs when St. Louis began pounding them physically. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were held in check offensively throughout the series, and didn’t seem to have much left in the tank during the decisive Game 7 on the TD Garden ice.
‘Every year is the same thing. You worry about yourself and what you can control. But that being said you know the challenge is there [to get again] and that’s a good thing,” said Bergeron, who finished with one goal and a minus-4 in the seven games against the Blues in the Cup Final.
It will be the same concern for the older group of players this spring and going forward for the rest of their careers in Boston. Can Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, Chara and Co. remain healthy and effective for eight months through the regular season and playoffs, and can they continue to perform at their top levels when needed most?
It’s a fair question to ask and one that will continue to dog the Black and Gold until they add more elite, young players to their lineup. Given the quality of competition in the Atlantic Division and the unique challenges that their own roster will present, the Bruins should find it a much more difficult proposition to get back to the exact same spot again this coming June.
Understanding that and embracing it might just be the first step to overcoming it for a Bruins group running headlong into some great expectations at the outset of the NHL regular season.
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