BOSTON – The Bruins will get everything they could possibly ask for with a chance to control their own fate when they take the ice on Sunday night against the freshly eliminated Florida Panthers.
With a win of any kind in Game No. 82, the Bruins clinch the Atlantic Division title, take the top seed in the Eastern Conference and will enjoy home ice advantage through the first three rounds of the postseason starting with a first-round matchup against the New Jersey Devils.
A loss of any kind, on the other hand, kicks the B’s down to second place in the Atlantic Division and hands them a first-round match against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that gave them plenty of trouble this season. Clearly there is a matchup consideration, but for the Bruins it’s a chance to go into the postseason with an overwhelming sense of winning, confidence and putting their best foot forward, and that can’t be discounted.
“That’s why you play the game; you want to play to win and to be at your best,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We’re in a position to win our conference. It’s a big feat - obviously – home-ice we talk about how big it is. So why not [go for it]? We’re right there and obviously I talked about how you finish going into the playoffs. It’s definitely all about [against the Panthers] playing the right way and feeling good about our game.
“We’ve shown character all year and we’ve played the right way most of the year, so I think that’s what you have to bring whether it’s [Sunday vs. Florida] or next Thursday. That’s the approach that you need to have, that’s what winning hockey is all about and that’s what we are all about. [It’s about] playing the right way throughout the game, but also finishing well, finishing smart, taking care of the puck.”
Clearly the B’s needed a little bit of help from the Lightning losing to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday in order for the door to open for them in Sunday night’s game, but the Black and Gold have a chance to finish with 51 wins and 114 points with a victory. That’s an impressive season for a Bruins team of any generation, and the most in either category since Boston nabbed the President’s Trophy back in the 2013-14 regular season.
It’s doubly impressive when considering how many first-year players were introduced into the Boston lineup this season, and those rookies thrust into important roles like top pairing D-man (Charlie McAvoy) or top-6 left wing (Jake DeBrusk) while winning and gaining valuable experience at the same time. That combination of rookies like McAvoy, DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, Matt Grzelcyk and Ryan Donato mixed with young veterans (David Pastrnak, Torey Krug) and Stanley Cup-winning veterans (Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci) is a roster mix that’s come together quickly in Boston.
Most expected this season’s major youth movement to experience more bumps along the way and for the Bruins to be more of a playoff bubble team than a conference favorite, but credit them with pushing full speed ahead on their development. The Bruins are legit contenders in the East and should be a playoff force to be reckoned with this spring despite all of the inexperience, and that’s a testament to the strong regular season that they’re wrapping up on Sunday night.
“I would not have thought that,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, when asked if he thought his B’s team would be vying for top spot in the East when they opened the season back in October. “Let’s face it, we were trying to find our own game and get to where we thought we were at the start of the year, which was definitely a playoff team.
“We just didn’t know where we would fit, and the way Tampa got out of the gate, and Toronto for that matter, it was going to be an uphill battle. But here we are. We’re in a position to take it, and that’s a credit to the guys. We’ve worked hard to get here. This wasn’t by accident. We didn’t back in.”
The Bruins have already banished the bad feelings of their recent three-game losing streak with a strong win on Saturday night against a lousy Ottawa team. Now they can really finish on a high note, grasp hold of the Eastern Conference’s top seed with one more win against a Florida team that’s recently handed it to them a couple of times, and earn some real advantages headed into the postseason.
The B’s are starting Tuukka Rask and putting their best foot forward on Sunday vs. Florida, and that should be reason enough to be optimistic things are going to end well for a Black and Gold team that’s been building to this pretty much all season.