BOSTON -- It comes down to one of two playoff opponents for the Boston Bruins when they drop the puck for Game 1 on Thursday night at TD Garden.
If the Bruins beat the Florida Panthers in their regular-season finale Sunday night in any fashion -- regulation, overtime or shootout -- they will clinch the Atlantic Division and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That will set up a first-round playoff matchup with the New Jersey Devils, the second of the East's wild-card teams. But if they lose in any fashion -- in other words, if they come away with less than two points -- they'll finish second in the division and will face Toronto, the third-place team in the Atlantic, in the first round.
This scenario was drawn up Saturday night as the Bruins beat Ottawa, 5-2, at TD Garden while nearly simultaneously to the end of the B's game, the Tampa Bay Lightning surprisingly lost in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes. It left Tampa Bay with 113 points and Boston with 112, meaning the Bruins can overtake the Lightning with two ponts tonight. Tampa, however, has the tiebreaker edge and will take the division crown, and No. 1 seed in the East, if the both teams finish with 113 points.
So it all begs the question: Which team would the Bruins rather face in the first round, the Maple Leafs or the Devils?
Obviously, they won't say publicly.
“[We] haven’t really put much thought into it," said Patrice Bergeron. "We’re trying to play the same way we’ve been playing, which is worry about what we can bring and worry about playing our game, our system. Monday we can start worrying about who we’re playing [in the first round of the playoffs].”
But the numbers speak volumes.
The Bruins lost three out of their four games against the Leafs this season, and all three of those defeats came with young superstar Auston Matthews injured and out of the lineup for Toronto. The speed and skill level of players like Mitch Marner and William Nylander up front have given the Bruins issues over the last couple of seasons, and that’s made the Leafs a difficult team for Boston to shut down.
Conversely, the Bruins were 3-0 against New Jersey. All the games were fairly even and well-contested -- two 3-2 victories, one in a shootout, and a 5-3 triumph -- but Boston won them all. The Devils also boast a young, skilled and fast group of forwards, along with a pretty talented offensive D-man in Will Butcher, but the Bruin goalies did a great job against New Jersey s with a combined .938 save percentage.
As for individual stats, Patrice Bergeron, Torey Krug and David Pastrnak were all point-per-game players against the Leafs during the regular season, and Tuukka Rask, who won the single game vs. Toronto, had a .905 save percentage and 2.69 goals against average. But Marner crushed the Bruins for three goals and nine points in the four games, and both James van Riemsdyk (five points) and Nazem Kadri (five points) had more points against the Bruins than games played against them this season. Goalie Frederik Andersen had similar numbers to Rask in the season series with a .908 save percentage and 2.69 goals against in three games against the Bruins.
For the Devils, only Taylor Hall (one goal, one assist), Miles Wood (two goals), Damon Severson (one goal, one assist) and Nico Hischier (two assists) have more than one point against the B's this year. Wood, in particular, has been effective against the Bruins with his blend of speed, size and physicality showing up in Jersey like it did with the Boston College hockey team just a couple of years ago.
New Jersey isn’t nearly as deep as Toronto up front, where things thin out quite a bit once you get past Hall, a legitimate Hart Trophy contender. But they do have some exciting young players in Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha. The big weakness with the Devils, interestingly enough, is in goal, where Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid essentially split time. Schneider struggled against the Bruins with a .898 save percentage this season, and both Kinkaid and Schneider finished the year with pretty average numbers. In a playoff series against a Bruins team that doesn’t have many weaknesses, the Devils goalie situation might be the kind of thing that could eventually make for it an easy go for Boston.
Just don’t expect the Bruins to say anything like that.
“We don’t care, we focus on ourselves. We’ve played both of those teams all season long,” said David Pastrnak. “So for us if we want to win, we need to go through everybody. For us we want to play our best and focus on ourselves.”
This humble hockey writer’s take: There’s a reason the Bruins swept the season series from the Devils, and it’s because they're the better team. New Jersey is limited in how badly it can damage you offensively, it hasn't enjoyed great goaltending this season and that matchup would allow the Maple Leafs and Lightning to beat each other up in the first round before Boston would have to face one of them in Round 2.
For those reasons, and more, it’s in Boston’s best interest to take care of business against the Panthers on Sunday night, clinch both the Atlantic Division and top seed in the Eastern Conference and finish on a strong, winning note. That’s probably why the B’s are going to start Tuukka Rask and forget about resting playeers as they put their best foot forward to try and clinch things.