Boston Bruins fans have been anxiously awaiting the start of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs for a while now.
The B's have enjoyed a large lead in the NHL standings for quite some time. In fact, this team is on pace to break the league records for most points and wins in regular season history.
It's Stanley Cup or bust in Boston this year, and rightly so given the way the team has performed.
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We know the Bruins will be playing playoff hockey, but which team will get the first crack at them in Round 1 remains to be seen. It could actually be one of many teams because the wild card race is so tight.
Here's an overview of where the Bruins stand in the Eastern Conference playoff race entering Friday's games, and which teams they could play in the first round.
Eastern Conference standings
- Boston Bruins: 63 games, 49-9-5 (103 points)
- Toronto Maple Leafs: 64 games, 39-17-8 (86 points)
- Tampa Bay Lightning: 65 games, 38-21-6 (82 points)
We've pretty much known for several months which teams will qualify for the playoffs from the Atlantic Division's top three spots.
The Bruins have enjoyed a double-digit lead over second place for a while. The Leafs and Lightning have flip-flopped a few times but neither team has ever been in danger of falling to fourth place. The Florida Panthers going from the Presidents' Trophy winners last season to a team that might not even make the playoffs in 2023 has made this division less exciting. The Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings also didn't take the leap forward many people expected. Although, the Senators have been making a late push (more on that below).
The only real battle left in this division is whether the Leafs or Lightning will secure home ice advantage for their first-round playoff series. Toronto has a nice 4-point cushion with one more head-to-head meeting on April 11 in Tampa Bay. It's possible the outcome of that game could decide which team hosts Game 1 of the Leafs-Lightning series. The Leafs did have home ice last season and lost Game 7 to the Lightning anyway. Still, the Leafs would much rather start the series at home, where they are 23-6-4 this season.
- New York Islanders: 67 GP, 34-25-9 (76 points)
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 64 GP, 32-22-10 (74 points)
In the mix
- Ottawa Senators: 64 GP, 33-27-4 (70 points)
- Florida Panthers: 65 GP, 32-27-6 (70 points)
- Washington Capitals: 66 GP, 31-28-7 (69 points)
- Buffalo Sabres: 64 GP, 32-28-4 (68 points)
- Detroit Red Wings: 64 GP, 29-26-9 (67 points)
The wild card race is where the real action lies in the East.
The Islanders and Penguins are definitely favored to wrap up these playoff berths at some point, but they have plenty of competition.
The Senators, who acquired star defenseman Jakob Chychrun before the trade deadline, are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games and now a real threat to secure one of these two spots. The Panthers have a ton of talent and loads of experience. Even after being sellers at the trade deadline, the Capitals still must be taken seriously. The Sabres are a few years away from being a true contender, but they could absolutely end their 11-year playoff drought this season.
With five teams trailing the second wild card spot by seven or fewer points, there will be tons of meaningful hockey games in the East through the end of the regular season, and that should create plenty of exciting action for fans.
Most likely first-round matchups for Bruins
The Athletic's predictive model has the Islanders finishing as the No. 2 wild card in the Eastern Conference. Unless something dramatic happens over the next month, the Bruins will finish as the No. 1 seed and play the second wild card in Round 1.
The Bruins would definitely be favored to beat the Islanders, but it would be a very tough series. The Islanders play a disciplined, heavy forechecking style of hockey. It's boring to watch but it's no doubt effective. However, the real reason why this series could be a grind for the Bruins is Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin.
"A team that worries me is the Islanders because they're deep down the middle and they have a great goalie in Ilya Sorokin," 98.5 The Sports Hub's Ty Anderson told us in a post-trade deadline Zoom discussion.
"The Bruins haven't seen him, they always go with Semyon Varlamov in those situations. And then you have a style of play that I feel can sometimes lull a team to sleep, and you don't want that in the playoffs. You get brought into a sleepy kind of matchup and things can go haywire real quick. That's a team that worries me just based on how deep they are down the middle and a strong goalie. I think those are recipes for a (potential) upset."
Sorokin is having an excellent season and almost certainly will be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. In fact, some analytics experts think he should be the favorite over Bruins netminder Linus Ullmark.
Sorokin's .926 save percentage ranks third among goalies and his 2.34 GAA ranks fifth. The Bruins went 3-0-0 versus the Islanders this season but Sorokin didn't play in any of those games. Sorokin owns a .938 save percentage in three career games against the B's.
The Bruins are a juggernaut. It's going to be very tough for any team to beat them four times in a seven-game series if they are fully/mostly healthy. One of the few things that could derail the Bruins' season is a hot goalie, and Sorokin is fully capable of being that kind of player in a postseason series. So, for that reason (and others), the Bruins should hope for an easier Round 1 matchup.
Which team would be the best first-round matchup for the B's?
"I would say the best first-round matchup would be the Sabres," Anderson said. "I say that only because once you get past Tage Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin, you can exploit some of their holes and weaknesses, especially in net. It just feels like they're just a little bit away from truly competing right now."