It comes down to a simple equation for Boston’s opponent in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs next week, and it all depends on how the Bruins perform in their round-robin finale Sunday against the Washington Capitals.
If the Bruins win in any fashion against the Capitals then they will face the New York Islanders in the first round starting Tuesday or Wednesday, and if they lose Sunday then they will go up against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. Friday started with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a possible first-round opponent as well for Boston, but that went out the window once they were eliminated by the No. 12 seed Montreal Canadiens.
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As the Bruins players themselves had discussed, there is no preferred first-round adversary while knowing every team is going to be a quality opponent.
“We do sit and talk as a group every and whether it’s the first or the fourth seed, it does not matter who you are going to be playing…it’s going to be tough,” said Torey Krug in a zoom call with NBC Sports Boston earlier this week. “We went through all the teams yesterday and it just doesn’t matter. That being said we’re working our way into that playoff mode of hockey and trying to get our head wrapped around it.”
In all honestly, it’s clear the Bruins should want to win on Sunday vs. the Capitals, clinch the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and face off against an admittedly solid Islanders team. The Islanders are well-coached as a Barry Trotz team, they have outstanding goaltending in Semyon Varlamov (.923 save percentage vs. Florida in the qualifying round) and they boast some very good players like Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle and Jean-Gabriel Pageau among others.
But the Islanders are a hustle-and-hard-work kind of team that maximizes its talent level during the regular season. That means they tend to have a more difficult time beating talented opponents in the playoffs working just as diligently as they are during the postseason. There is an absolute ceiling to how good the Isles can be while constantly scrapping for offense, and that means they would experience a difficult time matching the firepower of the Bruins.
The Islanders were 22nd in the NHL in offense averaging 2.78 goals per game and finished 24th in the league in power-play percentage. They relied heavily on defense, goaltending and hustle to offset the modest attack.
They will play physical and try to frustrate the Bruins, but they just can’t hang with the high-end talent of the B’s provided they show a little more urgency and competitiveness than they have during the round robin.
On the other hand, a B’s loss would put them against a Carolina team that absolutely dominated the New York Rangers in the qualifying round. The Hurricanes are a deep, young and very talented roster with young scorers like Sebastian Aho (3 goals and 8 points in 3 games vs. the Rangers), Andrei Svechnikov (3 goals and five points vs. the Rangers) and Teuvo Teravainen up front, and Jaccob Slavin and Sami Vatanen on the back end with the hope that ex-Bruins D-man Dougie Hamilton may return at some point in the first round as well.
The Hurricanes were a top-10 power play team during the regular season and had one of the best offensive groups in the NHL. They are a significantly improved team compared to the group that the Bruins ushered out of the Eastern Conference Finals with a sweep a year ago, and they added big pieces Vatanen and Vincent Trocheck at the trade deadline.
Clearly, the goaltending is still an area to exploit with the Hurricanes, but they are also coming off a playoff series where Petr Mrazek played the best hockey of his career while posting a .940 save percentage in two starts. Combined, James Reimer and Mrazek had an amazing .955 save percentage in the three wins over the Rangers in the qualifying round, but neither one is a clear-cut No. 1 guy for the Hurricanes in the postseason.
What does it all mean?
Carolina is to be avoided if you are the Boston Bruins based on the torrid way it has played in the Toronto bubble, and based on the way Rod Brind’Amour’s crew can match firepower with the B’s all over the ice.
It will be entirely up to the Bruins to control the fate of their first-round playoff matchup with a win or loss against the Capitals on Sunday, and that ultimately could make all the difference on how long the Bruins will manage to stay in the hunt for the Cup.