BRIGHTON, Mass. — Here is the eternal question in this age of COVID-19 and the NHL: Are the Bruins better or worse served by playing these Stanley Cup playoffs in the protective bubble of Toronto, and then onto Edmonton if they are good enough to advance to the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final?
Certainly, the Bruins are readying themselves for what lies ahead.
That includes playing postseason hockey in empty arenas transformed into made-for-TV productions with lighting, music and giant LED scoreboard screens along with camera angles and placement that will take fans right into the middle of the action.
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There’s no doubt NBC Sports will put out an incredibly entertaining Stanley Cup playoff product for hockey fans just as we’ve seen Major League Baseball and the NBA begin televising games this week, be they regular season (MLB) or scrimmages (NBA). But there are clearly going to be real challenges for teams across the NHL when it comes to manufacturing emotion and creating the energy that packed arenas would naturally do in spiking up player adrenaline during games.
Brad Marchand knows that's going to be a challenge for the Bruins, and everybody else for that matter.
“Obviously we talk in the room about the way it’s going to be, and some of the things that [the NHL] is going to do,” said Marchand. “It just won’t be the same, no matter what they do. What the fans do is really sway the momentum during games. They’re not going to be able to replicate that play-to-play like a fan base would during a game.
“The way they try to pick you up when you’re not playing well or really push you forward when you are [playing well] and you’re chasing a goal from behind, or a couple goals. You’re down by a goal or two late in the game or you’re up a goal, that’s really where the home-ice advantage comes into play. There won’t be any of that. So there’s going to have to be an internal drive that you can’t teach without the fans there. We’re all going to be in the same boat and you just need to find a way to win.”
Then there’s the actual parameters for playing NHL hockey in the bubble. The Bruins have experienced issues getting everybody healthy, tested for COVID-19 and on the ice for the last two weeks during Return to Play camp with both Ondrej Kase and David Pastrnak missing nearly all of the two weeks of practices. The Bruins are unsure even now when Kase, penciled in to be a top-6 right wing headed into all of this, will be able to travel to the Toronto Hub City, meet up with the team and be able to practice with the rest of the group.
All signs point toward Pastrnak being a “go” for practice at some point next week, so his absence from camp shouldn’t significantly hurt the B’s once the real playoffs commence in the second week of August. But these last few weeks was a key period of time missed by Kase after playing just a handful of games following his trade from Anaheim, and it’s pushed younger guys like Anders Bjork and Jack Studnicka into potentially bigger roles once things kick off.
It all adds up to another challenge for the Bruins when the biggest hurdle of all was expected to be the long layoff over the last five months. The Bruins are the fourth-oldest team in the NHL and conventional hockey wisdom says it can take time for older skating legs to bounce back into playoff form.
But all the challenges and smaller issues pale in comparison to the undeniable advantages the Bruins will bring to the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Hub City. First off, the Black and Gold are the prohibitive favorites after winning the Presidents' Trophy during the regular season. They have proven character, strong leadership and a hardened mental makeup that will allow the Bruins to face down any adversity thrown their way over the next few months.
“It’s a long process and a long road, and I think our focus has to be on at the beginning of that road while not looking too much ahead,” said Zdeno Chara. “We just need to make adjustments and get used to it, and not get too high or too low… just stay even-keeled. These are obviously completely different circumstances than we’ve ever had before. We just need to make adjustments.”
The Bruins showed their ability to adjust and focus through roadblocks and bumps when they completely brushed off the unexpected absences of Pastrnak and Kase. A sense of panic probably would have set in on many of the other 23 NHL teams had they had the league’s leading goal-scorer go missing for two weeks during Return to Play camp.
But the Bruins kept going to work, plugged Bjork into Pastrnak’s spot on the Perfection Line and practiced the power play with David Krejci working in Pastrnak’s spot just as he did when No. 88 missed time two seasons ago. Bruins leaders like Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Krejci and Marchand have seen and experienced pretty much everything at this point, and that kind of steadying hand is going to be a major key as they forage off into the unknown playing hockey during a global pandemic.
Younger, talented hockey clubs might have what it takes on the ice, but might not be up for some of the additional challenges that await all of these NHL players as they enter the confined Toronto and Edmonton bubbles this week.
Still, these players are human. Bruins players will miss their families over the next couple of months, and there was no denying that this weekend.
“That’s going to be the toughest thing knowing it’s our last [weekend] with our families for potentially 10 weeks,” said Brad Marchand. “Guys are more looking at that part of it than the excitement of leaving. Guys are all excited to be playing games again. I don’t think anybody is looking forward to staying in a hotel for two months. But it’s all about the opportunity to win a Cup and chase that dream again. We’re all excited for that opportunity and we work hard for it every year.
The biggest thing I come back to is that we’re extremely fortunate in what we do. And what we get paid to do. We can’t take that for granted. It’s difficult to leave your family for potentially 10 weeks, but there will only be two teams that do that. We’re very lucky and fortunate to have that opportunity and to have the jobs doing what we do.
"There are a lot of people that aren’t able to work right now, and there’s a lot of people that haven’t been [getting] paid. We have a short number of years that we can do this, and we have to make the most of it and take advantage of it. We’ll get homesick and lonesome at times, but it’s part of the job. Maybe it’s not what we expected, but you have to go through some adversity sometimes. At the end of the day, that is sometimes where you find the biggest reward.”
Clearly the Bruins want to be one of those final two teams away from home the longest, and the entire roster feels that hunger to add a Stanley Cup after coming so close, but falling short, against the St. Louis in last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
It’s for all those reasons and more that playing inside the bubble should actually prove advantageous for a mature, talented Bruins group that might just be the right hockey team at the right time to win the most challenging Stanley Cup of all time.