There’s nothing theoretical about it now.
The NHL is coming back. That means the Boston Bruins, along with 23 other teams, will play meaningful hockey games less than a month from now. Credit the NHL and the NHLPA for using their vast experience, collaborative efforts and a sense of urgency to get the season back on track, as the NHL now has the best chance of any of the pro sports leagues of actually navigating and surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a set of circumstances that could financially crush any pro sports league that didn’t properly prepare and the pandemic is already uncovering cracks in the foundation for sports like Major League Baseball and the NFL as they struggle to execute their plans.
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The natural question when it comes to the Bruins is exactly how they are going to fare against the competition. Many view them as a favorite after winning the President’s Trophy during the regular season and standing as the only club with 100 points when the regular season paused back in mid-March. The Black and Gold had the No. 1 seed already wrapped up for the entirety of the postseason and they ranked in the top-5 in every discernible category across the board, showing their all-around skill, their worthiness and the sheer motivation to right last season’s wrong against the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final.
Some believe the Bruins might be at a disadvantage because they are the fourth-oldest team (average roster age: 28.5 years old) in the league with key players like Zdeno Chara (43 years old), Patrice Bergeron (34 years old), David Krejci (34 years old), Brad Marchand (32 years old) and Tuukka Rask (33 years old) all on the wrong side of 30. Clearly it’s going to take a bit to get the engine going for the Bruins and now they have two weeks of camp, one exhibition game and three round-robin games against the other top East seeds to ready themselves for the gauntlet run.
By comparison, teams like the Avalanche, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, the Rangers and Maple Leafs are all at least two years younger on average with young legs that will bounce back more quickly.
It’s an assumption around the hockey world that it’s going to take older legs longer to get churning at full speed after a four month layoff from skating and playing, and that led Marchand to deduce a few months ago that “older teams are going to struggle” in the return to play format.
The B’s will have their challenges in these playoffs, but the biggest ones would probably be head-to-head playoff series against teams like Tampa and Washington that pose challenges whenever they play them. It could very well play out that one of those teams simply proves to be better than the B’s over a seven-game series. That would shock nobody when it comes to a Capitals group that has had Boston’s number for almost 10 years.
If anything, though, the experience, the leadership and the sheer mental toughness that a grizzled team like the Bruins bring into the tournament is going to be a large advantage over the younger player groups. Just think about the scenarios we’ll see in August and September: Empty arenas, living in total isolation for the first five weeks’ worth of games before players can meet up with their families in the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final and pushing on through while players might suddenly drop out of lineups due to positive COVID-19 test results.
It’s going to be a minefield of challenges and adversity where hockey players are going to be tested like never before.
“I think the message for us hasn’t changed in terms of what our ultimate goal is,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said during a Zoom call with reporters in late June. “Our unfinished business is to be Stanley Cup champions. But inside that message will be a lot of the unknown and how we have to be prepared to deal with that as it comes at us.
“That’s going to be the message. I think the mental toughness part is going to determine who ends up raising that trophy at the end of the day, and that’s where I like our chances.”
It’s going to be a wildly unpredictable and unprecedented set of challenges that these 24 teams are going to have to deal with headed into the tournament. Meanwhile, the Bruins have a long-established leadership group in Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron that’s seen and played on through pretty much everything in their almost 40 years of playing experience.
“I’m hoping that leadership plays a big role. Once everybody is together and knowing Bergeron, Chara, Tuukka, Torey (Krug) and Brad, those guys are going to get the others [going],” Bruins President Cam Neely said during a Zoom call with Bruins reporters back in May. “The others know what to expect from that leadership group, they know what to expect from themselves and they know what to expect from the coaching staff. My hope is that they will recognize that we are going from a training camp, in essence, right to the playoffs.
“That’s unusual as we all know, and I’m hoping that the experience of having it ramp up that quickly that the guys can lean on the older players for a little bit of comfort. They don’t necessarily have the experience [of this exact situation], but more being able to get yourselves ready to go in a short period of time.”
There have been unparalleled highs for this B’s core group like winning three Game 7s on the way to hoisting the Cup in Vancouver in 2011.
And there have been painful lows like losing last year’s Game 7 to the Blues on home ice or imploding in Game 6 against the Blackhawks in 2013 after giving up two goals in 17 seconds in the third period. Or Bergeron sitting out nearly the entire 2007-08 regular season after suffering a nasty concussion at the hands of Flyers defenseman Randy Jones.
Or these Bruins players blowing a 3-0 lead in a seven game series against the Flyers back in the second round of the 2010 playoffs.
The Bruins know about soul-searching adversity, they run a compassionate and tight NHL dressing room. This current core group also understands that their window to compete for Stanley Cups is no longer infinite.
In a climate where there is so much unknown to an almost intimidating degree and where some teams might simply submit to the pressure surrounding them while playing amidst a global pandemic, here’s a simple hockey truth: The Bruins might have the exact right kind of collective mental toughness and experience level to compartmentalize things unlike any other team in the entire league. There is no substitute for real-life experience during a time of crisis, and the Bruins have that over every team in the NHL at this point.
With an expectation that this might be the most challenging Stanley Cup of all-time to win in early October, the Bruins should be the favorites based on the experience, the mental toughness, the leadership and -- oh yeah, being a pretty darn good hockey team on top of it all.