Believe it not, the Bruins think they’re in an even better position than last year to win it all once NHL play resumes this summer.
There will certainly be hurdles like nothing they’ve experienced before.
How about getting the legs churning again in short order for the fourth-oldest team among the 31 NHL teams this season?
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With the news over the weekend that the NHL intends to choose their two hub cities this week and begin playing games around July 30 after a two-week training camp at NHL practice facilities, it’s going to be a fairly expedient process for Bruins players to go from 0-to-100 mph with Stanley Cup playoff intensity.
That won’t be easy when it comes to guys like 43-year-old Zdeno Chara and 34-year-old Patrice Bergeron, no matter how much off-ice conditioning work they did over the last several months. That’s the reason you’ve already seen guys like Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Chara working out at Warrior Ice Arena with the advent of voluntary skating sessions.
Then there’s the challenge of tuning up with one exhibition game and three round-robin games where the Bruins have already admitted they’ll treat them with a “preseason mentality” when it comes to getting their roster ready for playoffs.
There’s also this simple, salient fact: the Bruins are the most experienced, battle-hardened group among the 24 teams after piling up 100 points and winning the Presidents' Trophy. The fire is burning deep down inside to win it all this time around after falling short in Game 7 last June against the St. Louis Blues.
It’s something that’s gnawed at a Bruins hockey club all year looking to avenge last season’s gut-wrenching loss, and a team that went on a revenge tour of sorts this whole season. For some players like Chara, Bergeron, Marchand, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask, a win this summer means capping off their legacies in Boston while currently just 1-for-3 in Stanley Cup Final opportunities.
There’s also this: The Bruins simply think they are better than last year.
They have more variety in scoring, the younger players are more grizzled and a rested Rask showed last summer he can take them to the end if enough players can carry them over the hump when they get there. They are even a little bigger and tougher than last year and that’s important given what happened against St. Louis.
“It’s a huge motivation. Last season was an unbelievable experience for me,” said Pastrnak, who was leading the NHL with 48 goals and was tied for third in the league with 95 points when the 2019-20 regular season went on pause due to COVID-19. “I don’t think I would be where I’m at without last year. But we had a great season played [this year].
I think we are an even better team than last year. So obviously we need to get back into the work, mentally most importantly. I can’t wait to start playing. Our players are the best part of hockey, so I’m happy that we’re finishing [the season].
Clearly, they are deeper with the additions of Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie at the NHL trade deadline, and there won’t be nagging injuries sapping the effectiveness of key players like Pastrnak and Marchand as there was last spring.
Some of it is about key, young players like Charlie McAvoy, Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo and Jake DeBrusk getting a long playoff run under their belts, and now knowing what to expect from themselves if they want to win it all. Combine that with the steady, determined approach from veterans like Chara, Bergeron and Krejci at the end of their Cup windows, and the Bruins have the kind of roster mixture that’s ready to face the challenges head on.
Perhaps this long layoff will even give Chara, Bergeron, Marchand and Krejci an extra reserve to call on in the postseason after three months to rest, haul and dwell on just how many Cup chances they have left as a group.
There are myriad pitfalls this summer’s Cup winner is going to have to conquer over the next few months. There will be positive tests as we’ve seen over the last few days and there will most certainly be players — perhaps even key ones — who will be removed from playoff competition if they are determined to have COVID-19. The news that Auston Matthews tested positive last week was a reminder that this playoff run could be the most turbulent of its kind in the history of the Stanley Cup postseason.
Even false positive tests may sideline players for a couple of days where a one or two-game absence could be catastrophic.
The maturity and poise of the Bruins group will be a major plus for them when adversity and chaos start swirling all around them. Those kinds of scenarios could simply be too much of a mental strength challenge for young hockey teams that come out of the gate flying after sitting out the last three months,
At least that’s what Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy thinks will be the big equalizer when it’s all said and done.
“I think we’ll have that [fire]. Our guys understand what’s at stake. Like every playoffs, there will be circumstances at play. We’ve talked about the one positive test [in Phase 2 for the Bruins] and how does that affect your team. Injuries always come into play,” said Cassidy, during an NBC Sports Boston Zoom call. “I don’t doubt our group’s desire to win, or desire to play. That won’t be an issue. Will we be good enough to win 16 games? Will we catch a break on the right day during those 16 wins? I don’t doubt our desire to win, or to play, at all with this group. That is going to be there.
"I think we have one of the best leadership groups in the NHL and it’s a big reason that I have had success as a coach. People sometimes talk about a window closing [for the Bruins], but I don’t ever think of that. I think they are here today and this is the group we have. And we’re going to win with this group and we’re very grateful.
It’s why I don’t feel like there’s going to be a lack of urgency. They know what’s at stake. They have won [the Cup] and they have come close to winning. They have been on both sides of it in the Finals. That’s why I trust them. [The Bruins veterans] have been there more than I have. They get the message through to the rest of the group. It’s a trickle-down effect.
"I think for our younger guys, they have to live it [and] they really did last year. It’s unfinished business for those young guys. You’ve got the leadership that wants it and the younger guys got a taste of it and didn’t quite get it. There’s a lot to be motivated about. It’s more about what’s coming out of nowhere that could affect us and being ready for that.”
Will the experience and mental strength aspect of Boston’s overall makeup be a determining factor once we enter uncharted waters with the 24-team NHL playoff format? Will the Perfection Line roll when it matters most like they haven’t in the last couple of seasons due to the heavy workload they carried into the playoffs?
In many ways last season was handed to them on a silver platter when top seeds like Washington and Tampa Bay bowed out in the first round of the postseason, but clearly they weren't ready to take advantage of the Black and Golden chance.
It remains to be seen, but there are reasons to believe the Bruins are uniquely equipped to handle whatever gets thrown at them in August and September when hockey is back on the ice. That’s something to be excited about for B's fans.