BRIGHTON, Mass. – The Bruins will undoubtedly be wary of the wild card Columbus Blue Jackets when their playoff series gets underway on Thursday night at TD Garden.
The Blue Jackets gave the Bruins all they could handle during the season and dropped seven goals on them during an embarrassing mid-March loss in Columbus before dropping the final two meetings of the regular season between the two teams. Now they are vastly improved due to confidence, greater focus and finished chemistry between some of the new parts brought in at the trade deadline, and the Blue Jackets are getting the proper respect from the Bruins headed in.
During the regular season the Blue Jackets were just outside the top-10 in both offense and defense, but they improved markedly once Matt Duchene (three goals, seven points in four games) arrived, as evidenced by his scoring binge in the first round against the Lightning.
The Columbus power play was dreadful during the regular season, so it will be interesting to see if their hot PP stays hot in the second round. But their PK was the second-best in the NHL during the regular season, and it will be a prime-time matchup butting heads against a Boston PP that was red-hot (7-for-17) against the Leafs in the first round.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was paying his respect to Columbus ahead of the series while addressing the media on Wednesday, and it sure sounds like Boston won’t underestimate the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets this round.
“They’re tough. They’re well-rested. They won by our count 7-of-8 and 11-of-12 down the stretch and four in a row against arguably a favorite [in Tampa Bay] going into the Stanley Cup playoffs. They made a lot of changes and have come together,” Sweeney said, addressing the media on Wednesday in between playoff game days. “They present a lot of challenges and we’re going to have to be at our best to beat them. It’s two teams that certainly have good goaltending, good depth and balance in their scoring. After a four-game series I think they’re first in PP and fifth in penalty kill, and we’re second and seventh. Special teams were a factor in the last series. It’s definitely a tough opponent and we’re going to need to be at our best.
“They’re a talented group. They’ll score off the rush. They’ll fore-check in an aggressive manner. They were in the top-10 anyway, but their blocked shots have dramatically increased. So they’re invested and they present challenges. They have good goaltending and they have three defensemen that generally play in the 26-28 minute range [of ice time]. So they’re on the ice an awful lot of the game. They have a power play that was running hot during the [Tampa] series and was pretty good during the year as well.
"They present challenges. They’re a good team and they deserve to be here.”
Certainly Duchene and Artemi Panarin will get plenty of attention up front, but this is also a big, physical group that doesn’t mind matching brawn with skill, and could pose problems on multiple fronts. Sergei Bobrovsky is every bit as good as Tuukka Rask, if not better between the pipes. And the Blue Jackets' defense features young stud D-men in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones who will play close to half of each and every one of the playoff games.
That’s a much different wrinkle than the self-destructing Maple Leafs, who eventually reverted to form in Game 7 after playing some good defense through most of the first-round series. That won’t be the case for the B’s against the Blue Jackets, and instead they’ll have to earn it just as fervently as they did in the seven-game series vs. Toronto in the first round.
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