Joe Haggerty

Bruins absolutely should play for Islanders matchup over Hurricanes

Bruins absolutely should play for Islanders matchup over Hurricanes

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.

Bruins' Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Jaroslav Halak miss Friday's practice

Bruins' Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Jaroslav Halak miss Friday's practice

Bruins players Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Jaroslav Halak were all missing from Friday’s practice in the Toronto bubble while “unfit to participate”, but all are expected to be back for Sunday’s round-robin showdown with the Washington Capitals.

Cassidy called it a “short-term thing” and expected all three players would be ready to practice on Saturday ahead of their final round-robin game this weekend.

“We anticipate [on Saturday] we’ll have our full group, but until we’ll just keep trying to make it work,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Obviously this whole training camp we haven’t had lines together consistently for different reasons. Will it affect us in the postseason? Time will tell.

“I’d like to see our group together to see what it looks like…all together. But until that happens we’re going to fit people in together for practices and games where they can best help us and then go from there.”

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It will be the first time the entire Bruins group will be healthy, ready and available to play and Bruce Cassidy indicated that both Ondrej Kase and defenseman Connor Clifton should get in their first game action of the last two weeks.

Clifton will likely play in place of rookie D-man Jeremy Lauzon in order to get him some game action prior to next week’s playoff games, and Kase will be expected to knock the rust off after being set behind while spending a month in quarantine at the beginning of the NHL’s Return to Play.

“He looks good. He’s making some plays. He’s got some jump,” said Cassidy of Kase in practice this week. “I think the first three days were tough on him for obvious reasons and now he’s been at it for a full week. You can see he’s a little more natural with everything he does. He’s got quick hands.

“My anticipation is he’ll have lots of energy and he’ll fight the puck like a lot of our guys early on in their first game back because of the speed. I anticipate he’ll get some shots because he’s been shot-first in practice and we could use a little more of that. We need him to play. Hopefully he can pick it up quick because he’s missed some time. We have every intention of using him in Game 1 [next week], we just have to see where he’s at [against the Capitals]. Hopefully he’s ready to go.”

With Kase and Clifton expected to play on Sunday, the Bruins will have everybody they expect to use on their roster with at least some game action under their belt and ready to play whoever their opponent ends up being whether it’s the Islanders, Penguins or Hurricanes based on the way things play out this weekend.

Torey Krug admits Bruins are having trouble lighting fire in round-robin format

Torey Krug admits Bruins are having trouble lighting fire in round-robin format

If you feel like the Bruins have been futilely searching for motivation during this entire Toronto bubble hockey situation to date, it's not your overactive imagination. 

Bruins defenseman Torey Krug confirmed that to NBC Sports Boston during an exclusive zoom call on Thursday when he talked about the struggle to ratchet up the urgency in round robin games with no real playoff consequences, and the difficulty of generating emotion and momentum in an empty arena during a time when playoff hockey crowds are usually at their fever pitch. 

The Bruins have lost all three games they have played over the last two weeks in Toronto -- one exhibition against the Blue Jackets and two round robin games against the Flyers and Lightning -- but mercifully will wrap up the round robin with a Sunday showdown against the Washington Capitals. The good news is that the No. 3 seed in the East will be on the line in that game, so there will be something to play for between Eastern Conference powers in Boston and Washington. 

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The Bruins have gradually elevated their intensity level over the last two weeks, but Krug confirmed that it’s been a bit of a struggle for the Black and Gold. 

“It’s all part of the situation. Whether it’s right or wrong, the mentality is tough [to elevate] when it’s not do-or-die and you know you’re not getting sent home,” Krug admitted. “We do sit and talk as a group 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. 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. 

“Empty buildings are a lot different than when guys say, ‘When you’re on the ice it doesn’t matter and you block everything out.’ It’s really tough to generate momentum or energize a group, especially when you’re down by one or two goals. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just matter of fact. We’re in a situation where it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’ve got to show up the next time we’re on the ice. It’s been tough, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Bruins finally showed flickers of their playoff mode a couple of days ago as tempers flared and intensity elevated against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Those were encouraging signs as the Bruins have been forced to become self-motivators in every way during this unique Stanley Cup playoff journey.

The good news: That shouldn’t be required next week when the real playoffs begin and everything is on the line for every remaining team.