Washington Capitals

NHL Power Rankings: Sprint to the playoffs underway

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

NHL Power Rankings: Sprint to the playoffs underway

The NHL is now in sprint mode with roughly two months left in the regular season, and no breaks in the schedule coming until a few days in between the end of the regular season and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There’s most definitely an air of elevated intensity in the games at this point with teams fighting for their playoff lives, other teams alert and awake to protect their playoff position and even bottom-dwelling teams filled with players looking to protect their niche within the league.

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It all makes for games like the fight-filled affair in Winnipeg last weekend between the Bruins and the Jets, and the equally entertaining Battles of Alberta that culminated with a goalie fight between Cam Talbot and Mike Smith last week as well.

The big winners in all of this are hockey fans around the NHL that will be watching some of the best games of the season with teams refreshed after the All-Star break and bye weeks, and hyper-motivated to get into their finishing kick now that there’s light at the end of the regular season tunnel.  

Now on to the Power Rankings:

Bruins at the Break: How will B's get past Capitals or Lightning as potential playoff foes?

Bruins at the Break: How will B's get past Capitals or Lightning as potential playoff foes?

The “Bruins at the Break” is a five-part series this week with the B’s on a bye that has examined the first half of the season and how it could potentially impact the remaining 31 games in the second half. Today, we look at the biggest question facing the team: How will they beat the bigger, deeper and stronger Capitals or Lightning in the playoffs?

The Bruins had fortune on their side last spring in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a big, big way.

Both the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning were shockingly out after the first round and, in many ways, those two ousters cleared the path for the Black and Gold to get all the way to the Cup Final once all four No. 1 seeds were eliminated after the quarterfinal round.

The Bruins, of course, couldn’t close the deal in part because they faced a bigger, stronger Blues team after managing to avoid bigger, stronger and deeper teams in Tampa Bay and Washington in the Eastern Conference playoffs. So, eventually, they ran into the same old problem — even though it took four rounds of playoffs to get there.

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Boston would be foolish to assume that kind of lightning is going to strike twice, no pun intended, this spring, and should instead assume it could be facing Tampa or Washington, or even both if the B's advance deep enough into the postseason this time around.

It was the Lightning that dispatched the Bruins in the playoffs a couple of seasons ago in a five-game series that wasn’t all that competitive. It’s the Capitals that have routinely bounced the Bruins around for the better part of five years.

Just prior to the Christmas break, the Bruins got a rare blowout win over the Capitals that was still marred by Washington’s physicality. Once Boston built a strong lead against a Washington team already focused on Christmas vacation, the Capitals spent the rest of the game pounding the smaller B’s until both Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug were knocked out with injuries.

The Bruins have plenty of game-breaking skill and breathtaking two-way play on their top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, but they don’t have fire-breathing, heavy, physical playoff-built forwards such as Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on their roster. That becomes a real issue translating a Boston team built for the regular season into becoming one in the playoffs capable of imposing its will for two months.

Regardless of whether the Bruins can retain their hold on first place in the Atlantic Division in the regular season's final 31 games, the Lightning are the only team that can catch the Bruins at five points back. Still, the regular season and postseason are two different things, and Tampa Bay has depth up front with their forwards that the Bruins can’t really approach.

It’s part of the reason that two springs ago the Brayden Point line was able to shut down Boston’s Perfection Line while other Lightning players took turns beating the Black and Gold and Tampa’s big defensive corps did the job against the smaller B’s forwards as well.  

This season, the Lightning have four players on pace for 30-plus goals (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Point and Alex Killorn) and already have seven players in double-digit goals at the midpoint in the season. By comparison, the Bruins have each member of their Perfection Line on a 30-goal pace with five players in double-digit goals as Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci are also on pace for 20-goal seasons.

That kind of scoring depth makes a big difference when it becomes a matchup game in the playoffs, where the Bruins were hopelessly outgunned two seasons ago. They would appear to be the case if these two divisional rivals meet again this postseason.

So what can be done about it?

Well, the first thing the Bruins could do immediately is add a big, fast and productive winger to their top-six who could battle with the big D-men in Tampa and Washington. New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider would be at the top of that list should he become available. He would aid Boston’s designs on getting closer to the net for postseason offense.

Certainly, others such as Kyle Palmieri or Tyler Toffoli wouldn’t be the same kind of impact wingers, but they would still be an upgrade over what the B’s now have, just as Marcus Johansson was a good trade deadline fit for them last spring.

It seems with the promotion of Karson Kuhlman, on the heels of waiving Brett Ritchie and David Backes, the Bruins are instead going the fast, skilled route and that’s just going to lead to them getting pushed far and away from the net as happened last June vs. St. Louis and two years ago against the Lightning.

It’s a pattern and a way to beat the Bruins in the playoffs and it’s going to happen again against one of those bigger, stronger and deeper teams unless management finds a way to address it over the next month. 

That will be the mission for management the next few weeks as these Bruins compare very favorably to the ones that ultimately fell short of their goal the past two seasons.


 

NHL Power Rankings: Getting back to business after All-Star break

NHL Power Rankings: Getting back to business after All-Star break

The time is nigh for the sellers and the buyers to get selling and buying ahead of next month’s NHL trade deadline.

Teams like the Capitals, Blues, Bruins, Penguins, Avs, Islanders, Stars and Canucks will be buying as they get ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs after building a strong seasonal body of work through the NHL All-Star break.

Meanwhile, other teams like the Devils, Kings, Senators, Red Wings and Ducks will be selling off assets and they could very soon be joined by other teams like the Rangers and Sharks that are on the fence with some heavy duty assets like Chris Kreider, Joe Thornton and Brenden Dillon who will create a stir when they become available.

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It will be what happens over the next couple of weeks that will create that landscape ahead of the late February trade deadline as teams either solidify their playoff hopes or get their dreams dashed once and for all this season.

Click here for this week's NHL Power Rankings.