The Boston Bruins are back in the NHL Playoffs for the first time in the last three seasons. In the grand scale of NHL history, it is not nearly the longest playoff drought. But for Boston, a team who was poised to be a Chicago Blackhawks-lite dynasty after its championship in 2011 and a return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013, missing the playoffs hurt bad the past two years.
It’s good to be back.
However, satisfaction with merely returning to the playoffs ended as the Bruins squandered away their opportunities to secure second place in the Atlantic Division, dropping their final two games of the regular season, and put their fate in the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday night. The Bruins came dangerously close to playing Washington, the league’s best team, in the first round. Fortunately, the Blue Jackets’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs means the Bruins face the Ottawa Senators in the first round as the third seed in the Atlantic.
In the regular season, the Bruins averaged more goals each game than Ottawa (2.83 to 2.51), and owned a slight defensive edge over the Senators as well (2.55 goals against per game to Ottawa’s 2.56). Both Boston’s power play and penalty kill percentages rank in the top ten in the league, while Ottawa’s rest in the bottom third. The Senators are the only playoff team in the league with a negative goal differential of -2.
Despite those clear advantages, the Senators defeated the Bruins all four times the two teams met during the regular season. Ottawa outscored Boston 12-6 in those contests, a two to one margin. This series will truly test the Bruins, who faced Ottawa as recently as last Thursday and could not muster more than one goal.
Shutting down two time Norris Trophy winner and arguably the NHL’s top defenseman Erik Karlsson, who led the Senators with 71 points this season, will be Boston’s top priority, as well as breaking through Ottawa’s 1-3-1 zone entry defense. To complicate things, it looks like Bruins defensemen Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo will not play in Game 1 on Wednesday night, as well as fourth liner Noel Acciari. Krug and Carlo averaged second and third most time on ice among Bruins defensemen this season, and replacing them even just for one game will prove difficult. Kevan Miller’s deficiencies were exposed when he was forced to play more in the 2014 playoffs against Montreal, and it appears Colin Miller nor Joe Morrow earned the trust of the coaching staff this season.
The big question is where Boston’s newly signed prospects from Boston University, center Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and defenseman Charlie McAvoy (signed to a three year entry level contract on Monday) fit into a playoff roster. That McAvoy signed with the NHL club means he must play and show his NHL ready offensive talent, especially with Krug and Carlo out. Forsbacka Karlsson, is another story. He only played one game before the regular season ended, and is no high talent offensive dynamo. It would surprise to see him get the Game 1 nod as third or fourth line center over Dominic Moore, a veteran with 93 playoff games under his belt, or Ryan Spooner, who Bruce Cassidy is much more familiar with as of now.
The Bruins still lack a definitive presence on David Krejci’s left wing and need someone to step into a reliable role there if they want to see playoff success this season. Frank Vatrano‘s minutes have decreased lately, Tim Schaller is no top six winger, and Matt Beleskey still struggles to remain in the lineup. Right now, trade deadline acquisition Drew Stafford has fit in well and will likely remain there. If the Bruins manage to coax prospect Anders Bjork out of his senior year at Notre Dame, he may be given an opportunity to immediately take that spot.
The Bruins’ 2016-2017 season was full of question marks and uncertainty, and the first round of the playoffs is no different. This team has the talent to beat the Ottawa Senators, but has not shown it in four head to head matchups with them so far this year. The notion that Boston is in a rebuild on the fly must be put on the backburner for now- in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the saying goes, anything can happen. It’s time to see what these Bruins are really made of.