The strange happenings of 2020 will continue in 2021, as the NHL has adopted a new regular season schedule for the first season to begin during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020-21 season will feature a strictly divisional schedule including double and triple-headers, and as a consequence, a whole lot of bad blood.
This should be considered an advantage for the Boston Bruins, who are no strangers to hard-hitting, smash-mouth hockey. With or without their enforcer and captain Zdeno Chara, this team still expects to compete for the Presidents’ Trophy and make another run at the Stanley Cup.
The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs, and the first two rounds will be strictly divisional as well. Once the four division winners are decided, they will then clash in the semifinals and finals for the greatest trophy in all of sports. Here are some pros and cons for Bruins players and fans to think about this season.
Pro: Bruins Can Bully Division Bottomfeeders
In other pro sports, the best teams in the league build their win totals and earn high playoff seedings by beating up on the weaker teams in their division. For 20 years the New England Patriots beat up on the Jets, Bills and Dolphins twice a season on the way to six Super Bowls. Such is life for the best team in the division.
This year, the Bruins will beat up on the Buffalo Sabres (as they have always done) and the New Jersey Devils. There is a noticeable gap between these two teams and the rest of the division.
When teams play each other more often, the skill differential between them becomes more apparent. This is the prevailing dynamic between the good and the bad in divisional play, and we should expect the 2020-21 division-only schedule to replicate this pattern.
However, don’t be surprised if the injury-plagued Bruins drop one or two games against the Devils to open the season. The Sabres and Devils should pose a minimal threat to Boston’s playoff hopes as the season goes on. The Bruins will need to win a majority of those games to stay afloat in this division, and they should have no problem doing so.
Con: No Rivalry Games Against Canadiens
For the first time in NHL history, the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will not play each other in the regular season. (from ‘NHL realignment means no Bruins-Canadiens games in regular season,’ Providence Journal, 12/23/2020) The sport’s greatest rivalry will be put on hold.
Having Montreal in the East Division would be more appealing to Bruins faithful for two reasons. First, the rivalry game would resume uninterrupted, and the two teams would play each other eight times in the regular season. One can only imagine the intensity of those games.
There is some silver lining here, though. First, should the Bruins and Canadiens ever meet this season, it will be in the semifinals or the Stanley Cup Final. Both of their recent playoff series in 2010-11 and 2013-14 went to a seventh game.
The Habs also could have taken the place of a better team such as the Pittsburgh Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers, sparing the Bruins from facing another playoff team eight times in the regular season. There is certainly no shortage of them in the East.
Lastly, in place of the Bruins’ clashes with Montreal, some other rivalries will be reborn.
Pro: Renewed Rivalries With Rangers and Flyers
The New York Rangers have the talent in their first and second lines to be an elite NHL team, but there are still some lingering questions about their depth on defense. Depth should not be much of an issue in 2020-21, with just 56 regular season games instead of the standard 82.
So, the top-heavy Rangers stand to benefit the most from a shortened season with minimal travel. New York’s stars will shine in the East, and a rebirth of the expansion-era rivalry with Boston appears imminent.
The Bruins went 3-0 against the Rangers last year with a plus-six goal differential, but we should expect a more even split this season. The first four games are in New York, while the last four take place in Boston. The Rangers will probably take advantage of home ice at first, with Boston regaining some ground later on. In any case, we should expect to see some high-scoring hockey from these two offensive-focused teams.
With that being said, the Flyers are still poised to be Boston’s biggest threat in the East throughout the season. Next to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia has the most well-rounded roster in the Eastern Conference, and Boston will be in that same category when Brad Marchand (sports hernia) and David Pastrnak (hip) get healthy.
There is still no confirmed timeline for their return, but during a video conference on Monday, Dec. 21, Bruins president Cam Neely said he believed both will be back by mid-February.
“It’s hard to put a hard date on those guys,” Neely admitted. “Brad I know has been on the ice a couple times which is a good sign. David recently got back into town and will continue his rehab. I’m sure you know we can get you some dates as things progress here, but right now I don’t really have any hard dates for you.”Boston Bruins Press Room – Cam Neely, December 21, 2020.
The Bruins and Flyers ripped each other apart during their playoff battles in the 1970s, and they also played one of the more memorable playoff series in recent memory back in 2010.
In a highly competitive division and potentially with a Presidents’ Trophy on the line, the eight games between the Flyers and Bruins will be high-stakes, high-quality hockey that fans do not want to miss.
Con: Extremely Difficult Road Through Playoffs
The Flyers, New York Islanders, and Bruins would have competed with the Lightning for the Eastern Conference crown under normal circumstances, but instead they will fight each other to represent the East Division in the playoffs. Only four will make it, and these three will probably be among them.
Coming off an Eastern Conference Final appearance, the Islanders appear primed for another run as a top team in the East. They made a huge leap in the playoff bubble last summer, and if that success carries over at all into 2020-21, New York may end up taking first place in the division.
The Bruins have been spared from facing other Eastern Conference contenders such as Tampa Bay and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the East Division will arguably have the best top four in the league in 2020-21.
With lingering powers such as the Washington Capitals and Penguins, along with rising stars in New York and Philadelphia, there is literally no easy matchup if the Bruins make the playoffs.
If the Bruins do finish in the top four, they will be accompanied by three other legitimate contenders. The East Division seems to be one of the most difficult roads to the Cup in 2020-21.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.