With 14 games remaining, the Boston Bruins have all but sealed their spot in the playoffs. Seeding remains to be ironed out, as they could land anywhere from second seed in the Atlantic to second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference.
Here are four games to keep an eye on as the Bruins make their final push. These opponents are a measuring stick for the Bruins as they tune up for the playoffs, either continuing their momentum or posing a stumbling block or trap game for the team.
April 5: Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings have been struggling mightily after a strong start, compiling an 3-10-3 record since March 1. They also have the distinction of being the first team in the salary cap era to allow 11 goals in a game. They are a young team who sold off assets at the trade deadline and is looking to the future, so it should be an easy game, right?
You would hope, but no game is a guarantee in the NHL and the Red Wings have two Calder Trophy candidates in Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider who can change any game. Add these two up-and-coming stars with the fact that the Bruins will be on the second leg of a back-to-back having played in Columbus against the Blue Jackets the night before, and it could spell trouble for them. Add in their win against Columbus on Saturday, and you now see the game in Detroit will be the team’s third in four days as well. This many games packed so tightly together at the end of the season, and there is reason to see a trap game forming.
April 14: Ottawa Senators
The Senators were a preseason pick to fight for a lottery spot at the bottom of the NHL standings. As a young team whose projected window to compete for a playoff position was still a year or two away, the Senators have mostly lived up (or down to) the billing. The team is 24-37-6 on the season, good for second to last in the Atlantic Division, so this should be another easy game to bank points and pad the stat lines for players, right?
Not so fast. While the Senators are young and have a record that will likely see them formally eliminated from playoff contention in the next day or two, they are also a team that can be a challenge to play against. With the youth and inexperience, comes a resilience to wrap up this season on a positive note and build for next year. Also, Ottawa has shown an ability to beat teams that on paper should outclass them at nearly every turn. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars, two teams that are in a playoff position in the Western Conference. Both teams have lost each of their meetings with the Senators this year.
“But Vince, the Western Conference doesn’t compare to the East, that doesn’t mean anything!” Fine, we can work with that premise. Let’s see how the Metropolitan-leading Carolina Hurricanes feel about playing the Senators. Uh-oh, the Senators have won two of the three meetings, only losing the other game in overtime. I’m not here to say they are a buzzsaw, but for a game that should be a chance to bank points for a higher seed, don’t count out the pesky Sens.
April 21: Pittsburgh Penguins
A Sidney Crosby-led team will always be a difficult team to match up against. Factor in the rest of the team around the Penguins captain, and you can see why they are third in the Metropolitan and preparing for yet another year in the playoffs. As a veteran team, the Penguins have the experience to know what it would mean to send a message to the Bruins in the weeks leading up to the playoffs, and a possible second round date between the teams. Also, this is the only playoff team on my list. That in and of itself is enough to be used as a barometer for their preparation for a playoff push. Sure, you can beat up on the weaker teams, but how do you stack up against one of your conference’s standard bearers for the last decade?
Pittsburgh and Boston also meet twice within a week. The first game will be at TD Garden, but this game is in Pittsburgh, providing a strong road test for the Bruins. While they have one game between the two meetings with the Penguins, Pittsburgh has no games between their dates with the Bruins. This will allow the team time to rest, recover, and learn from the first game, in a way the Bruins will not be able to based on the schedule.
April 28: Buffalo Sabres
Like the Senators, Buffalo was expected to be in heavy contention for a lottery pick. The team has mostly matched that prediction over the length of the season, but a recent hot stretch has shown a glimpse at what Sabres fans can look forward to in the coming years. With points in nine of their last ten games, Buffalo is the type of team that will be looking to play spoiler.
While the Bruins are playing for playoff seeding, while simultaneously trying to rest key players, Buffalo has players playing for their jobs, looking to leave an impression in their final few games of the year. The Sabres could steal a crucial set of points if the Bruins are resting their top guys in anticipation of the playoffs, while Buffalo is playing with the heart and tenacity of players fighting for roster spots. As the second to last game of the season, this could be the day and game that locks the Bruins into a playoff position. The outcome of this game could decide whether Boston plays an Atlantic Division rival like the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or if they find themselves in a Wild Card spot playing the Hurricanes in the first round.
These games may not be the flashiest, but every point is important as teams battle for playoff seeding. Even dropping one point in overtime to a team outside of the playoff picture could prove costly to the Bruins as a match-up with Carolina would be a very tough obstacle to a postseason run of success. Let’s buckle up for a busy end of the season, and watch for the starting point of the Bruins’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.