The NHL playoffs begin next week and the first-round opponent for the Boston Bruins has yet to be determined. In a loaded and stacked Eastern Conference where all eight teams that qualified for the postseason have at least 100 points, it is going to be a battle each and every night in each series.
Like most teams entering the NHL’s two-month sprint for the Stanley Cup, the Bruins have questions that face them as they prepare for their final two regular-season games against the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. Here are three burning questions that face the Black and Gold ahead of next week’s beginning of the playoffs.
Who Will Start Game 1 in Goal?
This question might very well be the biggest that faces coach Bruce Cassidy. For the first time in his tenure behind the bench, he will not have the services of Tuukka Rask, who called it a career in early February. At Cassidy’s expense are rookie Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. Between the two, there is a grand total of one period of playoff hockey experience, which belongs to Swayman who came on in relief of Rask in last season’s second-round series against the New York Islanders.
Last summer in free agency, general manager Don Sweeney raised some eyebrows when it was announced that the Bruins agreed to a four-year, $20 million contract with Ullmark, a former division rival goalie for the Buffalo Sabres. During his time in Western New York, he dealt with various injuries which limited his number of appearances to just 117 over six seasons. This season, however, he has played in a career-high 40 games and has been solid with a 25-10-2 record with a 2.51 goals-against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%).
Swayman avoided a sophomore slump after winning seven of his 10 games last season to have another impressive 2021-22 season, despite missing some time when Rask signed as a free agent in January, which forced Swayman to the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL). Swayman is 23-13-3 with a 2.37 GAA and a .915 SV%, while allowing just 92 goals and recording three shutouts.
Both goalies have split the time coming down toward the end of the regular season, with Swayman seeing just a bit more action after Ullmark took a shot off the mask against the Ottawa Senators on April 14 which sidelined him for three games. Generally, teams don’t split the goaltending in the playoffs as they do in the regular season and it will be worth seeing if Cassidy starts with one and if they get hot, does he ride the hot hand or continue to split the time? Time will tell.
What Will be the Third Pairing on Defense?
Assuming that they get through the final two games against the Sabres and Maple Leafs healthy, it’s certain that the top four will be Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Carlo, and Matt Grzelcyk. After that is where things get interesting.
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On the left side, that leaves Derek Forbort and Mike Reilly, while on the right side, the options are Connor Clifton and Josh Brown. Where Cassidy goes might depend on the matchup. On the left side, Forbort might very well get the nod over Reilly because he is bigger, provides more options on the penalty kill, and has played better hockey over the last month. Reilly has struggled in a lot of areas, with being called for six penalties, four careless high-sticking calls, and putting the Bruins in tough situations. Power plays can very easily be a deciding factor in who wins and loses a series.
On the right side, Clifton could easily get the spot over Brown as he brings more to the table. He has been more active offensively, playing better in the defensive zone, being physical, and winning battles both in front and behind the net. When the Bruins acquired Brown from the Senators at the trade deadline, it was more to be the seventh defenseman and depth for the end of the season and postseason.
Can the Third-Line Be a Difference-Maker?
When Cassidy shuffled around his lines and finalized the third line with Trent Frederic, Charlie Coyle, and Craig Smith, they formed a very good connection and chemistry. Scoring depth behind the first line has been an issue in previous seasons and this season, Boston became a two-line team. Now with the emergence of the third line, being three lines deep is needed to be able to have a chance to survive and advance.
While things have gone well for the trio, the last couple of weeks has raised some flags heading into the playoffs. Frederic has been whistled for two very untimely penalties. Against the St. Louis Blues on April 12 and the Bruins holding a 2-1 second period lead, he was called for a roughing penalty after the whistle that eventually led to a Torey Krug power-play goal and began a rally that saw the Blues score the games final three goals for a 4-2 win.
Sunday night against the Montreal Canadiens, the Bruins were shorthanded late in the first period and when the horn sounded to end the period, he picked up an unsportsmanlike penalty against Jeff Petry, after the Canadiens defenseman hit Patrice Bergeron at center ice. The result was the Black and Gold began the second period down two men and his penalty led to a power-play goal by Josh Anderson. The Bruins did not lose the game, but in the postseason, penalties after the play is over can hurt a team, which leads you to think, is Frederic ready for the shining moments of the playoffs?
Smith struggled in the top-six before Cassidy made the line changes and he has been better on the third line. He has, however, struggled recently and he has a 11-game goalless drought that he is facing at the wrong time of the year. He has always been a streaky goal-scorer, but it’s tough to have him struggling right now and it’s not for a lack of effort or scoring chances. During his drought, he has 23 shots on the net and the Bruins are hoping sooner than later his shots start finding the back of the net.
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The playoffs begin next week, but there are still questions facing the Bruins. Goaltending is big in the playoffs, the third pairing on defense is going to be big, especially late in games, and depth scoring of at least three lines is what can separate the difference between advancing to the second round or going home. If Boston wants to play beyond the opening round, they will need all three questions to be answered strongly right away or they could be in trouble.