The NHL is set to return with the Stanley Cup Playoffs as early as next month with an unprecedented 24-team postseason. After lots of speculation, the NHL announced that its new format will include a re-seeding after every round, opting away from the standard bracket format, a controversial topic of discussion on social media.
Boston Bruins fans may be rightfully angry about the round-robin tournament that will determine the top four seeds in each conference, the league’s decision to re-seed after each round should make the playoffs a bit fairer after the play-in round.
At this point, it’s too difficult to predict possible matchups for the first round of the playoffs (especially with re-seeding). That being said, let’s take a look at who the Bruins should be hoping to line up against, and who they’ll want to avoid this postseason.
Favorable: Montreal Canadiens
The most favorable matchup for the Bruins in the first round would be an Original Six rivalry showdown against the Montreal Canadiens. Boston’s oldest rival snuck into the postseason as a result of the expanded playoff format. They are the twelfth seed in the East, with a .500 points percentage and a sub-.500 winning percentage (31-31-9).
However, it’s more than their ranking that makes this matchup favorable for the Bruins. For starters, the Bruins had success against Montreal in the regular season, winning three of their four games while outscoring the Canadiens 19-8. The Bruins scored more goals-per-game against the Canadiens (4.75) than any other Eastern Conference playoff team while allowing just two goals per game.
Montreal’s biggest threat is goaltender Carey Price, but the former Vezina Trophy-winner had a less-than-stellar season with a .917 save percentage (SV%) and 2.49 goals-against average (GAA). Ahead of him, Montreal’s defense leaves something to be desired, and their offense doesn’t have an All-Star scorer like David Pastrnak who can threaten to explode. They do have a couple of threats, like Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who led the team with 22 goals apiece (Pastrnak had more than both of them combined). However, Boston’s defensive corps and goaltender Tuukka Rask should be able to take care of them.
Of course, a first-round matchup with the Canadiens would require the Habs to take down the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round. If that happens, we’ll have to re-evaluate their threat.
Least Favorable: Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s no surprise, but the highest-ranked team in the East who did not earn a play-in round bye, the Pittsburgh Penguins, would be a tough first-round opponent for the Bruins. The Penguins’ deep lineup and star power make them a constant threat to play deep into the postseason, and this year is no exception.
The Penguins missed out on the play-in round bye by a .022 points percentage, with their in-state rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, earning it instead. The consolation for Pittsburgh is a series against the Canadiens.
Head to head, Boston got the better of the Penguins during the regular season, going 2-1 against the conference’s other black and gold team while outscoring the Pens 13-9.
However, the Penguins dealt with serious injury problems throughout the regular season, and a healthy, revamped team could be more dangerous than their fifth-seeding implies. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can strike fear into any opposing defender, and the Pens have depth behind their All-Star duo with Bryan Rust, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel (if he recovers from his shoulder injury in time to play). All of those players had at least 40 points this season (and Guentzel played just 39 games).
Matt Murray had a shakey season, posting a .899 SV% and 2.87 GAA while splitting time with Tristan Jarry (.921 SV%, 2.43 GAA). However, we’ve seen him step it up in the past, and given the oddity of this year’s playoff format, who knows which goalies will be able to turn on the switch. This seems like an unlikely first-round matchup, but a Bruins-Penguins series would be a tough one.
Scary Dark Horse: Columbus Blue Jackets
Another team the Bruins should avoid in the first round might come as a surprise: the Columbus Blue Jackets. Don’t be fooled by last postseason’s sweep or their sub-par regular-season record (33-33-15, 9th in the Eastern Conference), Columbus has a team that’s capable of showing up. The Blue Jackets were the only team in the Eastern Conference that the Bruins didn’t beat this season with a 0-1-1 record in the regular season.
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Bruins fans will probably remember the first meeting against Columbus – when Emil Bemstrom caught Rask with an elbow to the head inside the netminder’s crease, forcing Rask out of the game just 1:12 into the first period. The Blue Jackets went on to shutout the Bruins 3-0. Their next matchup came on Jan. 2 when Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 52 seconds into overtime to defeat the Bruins 2-1.
Columbus was and still is capable of winning games. For starters, their goaltending has been surprisingly strong after losing Sergei Bobrovsky last offseason. Their puck-stopping duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins ranked fifth in the league in SV% (.928). Granted, they split time pretty evenly throughout the season, so if they go with one starter for the postseason, that could shake things up.
Ahead of their netminders, they have a team that’s stronger than their record implies, even after losing Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene over the offseason as well. The Blue Jackets have several strong defensemen capable of making noise in the offensive zone. Zach Werenski led NHL defensemen with 20 goals this season, while Seth Jones tallied 30 points despite missing 14 games due to injury.
Ahead of their defense, the Blue Jackets have forwards capable of breakout performances. Oliver Bjorkstrand had a strong regular season (21 goals, 15 assists, 49 games) before fracturing his ankle on Feb. 21, but the break will allow him to be healthy for the postseason. Dubois is always a threat in the offensive zone (18 goals, 31 assists, 70 games), as is Gustav Nyquist (15 goals, 27 assists, 70 games) and Cam Atkinson (12 goals, 14 assists, 44 games), who also missed a good chunk of time due to injuries but should be healthy by the start of play.
While it isn’t the same team as last season, the Blue Jackets aren’t strangers to a big upset as we saw with last postseason’s sweep of the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning.
There are a lot of factors that will determine first-round matchups this season, so the Bruins will have to play the waiting game before they know who they’ll face when their playoff lives are on the line. For their sake, let’s hope it’s the Canadiens, and not Pittsburgh or Columbus.
Cam is a Broadcast Journalism student at the University of Maryland. He’s the Boston Bruins Beat Writer at The Hockey Writers, and is an avid college hockey fan. Find him on Twitter @CamHasbrouck!