With a 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Sunday and a series against the Buffalo Sabres next on the schedule, the Boston Bruins have firmly set themselves apart from the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers for the coveted fourth playoff spot in the MassMutual East Division.
Even so, it seems unlikely to the Bruins faithful that their team will make a deep playoff run. Despite the valuable additions of Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly that have led to a four-game winning streak, the Bruins still don’t quite belong in the upper echelon of the NHL this year.
However, fortunes can change rather quickly in the game of hockey, as we most recently saw with the St. Louis Blues in 2019. A lot can happen between now and the start of the postseason. The Stanley Cup Playoffs almost rival March Madness from year to year in terms of unpredictability.
This will be especially true this season, with the altered playoff format. A lot of stars will have to align just to make it to the Final, especially for a fringe playoff team like the Bruins. Here are a few things that must happen for Boston to be one of the final teams left standing.
Avoid the Islanders in the Early Rounds
The New York Islanders have been the most painful thorn in the Bruins’ side this season. Boston has a 2-4-1 record against them, the worst against any opponent. They finally slayed the dragon in back-to-back games on April 15 and 16 in convincing wins, but the Islanders still feel like the team in the East that is most likely to knock them out of the playoffs, if they should meet.
As things stand, the Islanders are fighting for the second seed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Boston is slowly creeping up on the third seed. Frankly, they would be better off staying in fourth place, facing the Capitals in the first round, and hoping that Pittsburgh takes care of the Islanders.
This is not to say that the Capitals would be a walk in the park. However, the Bruins match up better with them than with the Islanders. The Islanders have the formula to shut down Boston’s perfection line, which no other team has shown, and they are better-coached. Plus, the addition of Kyle Palmieri, who tormented the Bruins this year when he was with the New Jersey Devils, scares me a little bit. He could continue to haunt them in the playoffs.
The Caps and Penguins are both tough draws in their own right, but avoiding the Islanders would be the most ideal situation for Boston. Despite their recent struggles, New York is still the scariest matchup for the Bruins in their division.
Keep Tuukka Rask Healthy
To put it bluntly, there is absolutely no way the Bruins make a playoff run without Tuukka Rask. As great as Jaroslav Halak, Jeremy Swayman, and Dan Vladar have been in relief this season, they are not the answer in goal when the playoffs roll around.
Rask has gone 2-0 since returning from an upper-body injury, and he appears to be back on his game. Don’t let the three goals allowed on Sunday fool you – two of the Capitals’ goals were on the power play, and the other came on a breakaway scoring chance. Rask looked fantastic in net, making several key stops in the third period to preserve his team’s lead.
Can Halak or Swayman step in for a game or two in the postseason? Sure. But Boston isn’t winning a single playoff series if Rask isn’t out there for the majority of the games. The Bruins training staff should monitor his health closely and be careful not to overwork him in the final weeks of the regular season. He needs to be at 100% when the playoffs begin.
Blue Line Must Step Up
Boston’s defensive unit must get healthy as well, particularly Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo, who are inching their way back into the lineup. Aside from Reilly and Charlie McAvoy, they are the only two real offensive threats from the blue line. Not only that, but their skating ability and collective hockey IQ has been the only thing keeping the Bruins’ defense from collapsing.
That was made abundantly clear last week in Boston’s 8-1 loss to the Capitals on April 11, when McAvoy, Grzelcyk, Carlo, and Kevan Miller were all missing from the lineup with various ailments. The young guys looked completely lost without them. These veterans must get healthy and stay healthy for the Bruins to have any chance at making a playoff run.
The top four must also play a bigger role on offense – particularly the power play – which has been a major component of Boston’s success in recent postseasons. Grzelcyk, McAvoy, and Reilly will all get involved in this facet of the game. They have the goods to run the power play like Torey Krug, and they’ll need to show it in May and June.
I recently watched highlights of last year’s Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, which featured many offensively gifted blue-liners (as did the playoffs as a whole). Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen played the best hockey of their lives. It’s a lot to ask for, but Boston’s top four will have to play at that kind of level.
As with all Stanley Cup-winning teams, every man in the lineup brings his best, from the team captain to the fourth line enforcer. We haven’t seen many complete team efforts from the Bruins this season, and this will be the greatest obstacle keeping them from winning in the playoffs.
Things appear to be going in the right direction, with Hall and Craig Smith revitalizing the second line and Lazar providing a spark on the fourth line. Jake DeBrusk, Charlie Coyle, and Nick Ritchie are quietly putting together solid shifts on the third line, though it may not show up on the stat sheet. As previously mentioned, Reilly has given the blue line a huge boost, and the injured defensemen are slowly making their way back.
We can rest assured that Boston’s household names – Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak – will do their share, but what can we expect from these other names? This has been the story of the Bruins for several years, and unless this team gets a balanced effort from the entire roster like they did in 2010-11, the Bruins won’t be going anywhere near a Stanley Cup.
For now, though, they need to stay focused on the task at hand: clinching their playoff spot. The next step in achieving that goal is a three-game series at Buffalo, starting Tuesday night at 6:30.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.