4 Bruins Who Surprised in the First Round

On Sunday night, the Boston Bruins defeated the Washington Capitals 3-1 in Game 5 to win their first-round playoff matchup. After looking shaky to start the series, the team turned it on in Game 3 and there was little doubt after that as to who would be the one to win this series. After struggling to win against the Capitals in the last few seasons, it was a welcome surprise to see how well they matched up against them this whole season. 

As already mentioned, there were some rough moments for the Bruins in this series. They struggled on the powerplay, the top line was largely absent in Game 1, and couldn’t seem to prevent odd-man rushes from happening every other play. 

But they turned it around and the Bruins’ top players, particularly David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand, turned it on as the series progressed. Hopefully, that momentum continues into the next round matchup against either the Pittsburgh Penguins or the New York Islanders. 

There were impressive performances throughout the lineup in this series, including some surprises. After last year’s disappointing performances across the board, it was reassuring to see players stepping up under the spotlight rather than shrinking away. Here are the four biggest surprise performances from the first round.

Jake DeBrusk

After a rough regular season, I was pulling for DeBrusk to use that as motivation to have a great 2021 playoffs. He’s in the first year of a two-year bridge deal. The deal is a chance for him to establish himself as a goal-scorer in this league after he hit 27 in the 2018-19 season and then struggled in 2019-20. 

Unfortunately, the struggles continued for DeBrusk in 2021 and this first year of that deal has largely been wasted. He was a healthy scratch multiple times this season and also battled an injury and Covid-19. 

Jake Debrusk Boston Bruins
Jake Debrusk, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But, as we all know, the playoffs are an entirely different beast and it can bring out the best (and the worst) in players. DeBrusk was the first goal scorer for the Bruins in the 2021 playoffs. He followed it up with a second goal in Game 2. He only scored five goals in 41 regular-season games, the first time in his young career, he hadn’t scored double-digits for goals. Two goals in five games so far is a pretty good showing from him.

DeBrusk is doing all the things that he needs to be doing right now. He’s not spending a ton of time on the ice, only playing around 13 minutes or so a game. But he’s making the most of his time. He’s playing with a new energy that was missing in the regular season. He was arguably the best forward in the first two games of the series and helped hold the team together until the rest of the forwards found their game. 

Naturally, there is still room for improvement in his game. He made mistakes. But after his regular season, there were few expectations, if any, for DeBrusk this postseason and there were even some questions if he would stick in the lineup. It was a pleasant surprise to see him come out in Game 1 with some fire.

Connor Clifton

In the last few postseasons, the Bruins have lost to teams that outmanned them and had a more aggressive style of play that they couldn’t match. In Game 1, it looked like that was going to be the case again. But in Game 2, coach Bruce Cassidy changed the lineup, bringing in Clifton for Jeremy Lauzon. They didn’t look back. 

Clifton has been in and out of the lineup all season. But he ended the season strong and really made a difference in this series. He brought a much-needed aggression that matched the Capitals, made smart decisions with the puck, and even though he didn’t register on the score sheet, he was a plus-3 and registered four shots, which is a fair amount for a guy who only has 90 in his whole career.

Not only was Clifton being played in unfavorable matchups, but he was also spending a significant amount of his time defending Alexander Ovechkin, one of the elite scorers in the NHL. His physical play and fast skating were used to their full advantage as he took on one of the toughest assignments in the series and succeeded. 

Clifton was a great example of how a guy can contribute without scoring goals. He took full advantage of the opportunity given to him in Game 2. In a regular season with so many injuries and most players didn’t take advantage of their chances in the lineup, this was a great example of what can happen when players truly seize an opportunity.

Taylor Hall

Given how well he played for the Bruins in the final stretch of the season, it may not have been a huge surprise to see him play so well. However, when it comes to Hall, there is a narrative surrounding him and his seeming inability to be part of teams that win in the playoffs. So, it was a surprise to an extent to see him rise to the occasion and overcome the narratives surrounding him. 

Taylor Hall Boston Bruins
Taylor Hall, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Hall was a huge reason that the Bruins won Game 2. He tied the game with less than 3 minutes to go for the game to go to overtime. After the team failed to get significant shots on net in Game 1, Hall led the team in Game 2 with 11 shot attempts and seven shots on net.

Hall had two goals, three points, and was a plus-one in five games with a shooting percentage of 16.7. He was a huge penalty-drawer and played well in all three zones of the ice. There is a reputation that follows him, but he was able to successfully overcome that in the first round. This by no way completely gets rid of the narrative around him, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Craig Smith

Three months ago, if you had told most people that Smith would be the game-changer in the first round of the playoffs, they wouldn’t have believed you. When the season started, it looked like GM Don Sweeney’s big offseason signing would be okay but not a game changer. He was moved around the lines a bit and struggled to find chemistry. He had a few goals but nothing significant. 

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That changed in the final third of the season. He caught on fire in April, having 18 points in 18 games, and found great chemistry on the second line with Hall and David Krejci. Their success helped power the Bruins to the third seed in the MassMutual East Division, giving them a preferred first-round matchup against Washington instead of Pittsburgh.

Craig Smith Boston Bruins
Craig Smith, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Smith’s double-overtime goal in Game 3 shifted the momentum of the series completely to the Bruins. The Capitals were not the same team in Games 4 and 5. Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand catching fire in the second half of the series didn’t help either, but Smith was the surprise game-changer. 

His three-year deal with an AAV of $3.1 million is beginning to look better and better. Maybe it’s time for all of us to give Sweeney some benefit of the doubt when it comes to his decisions.

The Stars Came to Play Too

Of course, the Bruins elite players were great in the first round as well. Charlie McAvoy is further cementing himself as a top defenseman in this league and should a hundred percent be in the Norris Trophy conversation. Pastrnak had six points in five games. Marchand scored the overtime winner in Game 2, though he needs to work on not letting his emotions get the best of him and taking dumb penalties.  

Charlie McAvoy Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After letting in a soft goal in overtime in Game 1, Tuukka Rask was on fire the rest of the series. He stood on his head to keep the Bruins in it in Game 2 and was overall fantastic. He had a .941 save percentage and a 1.81 goals-against average. The contingent calling for Jeremy Swayman to start over him has definitely been silenced. 

A lot went well against the Capitals. Players are stepping up when the team needs it most and the team is buzzing. Hopefully, Kevan Miller gets well soon after a scary hit from Dmitry Orlov in Game 4, but the Bruins showed they have some depth on the blue line. There is a lot to be excited about with this team as we go into the second round of the playoffs.

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