Love it or hate it, the National Hockey League Eastern Conference round-robin tournament being proposed to decide the No. 1 seed for the second and subsequent rounds of the 24-team playoff format would be a battle for the ages. Considering that the teams involved would be the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, the tournament promises to produce no-holds-barred, “old-time” hockey at its finest.
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Bruins fans know the other three teams have what it takes to put a beat-down on any opponent. The question, however, for the past couple of seasons has been whether the boys in the Spoked-B are tough enough to carry the team to its first Stanley Cup championship since 2011. If that question is ever going to be answered, the time is now.
Hello, Old Foe
Battling for the top spot in the Atlantic Division for the past two seasons, the Bruins and Lightning are no strangers to each other’s style of play. In fact, one of the last games the Bruins played before the now-cancelled 2019-20 regular season was put on hold because of the Coronavirus pandemic was a good old-fashioned bloodbath in Tampa.
That game was a Big Bad Bruins fan’s delight. Constant scrums and scuffles and overflowing penalty boxes were the theme of the night.
There is absolutely no reason to believe this bad blood would not continue in a battle for the conference’s top spot. Given the fact that the Bruins will likely feel they are playing for what is already rightfully theirs, and just one season removed from the Lightning holding a ceremony with the Bruins in town to raise it’s own Presidents’ Trophy banner, both teams will be ready to battle it out.
The Tom Wilson Factor
It’s no secret that the Bruins have had a tough time the past few seasons in finding a way to beat the Capitals. Although Boston did get past Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and the Caps early in the 2019-20 campaign, breaking a long winless stretch in the process, this is probably the team in the tournament that is best suited to knock the Bruins from the top spot.
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In addition to having a legendary goal scorer in Ovechkin and some perennially lights-out goaltenders, the Capitals have an X-factor that makes playing them not only difficult, but, at times, downright dangerous. That is, of course, the frequently suspended, well-known instigator Tom Wilson.
Luckily, the Bruins are no strangers to facing a team with a player who seems just as interested in hitting as in winning hockey games. In the past two playoffs, Boston has faced off against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nazem Kadri, who has since moved on to the Colorado Avalanche.
In both of those series, Kadri was suspended. In the 2019 playoffs, he was not allowed to return to the series after putting a punishing hit on Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk. If left unchecked, Wilson could have a similar impact on a game as Kadri. Neutralizing the brawler will be one mission in that game, but certainly not the only significant roadblock to victory.
Broad Street Brawlers
Plain and simple, any time the Bruins lace up the skates against the Flyers, the result is a hard-hitting, usually exciting battle from start to finish. With a playoff seeding on the line, that rough-and-tumble style of play should only be intensified.
With this Philadelphia team, no one player stands out as an instigator, and these are not the Flyers of yesteryear. However, this is a young, talented team of upstarts who want to prove to the league that their stellar 2019-20 season was not a fluke. And, knocking out the team that ran away with the top spot during the regular season would go a long way toward accomplishing just that.
A Fighting Chance
So just how tough are these Bruins? Certainly, with brawlers like Adam McQuaid and Noel Acciari no longer with the team and Kevan Miller still on the shelf until at least the start of next season, the team has taken on a bit of a different identity. And, there are a lot of Bruins fans who believe that may have cost Boston the Stanley Cup against a no-holds-barred St. Louis Blues team in the 2019 Final.
On the flipside, the Bruins came out on top of two very hard-fought series against the Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets in that playoff run, and despite major injuries to the defensive corps, the St. Louis series went to Game 7.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if the Bruins delivered some bigger hits in that series. Or, perhaps ensuing penalties would have cost them dearly and cut the series short. But to suggest that a lack of so-called greasiness was the ultimate deciding factor would be a mistake.
The truth is, there is simply no way to know what to expect if the playoffs begin later this summer as proposed. All four of these teams will be in the same boat. None of them have experienced anything like the stoppage in play before, and even the players themselves would likely tell us they have no idea how their bodies are going to respond to months of downtime with little-to-no access to training facilities.
One thing is for sure, with these four teams in a tournament, even if it is just for seeding, fans would be in for a real treat. No matter how physical the games are, the Bruins will be raring to go.
I am a 46-year-old journalist living in the greater Pittsburgh area with my husband and two cats. I am a proud Penn State University alum. Hockey is life. Not much else needs to be said.