As the 2014 Winter Olympics come to a close on Sunday, it’s time to look ahead to the last leg of the NHL’s regular season. The Boston Bruins currently sit atop the Atlantic Division, just five points behind the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bruins have 25 games remaining in their regular season schedule, leaving them plenty of time to close that gap and take over first place in the conference. Who will Boston have to go through to make up ground?
Through the first 57 games of the regular season, the Bruins played 31 homes games, leaving them with a bit more traveling to do before the playoffs. In those 31 home games, the Bruins posted a phenomenal 23-6-2 record, while they played to a 14-10-2 record in 26 road contests. To put things into perspective, 60% of the Bruins games remaining will be on the road. That’s 15 of the last 25 games away from the TD Garden. This may sound like a big obstacle for the Bruins, but let’s take a closer look.
Of the 15 road games, the Bruins travel to play Western Conference teams just four times, split up into two separate two game stretches. Beyond those four games, the Bruins away schedule consists of 11 conference games, six of which are within the division. Those division games are short trips, limiting the effects of travel on the team. While the extra travel may present a challenge, the Bruins got the bulk of their big trips out of the way early, leaving them with a manageable schedule for the rest of the season.
The Bruins will play 18 of their final 25 games against Eastern Conference opponents, nine of which will be against divisional opponents. Through the Olympic Break, the Bruins had faired very well against the Eastern Conference, coasting to a 24-12-0 record. Although the Eastern Conference has been kind to Boston, the Atlantic Division has not. The Bruins posted a meager 13-8-0 record against divisional opponents. Things have been rough as of late, with the Bruins losing seven of their last 12 divisional games. They will look to change their fortunes over the next month and a half, further distancing themselves from the pack and locking up the Atlantic Division Title.
Playoff Test Run
The Bruins will face stiff competition over the last 25 games of the regular season. 11 of their final 25 opponents are teams that are currently in a playoff position. Beyond that, eight of the other 14 opponents are within striking distance (four points) of a playoff berth. That leaves just six games against bottom of the barrel competition. On one hand, this is a big challenge for the Bruins. Points will be at a premium and a facing motivated teams on a nightly basis won’t make thing easy for Boston. If you are looking for a positive spin, the Bruins will be battle tested when the playoffs role around in mid-April, having played against hungry teams for the better part of the last month and a half of the regular season. Easy points are always nice, but it might be better to know where you stand when you get to the games that really matter.
The final 31 games of the regular season will be more condensed than the Bruins schedule prior to the Olympic Break. Boston will have only five opportunities for more than one day of rest in between games, the first of which happens after their first game back on Wednesday against the Sabres. The Bruins will really need to get the most out of the players on their roster.
What’s working against them? They have already lost Dennis Seidenberg to injury for the remainder of the year. Tuukka Rask is in his first full season as an NHL starting goalie, a change that will see his workload increase dramatically. Including playoff appearances, Rask’s highest games played total for a season is 58, a number he achieved in 2009-2010, as well as in last season’s lockout shortened season. This season, Rask has already played in 43 contests, not including his four Olympic appearances. Speaking of Olympic participation, the Bruins had five players that made the trek over to Sochi to compete in the Olympic Games. These players will need some extra rest down the stretch, especially players like Zdeno Chara, who average almost 25 minutes of ice time per night. There is still an opportunity for Peter Chiarelli to bring in re-enforcements before the Trade Deadline, but beyond that, the Bruins will need to rely on players like Jordan Caron and Kevan Miller to step up and contribute.
A handful of games stand-out as the Bruins make their push for the Eastern Conference title.
First, the Bruins match-up against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 8th. Boston has had Tampa Bay’s number this season, taking all three games against the Lightning by a combined score of 11-1. The Bruins penalty kill has absolutely shutdown the high powered offense of the Lightning to the tune of a 100% success rate. This game could be the final dagger to Tampa Bay’s hopes of taking over the Atlantic Division lead, making it a critical contest for both teams.
The second notable game is against the Florida Panthers on March 4th. The game itself should be an easy two points for the Bruins, but it could be a showcase for the Trade Deadline. This game represents the last opportunity for teams to scout players for trades before the deadline, and will likely feature a number of players that could be on the move.
When the Chicago Blackhawks come to town at the end of March (3/27), everyone will be watching closely. It is not only a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, but it is also a potential preview of the Stanley Cup Finals this spring. Both teams are near-locks to make the playoffs, making this a good measuring stick game for both teams.
Lastly, the Bruins have two games remaining against their arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. In two contests between the teams this season, Montreal has overwhelmed the Bruins, winning both games by a combined score of 6-2. It’s always must-see hockey when these two teams square off, but for the Bruins, these games represent an opportunity to silence the critics. A lot has been made of the Bruins struggles against faster teams, and, with a potential playoff matchup down the road, it is extremely important that the Bruins show themselves, and fans, that they can defeat the Habs.
As the season winds down, where do you think the Bruins end? What games are you looking forward to watching? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @kirkvance.