On Tuesday night, two of the NHL’s best teams met up in a clash of the unbeaten. Both the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights had hot starts in their first stretch of the season with the Bruins beating both the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes while the Golden Knights defeated the San Jose Sharks in consecutive meetings.
Was the Bruins’ 4-3 victory a preview of the Stanley Cup Final? Both teams have the playoff pedigree and incredibly deep rosters leading many to believe it could be.
Bruins’ Path to the Final
Inside the Atlantic Division, the Bruins will have to worry about both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, two teams that have incredible talent and could easily take a jump this season. However, it will be hard for Tampa Bay to follow up their incredible regular season of 2018-19 after putting up 128 points, by far the most in the NHL.
The Bruins will get full seasons from youngsters, plus likely additions at the deadline, giving them a great chance to finally top the Lightning as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. If this becomes a reality, the Bruins would most likely only have to face one of the two-headed monster that is the Maple Leafs and Lightning in the second round.
Also, if Toronto and Tampa Bay were to finish as the second and third seeds in the conference they would then play a grueling first-round matchup before even facing the defending Eastern Conference champions. The Bruins would have an incredible edge in this matchup as we saw this scenario play out in the 2018 Playoffs when the Bruins beat the Maple Leafs in seven games before losing to the Lightning in five games. It was clear the fatigue that came from playing both the third seed and the first seed in consecutive matchups. The Lightning also showed they were susceptible when they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. It is important to note that the Bruins have beaten the Maple Leafs in three consecutive playoff matchups, all in seven games.
In the Metropolitan Division, teams such as the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, and upstart New York Rangers could all pose threats in the Eastern Conference Final. Nonetheless, the Hurricanes struggled mightily in their playoff matchup with the Bruins last season, failing to exit their own zone on many occasions. The Bruins swept the Hurricanes and proved that there was a definite difference in skill level and overall play.
The Bruins seem to have a deeper and more talented roster than all of these teams. The Capitals, however, always seem to play great hockey against the Bruins, and if they were able to get to the Eastern Conference Final, this would be a test.
The Bruins will face challenges along the way in teams like the Lightning or Capitals, but they are even better than last season when they won their conference. They are also playing incredible hockey to begin the season, as they showed against the Golden Knights Tuesday night.
Golden Knights’ Path to the Final
The Golden Knights’ only real competition seems as though it will come in the Western Conference Final. The Pacific Division does not really have a team that looks like they can challenge them. If the Golden Knights were able to secure the top seed in the Western Conference, they would most likely play a team like the Calgary Flames or San Jose Sharks in the second round. A young and improved Arizona Coyotes team could be a threat, however, we have yet to see them play in the playoffs and they have a far less skilled roster than that of the Golden Knights
It was evident that the Flames played over their heads in the regular season last year after losing in the first round to the eighth seed, the Colorado Avalanche. Meanwhile, the Sharks have lost their scoring leader and captain after Joe Pavelski left for the Dallas Stars in the offseason. The Sharks have gotten off to a less-than-stellar start as well, creating even more doubt that they would be able to compete with the Golden Knights come the postseason.
The Central Division is where the true challenge for the Golden Knights may lie. The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues got even better by adding puck-moving defenseman Justin Faulk to an already-loaded roster. The Avalanche showed their ability to play great postseason hockey last spring by beating the Flames and they have also gotten better by adding Nazem Kadri and others.
The division also includes teams like the Stars, who upset the Nashville Predators last season. The Winnipeg Jets and Predators have very good rosters and have shown they can play in the postseason even after they both exited in the first round last season.
However, in the worst-case scenario, the Golden Knights will most likely only have to play one or two of these teams and they would do so in the Western Conference Final or if one of them sneaked in as a wild card. Meanwhile, these other teams will have to battle it out within their division just to get a chance at the Golden Knights. They will most likely be more rested and less banged up heading into this series, giving them a distinct advantage in getting to the Stanley Cup Final, along with the Bruins in this hypothetical.
Past Postseason Success
While playoff success and past experience do not necessarily correlate to the future, it can be useful to look back on as teams go through the ups and downs of an NHL postseason run.
For the Bruins, young players can look to last season while veterans may preach about past runs to the Final, such as in 2011 and 2013. All three seasons included barriers as well as incredible successes. A championship in 2011 has given wisdom to players like Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara who all played for the Cup that season. Even Tuukka Rask, the backup goaltender for Tim Thomas at the time, has a playoff run to reference. All of these players were also around for Stanley Cup losses to a dynastic Chicago Blackhawks team as well as the Blues last season.
These losses seem to fuel the Bruins even more to get back to the Cup Final and win it. The devastation after losing in seven games to the Blues last season was anticipated, however, they must bounce back in order to return to the final round.
Some say the Bruins’ deep postseason run may hurt them, as a run that deep can lead to fatigue late in the following season. We’ll see whether this will truly affect a team that is infused with grisly veterans as well as fast young skaters.
The Golden Knights, though, still new to the NHL, have already been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice and the Final once. A loss to the Capitals in the Final, along with a first-round exit to the Sharks last season, have provided much-needed playoff experience for the expansion team.
They will look to learn from these losses and move forward with a still deep and talented roster that has every opportunity to be successful in the 2019-20 season. Just like the Bruins, they will need to use their past losses as motivation to ultimately reach their goal of a Stanley Cup championship.
Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Rask have made deep runs and are Stanley Cup champions. While Rask is still looking for his first title win as a starter, he has shown his ability to lead a team to the Final and carry it on his back when needed.
Rask was spectacular in last season’s run to the Final, posting a 2.02 goals-against average (GAA) and allowing just 49 goals all postseason. He picked up the slack when the team struggled and was a crucial component in winning the Eastern Conference title.
Rask is no stranger to excellent postseason performances, however, as he posted a 1.88 GAA in 2013 and allowed just 46 goals, making it to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Similarly, Fleury has had multiple performances in the postseason in which he was lights out. A championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, Fleury made key stops literally right down to the buzzer in the Stanley Cup Final in order to lead his team to victory.
Fleury has also had some postseason clunkers as well, most notably in the 2012 playoffs when he posted a 4.63 GAA in just six games, also with the Penguins. However, it seems he has shaken off these ugly postseason struggles after leading the Golden Knights to the Final in 2018.
Both goaltenders can be relied upon to steal games throughout the postseason which is an incredible advantage, especially in a close series. As mentioned before both teams could face major tests in the postseason such as the Lightning, Maple Leafs, or Capitals for the Bruins and the Blues, Jets, or Avalanche for the Golden Knights. Fleury and Rask will be key in securing close matchups in these tough series.
The Golden Knights and Bruins are two of the best teams in the NHL as we saw Tuesday night when they went back and forth in a competitive matchup. Their postseason pedigree, deep rosters, and solid goaltending could lead to these two teams meeting in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.