The Bruins have long since wrapped up the best record in the Eastern Conference, and they’re on the verge of clinching the top mark in the NHL.
Over their final three games, two stories will continue to dominate the team’s pre-playoff lives: the importance of resting key players, and scoreboard watching for Boston’s ideal first-round opponent.
As of today, the B’s opening-round challenger would be the Blue Jackets, who currently represent the East’s second Wild Card entry. However, the Red Wings and Flyers could also realistically land in that spot, and the Capitals and Devils are still mathematically if not rationally in contention.
The B’s are built for another long run this summer in pursuit of their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in four years. Their goaltender should win the Vezina, their forward lines are as deep as they’ve been since at least the last Cup championship in 2011, and their defense is filled with young but capable bodies.
Are the blueliners a superior six-man unit as compared to a year ago? Absolutely not. Dennis Seidenberg is hurt and isn’t expected to return before training camp – though he’s trying his damndest to get back sooner – and Andrew Ference’s experience and leadership void will surely be missed.
That being said, the club as a whole is as well-rounded as any in the conference and probably the league. A Bruins-Penguins rematch with Jarome Iginla on this side seems inevitable, and it’s what most of us are rooting for.
But weeks before that and starting about a week from now, Boston will have to send a wide-eyed contender home first.
Most hockey fans in their right minds wouldn’t choose to face Detroit, a franchise rich in tradition with an abundance of playoff-tested stars that just so happens to have had a tough first year in the East. That, of course, is largely on account of injuries to key players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Moreover, the Wings claimed three of four matchups with their new division-rivals, often in convincing fashion.
The Flyers are attractive to many B’s supporters because their physical style isn’t quite up to par with that of the Bruins, and they might be just pesky enough to ignite an even higher level of play from Boston. Plus, Philadelphia’s goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Ray Emery isn’t the least bit intimidating, which contributed to the B’s sweeping the season-series. But, I also see a Philly team with a decent power play, a solid penalty kill, and a balanced offense that takes a lot of shots, which is somewhat frightening with a young playoff defense. Oh, and I still occasionally have nightmares over how the 2010 season ended, even if those wounds have since been closed.
The desired first-round playoff opponent for Boston is Columbus, and that’d be true even if the B’s hadn’t buttoned up the Jackets in their three meetings this season by a combined 9-4 margin.
Since entering the NHL in 2000, the Blue Jackets have been to the postseason once, in 2009. They were swept by the Red Wings for a quick four-game exit. Needless to say, their experience at this stage is limited.
We’re all too familiar with Nathan Horton’s postseason heroics over three years in Boston, but it’s unlikely he’ll have any Garden ice-water to pour on the sheet inside Nationwide Arena. With a multitude of injuries this season, he may look like a shell of himself if he plays at all.
Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Fedor Tyutin have each enjoyed deep runs with the Rangers in years past, as has R.J. Umberger (who’s injured) with the Flyers, but the Blue Jackets’ postseason resumes are extremely scattered from there. The entire roster has combined to play fewer than 250 career playoff games, which is barely more than the number of postseason contests logged by the Bruins’ top line alone (Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Iginla have appeared in 234 playoff games).
Columbus does, however, deserve respect in one area and that’s in net. Sergei Bobrovsky, the same guy torched by Boston in the playoffs back in 2011, won the Vezina last year with a 21-11-6 record, 2.00 GAA, and a .932 save percentage. Conversely, this season, the 25-year-old’s numbers have dipped almost across the board (30-20-5, 2.41 GAA, .922 SV%).
In the playoffs, teams can ride a hot goaltender (see: Kings, 2012), but his supporting cast has been little better than average in any single category this year, save for in the face-off circle and five-on-five play.
No matter who the Bruins are tested by starting late next week at the Garden, they’ll be favored and should win, so long as their health holds up. But, in the interest of avoiding another dramatic seven-game finish, the Blue Jackets are the best fit. And, as of now, they're on their way.
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