BOSTON — The final standings say the Bruins were the better team in 2017-18 — not by too much, but by enough to earn home-ice advantage over the Maple Leafs in the best-of-7 first-round playoff series that begins on Thursday night at TD Garden (7:05, NESN, WBZ-FM 98.5).
The season series say the Leafs were better than the Bruins in head-to-head competition, winning three of four meetings. The B’s, of course, would beg to differ. They lost once in overtime, were struggling to stay at .500 when they met for a road-home series in early November, and have added Rick Nash, Tommy Wingels, Nick Holden and Brian Gionta to their lineup since the last meeting on Feb. 24. Ryan Donato, who’s also expected to watch at least Game 1 (so are Gionta and Holden), hadn’t turned pro yet, either.
All of that now qualifies as ancient, meaningless history. The Bruins, while not as healthy as they’d like without No. 3 center Riley Nash (ear laceration) and defenseman Brandon Carlo (broken ankle; lost until next season), and facing a tougher match-up than if they hadn’t faded over the season’s final week, say they’re re-set and ready to go.
If the B’s are to advance past the first round for the first time since 2014, they must successfully deal with the following issues.
GOALTENDING: May as well start here, right? Although his career statistics (30-23, 2.12 goals-against average, .928 saves percentage and 5-4 series record) indicate he’s been a solid post-season performer, Rask has more than his share of detractors.
Largely by design, Rask’s playing time (54 games) is down significantly over the last three years, when he played between 64 and 70 games, and he says he feels fresh. He had a solid regular season (34-14-5, 2.36, .917) that saw him tear off point streaks of 21 games (19-0-2) and 11 games (10-0-1), so he can get hot, but he also went south with the group near the finish line, losing his last three.
Rask will have to be on his game against a team that tied for third in the NHL in goals (3.29 per game), and had the league’s No. 2 power play (25.0 percent).
DEFENSE PAIRS: With Carlo lost, head coach Bruce Cassidy has flipped the pairings behind the No. 1 duo of captain Zdeno Chara and rookie Charlie McAvoy — both recently returned from injuries. Torey Krug will start with physical Kevan Miller, who proved himself workhorse-worthy in last year’s series against the Senators, averaging 25 minutes per game.
That leaves skating, puck-moving rookie Matt Grzelcyk, who partnered with Miller most of the season, with veteran Adam McQuaid, while Holden sits out.
The pairings must come together quickly against a fast, offense-driven team.
COACHING: The Bruins may be 68-28-13 under Cassidy in his his season and a third (50-20-12 this year), but the Leafs’ Mike Babcock is considered the gold standard among NHL coaches. Babcock, particularly successful on the international stage (two Olympic gold medals, plus the 2016 World Cup, with Canada), hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 2007-08 with the Red Wings, but is earning raves these days for helping the Leafs fast-track a rebuild.
Babcock favors match-ups; Cassidy said he doesn’t plan to go overboard pursuing or avoiding them. The Bruins’ coach and his staff have proved to be adept at thinking on their feet, though, which will be essential when the adjustments that are all but inevitable in a best-of-7.
SCORING DEPTH: One of the primary reasons for the 1-3-1 finish that kept the B’s from finishing first in the East was a perhaps overdue slump from the line of 30-goal scorers Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, which was a collective minus-20 in that five-game stretch with only four goals.
The line will certainly tighten up, but the Leafs will defend against it most closely. It’s essential, then, for other lines to contribute. The return of Rick Nash to skate with two-time NHL playoff scoring leader David Krejci offers hope, but the absence of Riley Nash (fourth-liner Noel Acciari will try to replace him) makes third-line scoring a question.
THE KIDS: At least five rookies — three (Grzelcyk, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen) with no NHL playoff experience — will be in the lineup for Game 1. Should Donato draw in at some point, there’s one more.
McAvoy and fourth-line center/penalty-killer Sean Kuraly, who both got NHL post-season experience a year ago, have been the Bruins’ most consistent rookies this season. If one or two others can hold their own and gain confidence in this series, the B’s are in good shape. If it goes the other way, they’re in trouble.
Published at Thu, 12 Apr 2018 01:39:24 +0000