We are midway through December, and there is plenty of panic in Boston.
“We need an enforcer!”
“Our goaltending sucks!”
“We can’t score!”
OK, can everyone just take a deep breath, please? By having the injury bug eviscerate this roster early, the Bruins may just have stumbled into their best-case scenario come the playoffs. Also, the goaltending hasn’t been the problem, and ENFORCERS ARE NEVER THE ANSWER. So, what do I mean?
Well, the Bruins are currently 5th in the Atlantic Division. Before you get your pants in a knot, let’s put some context into the equation. While they are 5th in the Atlantic, they have played one game fewer than fourth place Montreal, and are trailing the Habs by only a point. They are a significantly better team than the Canadiens, whom I am unconvinced can maintain their current level of play. That’s not even the interesting part. Despite having played two more games than the Bruins, the 6th place Detroit Red Wings trail the B’s by 5 points. Ottawa has played the same number of games like Detroit, and are 6 points behind Boston. Boston has played one more game than the Florida Panthers, but they sit dead last in the division, a full eight points behind the Bruins. They aren’t going to get caught from behind in the Atlantic.
They should inevitably pass the Canadiens, so that begs the question – how close are they to the guaranteed divisional playoff spot? At the moment, the Bruins have a game in hand on every team above them in the Atlantic Division and trail the 3rd place Buffalo Sabres by 5 points, the Toronto Maple Leafs by 6, and the Tampa Bay Lightning by 13. Nobody is catching Tampa. In any division. That team is well on its way to a President’s Trophy. If you had said Buffalo would be only a point behind the Maple Leafs in third place in the Atlantic at this point in the season, well, please get in contact with me, I could use the services of someone who can see the future.
So, the Bruins are fifth in their division. But they currently occupy the 2nd wildcard spot. As it stands, it is pretty clear that Tampa Bay is going to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and will, therefore, host the second wildcard team. As previously noted, there is no reason to think that Boston won’t finish the season ahead of the Canadiens. They are not in danger of dropping out of a wildcard spot either. Currently, the Bruins sit with 38 points in 32 games. That is 5th in the Atlantic Division, but would be SECOND in the Metropolitan Division. No, that is not a typo. The Bruins are 5th in the division, but only 6th in the conference. Believe it or not, they are actually a Top 10 team in the entire league. They just happen to play in one of the most stacked divisions in recent memory.
So, why should they WANT to finish in the first wildcard spot? Well, they almost certainly would need to face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals in the first round. That’s no easy task. But finishing in a divisional spot means they have to face two of Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Buffalo to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The current Metropolitan Division playoff teams are Pittsburgh and Columbus (who isn’t on board for ANOTHER Pittsburgh/Columbus throw-down), either of whom is a significantly easier matchup than the juggernauts in the Atlantic. Currently, Tampa Bay is #1 in the league, Toronto is 5th, and Buffalo is 7th. Washington is 6th, but Columbus is 15th, and Pittsburgh is 17th. That’s a pretty simple bit of math.
What killed the Bruins when they got to Tampa Bay last postseason was the 7-game death-match that was their First Round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They were exhausted, beat-up, and could not keep up. They are guaranteed to have a similarly difficult matchup if they finish in either 2nd or 3rd in the Atlantic Division this year. Don’t do that. This team is good enough to be in the playoffs and do some damage once fully healthy, so don’t rush anyone back. Let Bergeron and Chara take as long as they need to be fully healthy. Use this time to experiment with line combinations, and see what you have in some depth pieces. Acclimate Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson to the NHL game, as the kid line with JFK between Danton Heinen and Ryan Donato has begun to look good the last few games. You still have Anders Bjork shredding the American Hockey League. Don’t make a massive trade for a short-term piece. Stay the course, finish fourth, take the easier path to the Stanley Cup Final. You may be thanking me if you do.