By: Max Mainville | Check me out on Twitter @tkdmaxbjj
The calendar has flipped to April which means the final stretch of the NHL regular season is upon us. In the Eastern Conference, the eight teams that will be heading to the postseason are all but officially confirmed. The Washington Capitals, the second wild-card team entering the month, has a thirteen-point lead on the New York Islanders who sit on the outside looking in.
Rather than teams battling for a playoff spot, teams are battling for playoff positioning, home-ice advantage, and to build up momentum for a hopeful deep run. At the same time, it allows us to get a better idea on some of the potential matchups we might see for the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Before we do that, however, here is how the current landscape of the Eastern Conference looks as of the morning of April 3rd.
1. Florida Panthers – 100pts, .735 pts%, 14 GR
2. Toronto Maple Leafs – 93pts, .684 pts%, 14 GR
3. Tampa Bay Lightning – 93pts, .684 pts%, 14 GR
1. Carolina Hurricanes – 98pts, .710 pts%, 13 GR
2. New York Rangers – 93pts, .674 pts%, 13 GR
3. Pittsburgh Penguins – 92pts, .657 pts%, 12 GR
1. Boston Bruins – 91pts, .661 pts%, 14 GR
2. Washington Capitals – 84pts, .618 pts%, 14 GR
3. New York Islanders – 71pts, .530 pts%, 15 GR
4. Columbus Blue Jackets – 69pts, .500 pts%, 13 GR
*italicized teams are current playoff teams
If the playoffs began today, going by points percentage, the Boston Bruins would play the Carolina Hurricanes in round one, while the Capitals face off against the Panthers and Toronto/Tampa Bay, New York/Pittsburgh in the intradivisional matchups. However, it is quite evident that the race is still very much alive and there is room for some change, especially for the Bruins. Now, there are four probable scenarios for their first-round series and we will go over each of them in order of most likely to least likely.
Season Series: 0-3-0 (3-0 L, 7-1 L, 6-0 L)
With the Florida Panthers continuing to play very strong hockey while having a game in hand on the Canes, it seems as though Carolina will take the record of the second-best team in the conference, setting them with a series against the first wild-card team, in this case, the Bruins.
The season series against Carolina has been one of the worst for the Bruins this season compared to any other team. They have gone a miserable 0-3-0 while only scoring one only goal for the entire three-game series. Boston has had no answer for the Carolina offense and struggled to muster any chances of their own. Goaltender Frederik Andersen played in all three appearances and stood on his head each time. Patrice Bergeron was the only player on Boston that managed to beat him back on January 18th.
Analytically, there aren’t many things the Bruins have over Carolina either. Slightly better finishing and power-play goals on the offensive side while having a better 5v5 xGA ranking (a big advantage for Boston all across the league on paper), but aside from that, the Hurricanes have been the better team all around.
These two teams have met in the postseason in both 2019 and 2020, both won by Boston in four and five games respectively. Carolina will, without a doubt, aim to get some sort of revenge for those losses if these two meet this May.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Season Series: 0-2-0 (5-2 L, 6-4 L, N/A)
Ah yes, the classic Boston/Toronto playoff series. Almost a decade since the iconic 4-1 comeback in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals, these two Original Six rivals have a good shot at meeting in the opening round once again. The most likely way this comes to fruition would be if the Bruins pass the Lightning (6-3-1 in L10) for either second or third in the Atlantic Division. With that said, that is a very possible situation.
While there is one more game to be played (the last game of Boston’s season), Toronto has most definitely had the upper hand over their rivals from Massachusetts. After a 5-2 win in November, the Leafs went on to take their second meeting last month in a 6-4 win. Toronto’s lethal offense of current Rocket Richard favourite Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and so on – has been a clear problem for not only Boston’s blueline but also both Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman who have started one of the two games each so far.
Looking at the numbers, the Bruins do have the better defense on paper – but that is also a testament to how much Toronto’s defense has struggled this year. In their most recent game against each other, the Leafs at a 6-1 lead at one point, but the B’s battled back to make it a two-goal finals score. Add that to a history of “demons” in the first round, those could be potential issues for Toronto against Boston. That said, they will still likely be the favourite to win the seven-game series and if the standings remain the same, they would also have a crucial home-ice advantage as well.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Season Series: 2-0-1 (3-2 OTL, 5-2 W, 3-2 W, N/A)
Surprisingly, out of the four teams on this list, the Bruins have had the best success so far against the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions. Tampa is yet to defeat the Bruins in regulation in 2021-22 with one game left to play, but that does not mean a future playoff series is a walk in the park for the B’s. Tampa still possesses one of the best goaltenders in the league with Andrei Vasilevskiy as well as superstars Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, etc. They remain a dangerous team that now has the winning experience to keep contending.
These two teams have played each other in the second rounds of the 2018 and 2020 playoffs, with Tampa Bay taking both in a pretty convincing fashion. If the Bruins want to get their revenge and end the Bolts’ Cup-winning streak, they will have to pass the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic to have a 2-seed versus 3-seed with the Lightning.
Boston and Tampa are also much closer on paper. If you ask me, I believe the Bruins have a solid shot to dethrone Tampa Bay – as long as they can have consistent goaltending on their own end. All reigns have to come to an end eventually and if the Bruins can be that team to end it – they can most potentially find themselves in for a deep run at Lord Stanley.
Season Series: 1-1-0 (4-1 L, 3-2 SOW, N/A)
One of the scariest offensive lineups in the entire National Hockey League going head-to-head with one of the best defensive teams on paper. Florida has all the pieces right now to not only make a run this year but for years to come as well. Scoring talent on all four lines with a solid defensive core and resurging Sergei Bobrovsky makes this team a nightmare opponent for anyone. The Panthers have scored 282 goals this year, the most of any other team in the league by 20 goals. Jonathan Huberdeau just set an NHL record for most assists by a left-wing in a single season while Aleksander Barkov leads the team in goals with 33.
The Cats have not played the Bruins since October, with one more game set to be played later this month, but both meetings were a bit different. Florida took the first meeting by a 4-1 final score, but found a bit more resistance from Boston three nights later, falling short in a shootout.
Boston would have to be picture-perfect defensively and in between the pipes to have a realistic shot at winning this series, but I personally don’t feel it is completely out of the realm of possibility. Bobrovsky has been a polar opposite goalie before in his career and has lost to the Bruins back in 2019 when he was the netminder for the Blue Jackets. Like the Maple Leafs, the Panthers have also had issues with escaping from the first round, so there might also be some personal battles for the team. Regardless, the Bruins need to avoid mistakes because it will cost them against this Florida squad.
As the 2021-2022 NHL regular season approaches its end, the anticipation of who the Boston Bruins matchup against continues to heat up. No matter which side of the coin you look at, any one of these four potential teams are dangerous and put forward difficult challenges for this Bruins team aiming to make possibly one final run of Patrice Bergeron’s illustrious career. If you are feeling confident about a potential Bruins run (or another team in the NHL), here are the Stanley Cup odds as of today.
So, I beg the question – if you have a crystal ball, who would you want the Bruins to meet in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals?