Bruins

The Bruins are lucky they avoided the Capitals in the first round

Frank Vatrano
Bruins' Frank Vatrano during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Capitals. Winslow Townson / Associated Press

COMMENTARY

The Boston Bruins were winless against their first-round playoff opponent during the regular season.

What a stroke of luck.

In their final game of the regular season on Sunday, the Columbus Blue Jackets rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Toronto, 3-2, sending the resurgent Maple Leafs to a postseason date with the top-seeded Washington Capitals, not the Bruins, a matchup that seemed all but inevitable.

That left the Leafs with the second wild card slot in the Eastern Conference while the Bruins slid into third place in the Atlantic Division, avoiding what would have been a cataclysmic opening round against the Capitals, the President’s Trophy champs who pose the biggest threat in the East, despite their history of postseason chokes.

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It could very well mean four more weeks of hockey in Boston, which sure beats four more games.

The fact that the Bruins were 0-3-1 against Ottawa this season shouldn’t deter from their chances against the Senators. After all, it’s Anybody but Washington, a team that Boston won’t have to deal with until a possible trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Giving the Bruins a series to solve the Senators’ neutral zone trap sounds a whole lot more appealing than watching them fruitlessly trying to beat goalie Braden Holtby, a guy who might as well buy real estate in the North End for all the frequency with which he owns the team in the Garden.

Game 1 is Wednesday night.

“What they do is just clog stuff up,” Bruins defenseman John-Michael Liles said following his team’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Senators in Boston last Thursday. “They just clog up the neutral zone. There’s not a lot of room to move. So if you’re not getting through the neutral zone effectively, then a lot of times the puck’s coming right back at you. They play a system that’s frustrating and not easy to play against. It’s not the prettiest thing to watch, but it’s effective. It’s a tough system to play against for sure.”

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Sure. Still, Anybody but Washington.

The Senators outscored the Bruins 12-6 in their four meetings this season, three of which came under head coach Bruce Cassidy, who replaced Claude Julien in early February (0-2-1). Against other teams not from Ottawa, the Bruins went 18-6-0 under the interim Cassidy.

The safe guess is that the results wouldn’t have been the same under Julien, who looms with the Montreal Canadiens as a too-tasty second-round showdown.

If not for Columbus, the Bruins would be looking at the winner of the Penguins-Blue Jackets series if they were to advance against Ottawa. Now, they just have to hope the Habs can get past the New York Rangers in order to provide everybody with a tantalizing postseason soap opera.

All that stands in the way are the sluggish, trap-obsessed Senators. The Bruins would be doing NHL viewers a favor.

“It’s frustrating when you’re not taking care of the puck in the neutral zone,” forward Drew Stafford told reporters. “They just kind of sit back. Those games, like a chess match: It’s kind of boring and slow, wait for a mistake and capitalize.”

The Bruins will get a boost with the return of Brad Marchand, missing for the final two games of the regular season against Ottawa and Washington after sticking Tampa Bay’s Jake Dotchin in the groin. The Bruins may suffer some short hands on defense with both Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo potentially missing for the first round with a respective knee injury and concussion.

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Whatever.

Anybody but Washington.

It’s been three years since Boston could boast to be in this position. Following back-to-back seasons of regular season collapses, the Bruins have righted the ship and are finally back in the postseason. Much of that credit goes to Cassidy, who has provided a new voice where Claude’s had fallen on deaf ears. Much goes to goalie Tuukka Rask, who in the face of (warranted) criticism, brought his best goaltending skills to the final fortnight of the season.

On the other hand, Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson has been a thorn in the Bruins’ side, going 4-0 with a 1.47 goals against average and a .946 save percentage against Boston this season. Rask was winless against Ottawa with a 2.49 GAA and .902 save percentage.

No matter.

It still isn’t Washington.

“Once the playoff starts, it’s a new series and a new season,” Senators captain Erik Karlsson told the Ottawa Citizen about the possibility of facing Boston. “Whether you play them good or bad in the regular season, I don’t think that really matters as much.

“They’re an experienced team. They won the Cup not too long ago (2011), and a lot of those guys are still there. They know what they have to do to be successful. That’s the same as every other team.”

Except, that is, Washington.

Boston received a gift.

Bruins in six.