The Boston Bruins are about to enter the 71st playoffs in their storied franchise since 1924. In only six of those years did Boston hoist the Stanley Cup. In the last three seasons, the franchise has played a total of six playoff games, and begins this postseason with a coach completing his first full 82-game regular season.
Round 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs starts Thursday night at TD Garden. Here are five things the Bruins most do to get the momentum rolling for a deep playoff run.
One of Bruce Cassidy’s unfortunate phrases both during the season and especially in the last five games with the Bruins giving up the first goal is: “chasing the game.”
“The third [period] we started playing together, but then it’s too late,” Cassidy said after Sunday’s faltering finale, which handed the Eastern Conference to Tampa Bay. “We’ve got to find a way to get out in front early. Not early – we’ve got to find a way to not continually chase the hockey game.”
The Bruins fell behind a lot this season. They proved resilient with many a comeback among their 50 total wins.
Any number of NHL analytics websites, however, validate that the team that scores first wins some 67 percent of the time. Apply that stat to a 7-game series and it’s crucial that Boston score first more often than not.
Chasing a playoff game is even more challenging than during the regular season, with lockdown defense the order of the day when a team gets the lead.
Get steady contributions from the younger players
The rebuilding of the team this season with more rookies than any in recent memory was more successful than anyone remotely envisioned. Again, the playoffs are a different animal.
Aside from Anders Bjork not making it to the postseason, Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk and Ryan Donato will be front and center for Boston to advance. McAvoy proved last spring he is a top-2 defenseman for years to come. The latter four need to follow McAvoy and prove they can handle the physicality of the playoffs from the outset – and contribute to each game.
“We have some younger guys,” Cassidy said Sunday about the Toronto matchup, “we have some (veteran) guys we’re going to lean on.” He could have included all in the same sentiment. Cassidy will also need to lean on the youth.
Have Tuukka Rask dominate
The first two months of the season were not vintage Tuukka Rask. For the next three months he was the best goaltender in the NHL, before morphing back to subpar performances in the final month.
The playoffs are all about goaltending first. As Rask goes, so very likely go the Bruins. The March and April schedule was a killer, and this week’s rest is the most important requirement for Boston.
“We’re taking a breather tomorrow,” Rask said Sunday night, “and then back to work. Intensity and physicality goes up obviously [in the playoffs]. Every play kind of matters and mistakes play a big role. If you make a mistake, most likely you’re going to pay for it.”
That starts from 24 square feet out.
Match Toronto with quicker sticks and 60-minute intensity
“They’re one of the toughest teams that I think we’ve played against all year,” Brad Marchand said about the Leafs, “and it will be a good battle.”
“It should be a terrific series if both teams are on their game,” Cassidy added, “and that’s playoff hockey right there, a lot of speed, probably a lot of physicality.”
The Leafs beat Boston in three of the four regular-season encounters. They match up well, especially up front with a comparable blend of veteran and youth, and with Frederik Andersen in goal. They added a playoff-savvy Patrick Marleau in the offseason and several veterans are entering free agency this summer, using their playoff performance for a bigger payday. Toronto will dress 10 players who played 80 or more games and 10 with 40 or more points. Mike Babcock is arguably the best coach in the NHL.
Get a major contribution from Rick Nash
Most puck pundits knew Sweeney was all-in for a long playoff run when he traded the store in Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey, Ryan Lindgren and a first-round draft pick for Rick Nash. So far that’s been a bust to put it mildly. With the season-ending injury to Brandon Carlo, Nick Holden has panned out as Sweeney’s best move during the stretch run and into the playoffs.
The Bruins’ first line of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can’t — and won’t — carry the team in the playoffs. The second line needs Nash on the right wing to keep the third and fourth lines intact, not to mention the need to also keep intact the four centers in Bergeron, David Krejci, Riley Nash and Noel Acciari.
Nash is in the final year of a $62.4 million contract, earning $8.2 million this season. He has always been a scorer; being called a “gamer” is yet to be applied.
“Hopefully they’ll all be available,” Sweeney said Monday about injured players’ availability and without referencing Nash, who has been on concussion protocol and has not played since March 19.
The Bruins need Rick Nash, the scorer and the gamer, ready for Game 1 and well beyond.