NHL playoff primer: Bruins, Maple Leafs meet again
The Bruins’ Stanley Cup push will begin just as it did a year ago, with a first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think it’s a great matchup, great rivalry,’’ coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Guys should be excited to play.’’
The 49-24-9 Bruins finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, 21 points behind the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The 46-win Leafs were fifth.
For the first time since the 2015-16 season, Boston won its regular-season series against the Leafs — its only loss coming the Monday after Thanksgiving in Toronto.
Here’s a closer look at their upcoming series and the playoff picture:
How they got here
Slowed by injuries at the beginning of the season, the Bruins relied some of their AHL players to fill in. Defensemen Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, and Kevan Miller all missed extended periods, giving youngsters Jakub Zboril and Connor Clifton the opportunity to make their NHL debuts in November.
“There were guys that came up we didn’t expect to see this year and guys that played well for us,’’ team president Cam Neely said.
Things came together after the All-Star break, however, as Boston strung together a 19-game point streak, highlighted by wins over the Lightning, San Jose Sharks (twice), and Washington Capitals. Perhaps one of the more remarkable aspects of the streak was the fact that the team was without Pastrnak, its most prolific scorer, for most of it.
The Bruins closed their season 4-4, but Cassidy expressed nothing but positive thoughts moving forward.
“I feel terrific,’’ he said following the regular-season finale. “I’m an optimist. I like our team. We play hard. We’re one of the better teams from start to finish, I think, in the National Hockey League, specifically the second half of the year. We’ve played well at the right times. We’ve earned our way.’’
Players to watch
Brad Marchand, left wing: Marchand reached 100 points for the first time in his career this season, tallying 36 goals and 64 assists. He became the first Bruin to top 100 points since center Joe Thornton in 2002-03.
Tuukka Rask, goaltender: Often the scapegoat in Bruins’ losses, particularly in the playoffs, Rask has split time this season with the dependable Jaroslav Halak. While Rask will get the starting nod, he’ll likely be on a short leash with Halak ready to go behind him.
Cassidy believes having a strong backup has helped Rask stay well-rested. The 32-year-old played his fewest number of regular-season games this year (46) since the 2012-13 season.
“I think [Tuukka’s] very fresh going into the playoffs,’’ Cassidy said. “Some years in the past, you could ask him if he was or wasn’t. I know he is. He hasn’t been overworked, so that’s a positive.’’
David Pastrnak, right winger: Despite missing more than a month because of a thumb injury, Pastrnak exceeded his goal total (38) and nearly matched his assist total (43) from last season in which he played all 82 games. Pastrnak said it was difficult to be away from the game, but Cassidy thinks the time off has supplied him with “a little more energy.’’
On the Maple Leafs — John Tavares, center: After inking a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Leafs during free agency, Tavares scored a career-high 47 goals in first season with the club. The ex-New York Islander ranked third in the league in goals scored.
Game 1: Thursday, April 11 at Boston, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, April 13 at Boston, 8 p.m.
Game 3: Monday, April 15 at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Game 4: Wednesday, April 17 at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Game 5: Friday, April 19 at Boston, TBA*
Game 6: Sunday, April 21 at Toronto, TBA*
Game 7: Tuesday, April 23 at Boston, TBA*
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets: As the favorites to win it all, the Lightning finished the season with a league-high 62 wins, lost two games in a row just twice this season, and were five points away from breaking the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens’ record (132) for most points in the regular season. Tampa Bay’s roster boasts three of the NHL’s top 11 goal scorers this season in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. Kucherov, lauded as the best player in the league, also leads the NHL in assists (87) and points (128) this season.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes: The defending Stanley Cup champions will be up against a red-hot group former Bruins coach Don Cherry referred to as “a bunch of jerks.’’ Cherry’s critical remarks came in response to the Hurricanes’ elaborate postgame celebrations, which the team has indicated won’t continue in the playoffs.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: After winning the Cup with the Capitals last season, Islanders coach Barry Trotz has a new challenge in leading his team against three-time champion Sidney Crosby and Co. The Islanders finished second in the Metropolitan Division but rank second from the bottom in goals scored by the 16 playoff teams.
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars: Former Bruins center Tyler Seguin and the Stars will return to the playoffs after missing the cut the past two seasons. Seguin played all 82 games for the third straight year, notching 80 points on 33 goals and 47 assists.
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues: Starting 17-20-4, St. Louis transformed its postseason fate with an 11-game win streak that began just before the All-Star break and an 9-1-2 record to close the season. The Blues snagged the third seed in the Central Division and will face the second-seeded Jets.
Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche: With 50 wins, the Flames tout the best record in the Western Conference after failing to make the playoffs last season. Calgary is the only team in the NHL to have five players with at least 70 points.
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights: In their second year of existence, the Golden Knights again advanced to the postseason. If they want a shot at reaching the Stanley Cup Finals again, however, they’ll have a tough test in the Sharks, who tied the Flames for most goals scored in the Western Conference.
If the Bruins advance, they will play the winner of the Lightning-Blue Jackets series. A matchup against Tampa Bay would mirror Boston’s postseason path last year — one that ended with a five-game series loss to the Lightning.
Some take issue with the current playoff format because, as is the case this season, the top two teams in the conference are slated to face off before the conference finals.
“Obviously, the last couple years, you look at it and say maybe it’s not fair for the top teams in the league,’’ Neely said. “You fight hard to get home-ice advantage, and that’s what we shoot for, and you end up playing some tough teams before you can get out of your division.’’