The road to the Stanley Cup now goes through Boston.
The Bruins earned that home-ice distinction with their statement Game 7 win over the Maple Leafs Tuesday night. Now they hope to take advantage of a golden opportunity after all four regular-season division winners were knocked out in the first round.
Make no mistake, though. The Bruins will have their hands full against John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets. Boston’s second round opponents are fresh off a historic sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.
The Bruins and Blue Jackets got accustomed to one another quite often over the last few weeks of the regular season. Bruce Cassidy’s bunch earned a pair of wins in a three-week span against Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and a solid Columbus squad.
“My initial thought is they beat a really good team, because I thought Tampa was lights out, and we saw them first hand late in the year. So, clearly, we got our hands full,” Cassidy said following the Game 7 win over Toronto.
“The good news is we saw them three times late in the year. That will help with our preparation. Should help with the players. We know they were physical against Tampa. They came after them. They got key saves. Their power play was lights out. So, we got our hands full.”
The Bruins have the quick turnaround from the Game 7 win over the Maple Leafs to their Game 1 matchup Thursday with a Blue Jackets squad that last took the ice a week ago Tuesday. Let’s break down a few keys to a Bruins’ series win.
Depth contributions need to carry over.
Nazem Kadri’s suspension for cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in Game 2 put Mike Babcock in a tough spot. The Toronto coach had to move William Nylander away from his usual spot with Auston Matthews and into Kadri’s third line center role.
Trevor Moore and Tyler Ennis each had their skating legs going on the fourth line. But the Bruins exposed the Leafs’ bottom-six issues, particularly in Game 7.
Joakim Nordstrom and Marcus Johansson gave the Bruins a lift with their first period tallies. Sean Kuraly, playing in just his third game of the series, notched a back-breaking goal early in the third after the Leafs dominated play in the middle 20.
It all came together for the third and fourth lines on a night where Boston’s top guys couldn’t find the score sheet aside from Patrice Bergeron’s final empty-netter. But they may not have that same bottom-six luxury heading into Round 2.
The Blue Jackets have a mix of speed, skill and energy players occupying their third and fourth lines. Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky are all battle tested playoff veterans that can move up and down the lineup. Third line winger Josh Anderson’s rare mix of strength and quickness would make him a good top-six fit on any team. And former Bruin Riley Nash, despite the drop-off in production from his last year in Boston, is still a reliable two-way cog.
Boston’s bottom-six had some moving parts during its Round 1 series. David Backes and Chris Wagner both saw time early in the series only to exit stage right in favor of Nordstrom and rookie Karson Kuhlman. Both are likely to watch again from the press box barring injuries.
Yes, the Bruins need their best players to shine in Round 2. They weren’t exactly sharp against the Maple Leafs, but the unlikely heroes of Game 7 helped them get away with it for the most part.
Kuraly (playing against his hometown team in Round 2), Nordstrom, Kuhlman, Johnasson, Charlie Coyle and Noel Acciari won’t have an easy time with Columbus’ third and fourth lines. But they have their Game 7 effort to build on, and the Bruins may need that with the quick turnaround.
Get David Pastrnak going
The Bruins and Leafs used top-heavy lineups for the first few games. That changed in Game 4 when Cassidy moved David Pastrnak to the second line with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci.
The talented fifth-year forward didn’t have the best of times against Toronto this time around. But the move paid off in Game 4 as Pastrnak — benefiting from avoiding the physical Nikita Zaitsev-Jake Muzzin pairing — scored his only two goals of the series.
Cassidy and company need similar outings like Game 4 from their dynamic Czech playmaker against Columbus’ stout defense. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are one of the best two-way pairings in the league. David Savard’s shot-blocking prowess along with Scott Harrington and Adam Clendening’s stay-at-home provide depth on the second and third defense pairings in place of the injured Adam McQuaid, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara.
The Blue Jackets have a special teams blueprint to work with from the Maple Leafs. Toronto’s penalty kill focused heavily on denying Pastrnak’s patented spot for one-timers at the left face-off dot. The Bruins’ power play adjusted in Game 6, but there’s no doubt that they’ll want to use that go-to play again — along with setting Bergeron up from the bumper — in Round 2.
The Leafs rattled Pastrnak a little bit in Round 1. He battled through his struggles and kept his head up. The Bruins need more production out of their 2014 first round pick in Round 2, though.
Get offensive production from the blue-line
The Bruins scored 12 goals in their three regular season games against the Blue Jackets. Yet Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug were their only defensemen who contributed to the score sheet with a combined three assists.
The Lightning’s blue-line chipped in with eight points during the four-game sweep. They rarely hesitated to take the open ice in front of them even for a routine shot attempt. But the Bolts didn’t get enough traction to generate quality opportunities after taking a 3-0 lead in Game 1.
Beating Bobrovsky and Tortorella’s defensive scheme takes all-hands-on-deck. Krug, McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk’s quick puck-moving prowess give the Bruins a fairly solid transition game.
This series won’t have as many odd-man rushes, though. Puck cycling and attacking zone time is the name of the game in this series. The Bruins’ blue-line did both in their Game 6 win over the Maple Leafs en route to 18 shots on net.
The fight for every inch of space magnifies with each round. Boston’s blue-liners created space and fired shots through traffic with ease in the latter half of the Toronto series. They’ll need to make that a habit against the newest darlings of the National Hockey League.
Tuukka Rask needs to out-duel Sergei Bobrovsky.
Easier said than done, especially after Bobrovsky’s bounce back from the first period of Game 1.
Both Rask and Bobrovsky entered the postseason looking to prove their doubters wrong. Rask, as we all know in Boston, is a prime target for critique every time he allows a goal. Bobrovsky, meanwhile, notched just five career playoff wins with a sub .900 save percentage and goals against average near 4.00 heading into the Tampa series.
Well, Bobrovsky’s playoff past didn’t come back to haunt him against the likes of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. And Rask got better as the Maple Leafs series went along culminating into the best Game 7 performance of his career.
Both goalies have a Vezina Trophy in their trophy case. They’d like a Stanley Cup ring to add to their collection of accolades. The postseason can change any players fortunes, especially goalies. Whoever performs best on an even bigger stage will inch one step closer toward rewriting their own playoff history.