There is little question that a dog fight awaits the Boston Bruins in the newfangled East Division as the 2021 NHL regular season opens on Wednesday night.
The East Division should be known as “The Division of Death” in the NHL because there’s going to be at least one legit playoff-caliber team that will miss the postseason with the Penguins, Bruins, Islanders, Flyers and Capitals all at the top of the division. With only four divisional playoff spots available, it’s going to be a hockey bloodbath this year in the East.
That doesn’t even count a New York Rangers team that’s on the rise and could certainly push out one of the aforementioned, favored hockey clubs from a playoff spot as well.
There’s a legit chance the Boston Bruins could be on the outside looking in when the 56-game compacted NHL regular season is over, particularly if they get off to a sluggish start due to injuries and roster turnover. The start to the season is going to be paramount to every team and the Bruins are no different in that regard.
“[It’s a] fact that you can’t afford to go on a real dip and not get out of the gate [strong]. If you’re chasing throughout the course of the year [it will be tough],” said Don Sweeney, who wasn’t even touching on the difficulties that COVID-19 may cause with positive test results, NHL taxi squads and compromised lineups. “There are going to be some challenges thrown our way. I think we have really strong goaltending, and I think our foundation. I think will help us get through some of those rough patches to be expected.”
The bottom line is that the realigned East Division is going to be the toughest of the four divisions for this upcoming season, and that means the challenge is going to be greater for the Black and Gold this year. There are going to be “rough patches” and then some.
It also means the Bruins are going to have to routinely face a Washington Capitals group that’s essentially owned them over the last decade, and instantly got a little meaner and tougher with Zdeno Chara jumping from the Bruins to the Capitals.
“I don’t think it’s going to take long for those rivalries to build up. Obviously, there’s history between Boston and the Rangers for years. When we play there and they play here, there’s a lot of fans for both teams,” said Bruins President Cam Neely. “I think the recent history we’ve had with Philly in the playoffs will spark some rivalry and playing those teams that many times in a year…guys are going to be sick of each other in a hurry.”
The B’s will face the Capitals eight times over the course of the compacted NHL regular season (as they will everybody else in the division), and those are going to be out-and-out battles with both teams still holding high postseason aspirations. Though, funny as it is to say, longtime Chara teammates in Boston are actually looking forward to those fierce battles, and excited about facing the 6-foot-9 intimidator now that he’s donning a Capitals jersey.
“Obviously, [Chara] was such a presence in the room and on the ice. He established himself as one of the best defensemen in the league and he had some pretty good success with us. For me with him being on the other side, I’m actually excited to get to play against him. I’m kind of glad he didn’t retire, and we’ll get to see him with the other team. We’ll be able to see him eight times [during the regular season], so it will be different, fun and exciting,” said David Krejci. “I’m looking forward to it.
“In practices you just kind of battle against him, but he can’t really go in the corner against you [in practice]. He’s a good player. At his age, he can still bring something to the table. He’s on the PK and he knows us really well. He knows our power play well. But we also know him really well and what he can do well. On the other hand, he’s a little bit older so we know where his game is at. It will be fun. I’m actually really excited.”
One thing is for sure for the Boston Bruins and every other team in the East Division: They are going to need to load up on points when they are playing the much-improved Buffalo Sabres and the New Jersey Devils. Those two hockey clubs are young and talented, to be sure, but they should also become roadkill in a black-and-blue division where there are so many established, quality teams.
One other thing bears watching, however.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Bruins are both in similar places with aging core groups that have done a lot of winning but are facing difficult circumstances where some of their best players are really beginning to get “up there” in hockey age. There is plenty of talk about windows closing in Pittsburgh and Boston, and rightfully so. Will both teams be able to push through a challenged, compacted 56-game schedule and maintain some gas in the tank for the postseason while pushing hard for a playoff spot?
The realigned East Division is going to be fascinating to watch and it’s going to be a meat grinder 56-game season where the schedules are rife with quality opponents. None of this is going to be easy for the Boston Bruins, or for anybody else for that matter.
Could it be the year where the Bruins miss out on the playoffs and make the determination that it’s time to focus on rebuilding a roster that’s getting a little older in spots? It remains to be seen, but nobody can dismiss out-of-hand that possibility for the Boston Bruins with so many challenges facing them on-and-off the ice this season.