BOSTON — With Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers, the Boston Bruins clinched that they’ll fall no lower than the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff structure.
Sure, they can still catch the Tampa Bay Lightning for the third spot in the Atlantic Division, and a first-round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs, as they’re three points behind the Bolts with each hockey club still holding two games to be played.
But it sure looks like the Boston Bruins are going to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs after the Canes clinched the Metro Division with their fifth win in a row. The Canes aren’t exactly postseason strangers to the Black and Gold as the two teams faced each other in the 2020 bubble playoffs in Toronto, and Carolina was unceremoniously swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final en route to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
It’s a different Hurricanes team, though, as this season Carolina has beaten the Boston Bruins in all three meetings and outscored by them an unmistakably crushing 16-1 margin over those three games.
The good news is that the two Eastern Conference teams haven’t played each other since Feb. 10 and Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy thinks it will be a different story should they meet again starting next week.
“Let’s use Carolina as an example. We haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “We’re functioning at a much higher level than when we played them earlier on, so we’re not going to take a lot from those games other than here’s what Carolina likes to do: They’re in your face and they like to press all over the ice.
“And you don’t know if Carolina might decide to change that. I don’t think they will because they’ve been very successful. At the end of the day, I don’t think many teams change their stripes going into the playoffs especially if you’ve had a successful year. When you look at the teams in the East they’ve all hit 100 points, so they’re going to feel like they’ve got a good hockey club. I wouldn’t anticipate any team changing the way they play [to start the playoffs]. That happens more along the way if you have to make adjustments.”
At this point it will either be the Hurricanes or the Maple Leafs for the Boston Bruins in the first round, but Taylor Hall offered a very cogent breakdown on a number of possibilities. All of them will require the Boston Bruins to play the kind of smart, hard-working defense with a five-man unit that was on full display against the NHL’s most explosive offense in the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
The Bruins controlled play, outshot the Panthers 37-21 and managed to keep the Panthers players off-balance offensively on a night where admittedly Florida might not have had their “A” game. The only real blemish was the goal they allowed in the final second of the first period, a bad habit that’s happened to them an NHL-leading 25 times this season.
“We’ve done a really good job [defensively] and that’s the identity we’ve talked about. Going into the playoffs, whoever we play: Carolina is really good offensively and they generate a lot of chances with speed and forechecking. Florida, you saw [on Tuesday night] is more of a rush team. New York was good in zone, and they move pucks quickly through guys,” said Hall. “Whoever it is we’re going to need to be good defensively. That’s really our identity. It’s not something we have to change or do anything different, we just have to play that structure well.
“It’s fun. It’s fun shutting down other teams. Especially our line, we’re an offensive line but when we’re good in our end and we get pucks back then the sky is the limit. I think our whole team really buys into that.”
So what to make of Boston’s final couple of regular season tune-ups and the ensuing playoff journey that awaits next week?
Whether it’s the Maple Leafs or the more likely Hurricanes, the Boston Bruins have all kinds of good luck and positive results against either of those teams in recent years. Toronto has been chronically exposed over the years by the Bruins as a soft, defensively challenged and not-ready-for-prime-time hockey team that admittedly has heavy offensive artillery with Auston Matthews hitting the 60-goal mark this season.
What a way to get your 60th goal…snipe city for Auston Matthews pic.twitter.com/YFS5DWofIT
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) April 27, 2022
Carolina, on the other hand, has been an inexperienced foe and a somewhat easy mark for the Bruins in recent years, but this is a group that has in-their-prime players like Jaccob Slavin, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov hitting their prime years while well-coached by Rod Brind’Amour. The Hurricanes feel like this is their time and they might just be right.
The one area that may be their downfall? Goaltending where Freddie Andersen is currently injured after a stellar season and Antti Raanta has been in and out of action in recent days as well even if it looks like he might be okay to start next week’s Stanley Cup playoffs. The goaltending issue may be their undoing, however, for a balanced team that’s averaging 3.35 goals per game and is first in the NHL in both goals allowed and penalty kill this season.
It feels like it’s going to be a tougher go-round for the Bruins against the Canes this season, however, even if moving over to the Metro Division playoff bracket is better for Boston while Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto slug it out against each other in the Atlantic. Either way, the Boston Bruins know there is no easy path in the East this season as all eight teams enter the postseason as 100-point hockey clubs and highly capable of beating any other team in a series.