Wild Card Bruins Need To Up Their Game To Avoid First Round Match-Up With The Lightning
All teams, no matter what sport or at what level, want to control their own destiny. No team wants to depend on the hopeful misfortune of another franchise in order to get where they need to be.
This is where the Boston Bruins are at right now.
The Bruins play host to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, marking the end of their bye week. And what a way to be welcomed back, playing the top team in the Central Division. The Bruins go into the contest holding the first wild card spot in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference, one point up on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Boston fell into the wild card after the Montreal Canadians won their last game just prior to the All-Star break.
It’s certainly unfamiliar territory for the Bruins, looking up at the Canadians in the standings. Even with two games in hand on Montreal, the Bruins are realizing like the rest of the league that the Canadians have no designs on falling back to the pack as so many have predicted this season.
What’s also a good idea for the Bruins is to not look behind them. A pair of young, hungry clubs in the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes are lurking just five points back. Falling one spot back into the second wild card slot would likely set up a first round match-up with the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning. No doubt that is a scenario any team would like to avoid.
How The Schedule Looks
Coming down the stretch, the remaining games on the Bruins schedule do offer up a significant challenge for Boston.
Of the 33 games left on their schedule, 16 of those will be played at home. Also, 16 games will be played against clubs with records of .500 or better. Not exactly favourable, but not unreasonable either.
The big test for the Bruins will come in the second week of March, when they play 10 of their last 14 games on the road. That stretch of games starts with five straight against clubs above .500. Any plans the Bruins have of escaping the wild card spot should be addressed well before then.
What the schedule maker has set up for the Bruins means nothing however if Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask is not healthy enough to return. Rask suffered a concussion in Boston’s final game before their bye week against the New York Rangers.
Winger David Pastrnak was Boston’s lone representative at the All-Star game weekend in San Jose. During the festivities, he was asked if there was any update on Rask’s condition. Pastrnak said he had been texting with Rask earlier, and Rask assured him that he was “feeling good”. The general sentiment seems to be that Rask is “day-to-day” with the concussion symptoms, and may well be good enough to go Tuesday against Winnipeg. An update on Rask is expected Monday afternoon, after the Bruins practice on their first day back. Should Rask be unable to go, veteran goaltender Zane McIntyre would likely be summoned from their American Hockey League affiliate Providence Bruins.
As Puck77.com’s Matt Sanderson (@MattSanderson32) noted in his piece on Saturday afternoon, current Bruins back-up Jaroslav Halak has endured some struggles the last few weeks. After a hot start to the season, Halak has lost four of his last five decisions, allowing 17 goals during that stretch. Should Rask be out any significant amount of time, the crease will be Halak’s to defend. He will need to be better than he has been.
Is Qualifying For The Playoffs A Concern?
Although the Bruins have every right to be concerned with the footsteps they hear behind them of other teams, making the playoffs seems like a good bet for Boston.
According to moneypuck.com, the Bruins have an 85.5% chance of getting into the playoffs. So aside from a near total collapse, the Bruins should make it. But as for any team in the NHL, an injury to any key player and those odds diminish in a hurry.
Having said that, the Bruins are relatively healthy. Outside of the Rask concussion, only forward Joakim Nordstrom (fractured fibula) is currently out, and he has been skating with the club. But do expect Boston to be kicking tires on other teams in the league leading up to the NHL trade deadline on February 25th.
While there is very little concern with the Boston defence, upgrades to both the offence and goaltending depth should be considered. Up front, the Bruins top line of Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are as good a trio as any in the league. But outside of them, secondary scoring is a worry. The bottom six has been affective, led by Sean Kuraly, Danton Heinen and Chris Wagner. But asking any of them to produce in a top six role would be risky.
Boston’s core as it’s currently built is nearing its expiry date. Zdeno Chara will be 42-years-old by time the playoffs start. Bergeron, Marchand, David Backes, David Krejci and Rask are all over 30. This post-season could easily be viewed as one last kick at the can for many of these veterans. So it would come as no surprise if General Manager Don Sweeney makes a big splash prior to the deadline to make another Stanley Cup run.
The Bruins control their own fate. Time for these veterans to step up and pave the way.
stats from hockey-reference, NHL.com
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals