With the playoffs only a handful of games away, we can now look at who could play who, who will play who, and which matchups you’ll want if you’re a Bruins fan.
The Atlantic is interesting, since there are technically six teams still in the mix for the playoffs. On top of the Canadiens, Lightning and Red Wings, you’ve got the Bruins, Senators, and Panthers—none of which are officially eliminated from playoff contention, nor guaranteed a spot. The Bolts and Habs are battling out for the top spot in the Atlantic, and at the same time, Eastern Conference.
Tampa and Montreal have been at the top of the division for seemingly all season. Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson have been an absolute force offensively, and Ben Bishop returned from his injury last spring healthy and strong. The top-scoring team in the league, Tampa is looking as strong as they have in years. Meanwhile, Montreal has struggled mightily in a variety of ways throughout the season. But Carey Price is putting up Tim Thomas numbers this year, and has basically stolen a season-worth of games. If Price’s numbers were league average, the Canadiens would be battling for a playoff spot, not the President’s Trophy.
In third (barely), you’ve got the Detroit Red Wings, who have been banged up lately and are scraping by down the stretch here, and they’re looking likely to play whichever team falls to 2nd place in the Division. Rounding out the division is the 2nd Card spot, which right now is in control of the Bruins. The Senators are close behind, but their pace has slowed over the last few games. And the Panthers need a miracle to leapfrog both the Bruins and Senators to sniff postseason action.
Through the first 20 games of the season, the Rangers seemed to be in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. The Stanley Cup hangover excuse seemed like it was a real factor for the Rags, who sat at 9-8-4 on ‘murican Thanksgiving. Since then, they’ve gone 39-13-3 and sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with games in hand over both Montreal and Tampa Bay. New York is all but guaranteed to play the 8th seed in the playoffs, which looks more and more like it’ll be against a team in the Atlantic division.
The rest of the Met is a cluster. For a while, the Penguins and Islanders were at the top of the league standings. The Isles were the first team to 20 wins this season, and they have a damn good Hart candidate in John Tavares lighting it up down there. Meanwhile, the Penguins with newcomer Mike Johnston behind the bench found themselves in the mix early and often as well, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang being rumoured for the Vezina and Norris respectively. But recently? Both of these teams have hit the skid hard. Since February 1st, the Pens are 14-10-3, and the Islanders are 13-11-5. Both teams are holding on, hoping that the surging Capitals aren’t able to make up enough ground to suprass them in the standings.
Speaking of the Caps, Washington is 17-10-1 since the start of February, including three 3-game winning streaks. And Alex Ovechkin is starting to seriously emerge as one of the greatest goal-scorers of all time, currently in his 6th 50-goal season and the odds on favorite for the Rocket. With the same amount of games as New York and Pittsburgh, Ovi and the Caps could easily jump up and grab 2nd or 3rd in the Metropolitan come the season’s end.
So who should match up with who? Well, here’s what the playoffs look like if they were to start today.
Best Possible Matchups for the Bruins:
New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins
Although his overall career numbers against Boston are frightening—22-11-2 with a .935 SV% and 1.91 GAA—King Henrik has been pretty damn mediocre against the Bruins over his last dozen outings. Including the playoff series in 2013, Hank is 3-8-1 in his last 12 games played, with a subpar .903 SV% and even worse 3.51 GAA. Assuming the Rangers will do the right thing and ride him into the postseason, the Bruins should have a good matchup.
Tuukka, on the other hand, is lights out against the Rangers. In 15 games played during the regular season, Rask is 8-4-3 with a .936 SV% and 1.95 GAA. In the 2013 playoff series, he was 4-0-1 with a 1.86 GAA and .936 SV%. While the speed and size of the Rangers gives teams fits, no one in particular on the team (outside of Rick Nash) is truly imposing. Zuccarello has jets, Stepan is good on the dot, and their D-core is even stronger with Yandle joining the mix. But the Bruins' combination of size, skill, and strength could make a New York/Boston first round matchup a great series. Plus, what better way to avenge your loss as a President's Trophy winner to knock off the best team in the East?
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Boston Bruins
While Tampa Bay has been one of the favorites to win the division (and the Conference, in some eyes) for much of the year, the Boston Bruins have had their number. Even including their most recent loss at St. Pete Times Forum, the Bs are 11-3-0 since the beginning for the 2011-12 season against Tampa. Hell, they even beat them in a couple shootouts, which is borderline impossible for this team.
But despite going 3-9-2 over that span, Tampa has undeniable upside. We were witness to how much of a force Stamkos can be in the playoffs back in 2011. And Ben Bishop, while not great, is an absolute upgrade over Mike Smith and Dwayne Roloson, finishing 3rd in Vezina voting last season. But he’s fallen back to earth a little this year, and against Boston, he’s 1-3-2 in six games played with a .887 SV% and 3.33 GAA. Say what you will about who was injured when and which outcomes truly mattered. But if confidence plays a part—and we’ve seen it does with teams like Montreal—then a history of success against the Bolts could help the Bruins pull out an upset.
Best Possible Matchups (for Bruins Fans) Across the Conference:
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
I don’t know many hockey fans who wouldn’t want to see this matchup again after their meeting back in 2013. The six-game series from a few years ago was a war, and was also a big reason why the Bruins played against Tomas Vokoun instead of Marc-Andre Fleury. It would also pit two teams that could give the Bruins trouble against each other. The Isles are quick and small, something something something narratives blah blah blah. But they do have the likely Hart winner on their top line, and now a healthy Kyle Okposo. Not to mention a Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk line that has been great all year.
Pittsburgh on the other hand is having a down year by their standard, but should get Evgeni Malkin back at 100% by the start of the postseason. We can all wax poetic about the sweep a couple years back, but the truth is as long as Crosby and Malkin are on the roster, the Penguins are dangerous. Despite losing guys off their roster that have been effective in the past (James Neal, Pascal Dupuis), they’re still contenders, especially with Fleury and Letang on their back in. With the defensive struggles the Bruins have had this year, I wouldn’t want to face both of these teams, so if they could knock each other out, that’d be faaaaantastic.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Washington Capitals
Last night, I bet you were watching the Bruins/Red Wings game. I was. You should've been too. But we all missed a fantastic game between the Capitals and Canadiens that only furthers this point.
Speak for yourself, but I don’t want to play the Montreal Canadiens. At least not in the first round. I want playoff hockey for as long as possible, and that means holding off the Habs or missing them altogether. Thankfully, it may slot that the Washington Capitals will be their 1st Round matchup. Question: Which Eastern Conference team does Carey Price have his worst career numbers against? Answer: the Washington Capitals. Going into last night's game, Price had 17 career games played against Ovi and the Caps, with a 5-9-3 record, .902 SV%, and 3.04 GAA. Last night, Price let in 4 goals on 19 shots, a .789 SV%, before losing 5-4 in a shootout. They’re his kryptonite—his worst numbers against all teams in the NHL with a 10+ game sample size. The Caps are also 5th in the league in scoring, with 2.90 GPG. Monteral sits at 23rd, with a 2.56. If any team is going to knock the Habs out, it’s going to be a team with several offensive weapons that can put the puck past Price.
Luckily, they aren’t a shell in their own end anymore either. With Barry Trotz behind the bench, Washington is having one of their best defensive seasons in nearly a decade. They’re 5th in the NHL in goal differential, right behind Montreal at a +27. And Brayden Holtby has been a warrior in net, with one win away from 40 on the season. By the numbers, he’s having a career year in GAA (2.23) and SV% (.922) as a starter—not including the 14 games played back in 2010-11.
Meanwhile, Montreal is 22nd in the league in scoring, 23rd on the powerplay, 23rd in shots allowed per game, 23rd in CF%, 26th in Goals on the road, and are middle of the pack in Shooting Percentage. On paper, they aren’t a good team. But with Carey Price posting a 41-16-6 record, .935 SV%, 1.95 GAA, and 9 shutouts? Forget their history with Boston, they’d be a hard team to beat on that alone. If Washington can figure out Carey over the course of a lengthy series, one of the Bruins toughest opponents would be bounced early on.