It’s been a season of ups and downs for Bruins fans.
A frustrating start to the season had people calling for the team to tank. A torrid December through February had fans saving spots on Causeway Street for a Stanley Cup parade.
And now, a stumbling finish has fans abandoning ship in droves, predicting that the Bruins will flame out of the playoffs in the first round against Toronto.
We’re nothing if not impulsive, eh?
On one hand, it’s easy to understand the concern. The Bruins fumbled away a chance at the top seed in the East last night, playing an uninspired and, at times, embarrassing game against the Florida Panthers.
They’re 1-3-1 in their last five games and seem like they’ve allowed the first goal in each of their last 30 games. Hell, even the Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - David Pastrnak line has been allowing goals like it’s going out of style.
But should one mini slump derail what the team’s been able to accomplish over the course of the season?
No, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into Thursday night.
Here are four:
1. The Bruins will finally get a break.
You know that stretch at work between late January and late May where there aren’t a ton of holidays in sight and you start to get burnt out? It’s not hard to imagine that the Bruins are feeling that same level of burn out right now.
44 days have passed since the Bruins last played the Maple Leafs, a 4-3 loss in Toronto on a Saturday night.
In those 44 days, the Bruins have played 24 hockey games. The team hasn’t had consecutive days off in more than a month (March 4-5). While Bruce Cassidy has sprinkled in optional skates or days away from the rink here and there, the Bruins have been going through a meat grinder of a schedule in recent weeks.
Now, the team will have three days of preparation for Toronto. Per the team, today is a complete off day for the players. Tuesday and Wednesday will feature nothing but 11 AM practices, giving the team time to recuperate.
The extra rest will do wonders for veterans like Zdeno Chara, but will also be welcome by young guys like Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk, guys who are going through the 82-game slog for the first time.
The team has looked tired for the past few weeks. It wouldn’t be fair to say a few days off will be a cure-all solution, but it sure won’t hurt.
2. The team is getting (relatively) healthy.
McAvoy should be back into the swing of things following his injury, as should Chara and DeBrusk. Rick Nash is skating again and is on track for a Game 1 return. While we don’t have a ton of news on Riley Nash, reports indicate that he’s progressing and hasn’t been ruled out long-term yet.
Having Rick Nash back would give Cassidy plenty of options in his top-6 or top-9. Having Riley Nash back would make the Bruins a better all-around team, as the two-way center’s 200-foot game (I’m sorry for using that term) has been sorely missed.
Assuming Rick Nash is back for Game 1, the Bruins could roll out a pretty fearsome top-6. It would also allow them to bump guys like Brian Gionta out of the lineup.
With injuries, the Bruins had guys playing in new roles and guys playing in spots that were a bit above their pay grades; with a healthy roster, things should shake out a little differently.
3. The Bruins are a different team than earlier in the season.
Heading into the playoff match-up with the Leafs, plenty of people are citing the Bruins 1-2-1 season mark against Toronto as a cause for concern. And while it’s true that the Leafs played the Bruins tough this season, it’s also true that half of those games were played by the “slump” Bruins and half were played by the current Bruins.
The back-to-back losses in November came in the middle of the Bruins’ early-season woes. The team looked horrible for long stretches and it showed, particularly in the 4-1 drubbing.
Since then, however, the Bruins have looked like a completely different team. They beat the Leafs soundly in early February, and then lost in the last two minutes of regulation on a terrible non-call goalie interference debacle in late February.
In November, the Leafs looked like they were skating circles around the Bruins, with Toronto’s youth and energy seemingly overwhelming them. The recent games have been much more level and even slightly tilted in the Bruins’ favor.
4. The Bruins are a far deeper team than last year.
Obviously they’re playing a different team this year, so it’s not a one-to-one comparison. But the differences in depth between this year’s Bruins team and last year’s squad are stark.
Against Ottawa last year, the Bruins at one time iced a second line of Drew Stafford - David Backes - Tim Schaller, a third line of Sean Kuraly - Riley Nash - Noel Acciari, and a fourth line of Matt Beleskey - Dominic Moore - Frank Vatrano.
This year, the Bruins will be able to keep their powerhouse first line intact and rely on their depth to win out over Toronto. A second line of Jake DeBrusk - David Krejci - Rick Nash will be a handful for any team.
Cassidy will have options on the third line, choosing between Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen and even Brian Gionta.
The fourth line has flexibility as well. Sean Kuraly has had a good season down there, but Tommy Wingels has filled in admirably in his absence.
Ideally, the days of second-line-wing Tim Schaller are over (no offense, Tim), which should make the Bruins much harder to handle in a seven-game series.