With the Bruins victory over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night, they officially punched their ticket to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, eliminating the New York Rangers from postseason contention.
(Hats off to the Rangers though, as they played some great hockey down the stretch to make things interesting in the East...but it was simply too little too late.)
While the four teams in the playoffs are set, the seeding of each team is far from determined, which means the Bruins’ opponent in the first round is still completely up in the air.
Despite this uncertainty, Bruins fans can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that they’ll be in the playoffs once they begin and can start speculating which of the other three teams in the East would be the best match-up for Boston.
New York Islanders (Record: 31-16-6 - 4th in the East)
Given the current standings, with Boston sitting 3rd in the East and the Islanders sitting 4th, the Islanders are probably the team the Bruins are least likely to face in the first round.
Given the way these two teams matched up this season, that might be a good thing for the Bruins.
The New York Islanders, who were battling for top spot in the East for most of the season, were dealt a real blow when their captain Anders Lee suffered a right knee injury that will keep him out of action for the rest of the season.
Since Lee went down on March 16th, the Islanders have slumped a bit, going just 12-9-1.
But don’t count out the Islanders quite yet. Any team that has defensive genius Barry Trotz behind the bench always has a chance.
The Islanders have been superb this season in their own zone, giving up just 118 goals, good for the second-fewest goals allowed in the NHL.
Both Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin have been excellent this season as well, with a combined .926 SV% and 10 shutouts.
The Islanders’ big acquisition at the trade deadline was bringing in Kyle Palmieri (who was supposedly on the Bruins’ radar at the time) and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, neither has really panned out thus far, but there’s still time for both players to find their fit with their new team.
If you’re an Islanders fan, you’re really probably hoping that the team can somehow move up the East standings and earn home-ice advantage, as they have one of the best home records this season (20-3-3), but conversely have one of the worst road records among teams sitting in playoff positions (11-13-2).
As mentioned off the top, the Bruins avoiding the Islanders in the first round would seemingly be a good thing, as they lost the first five meetings to the Isles this season.
However, things have changed in Boston since the trade deadline, and Boston’s last two meetings with the Islanders showed that they’re more than capable of giving the Isles all they can handle in a seven-game series.
The Islanders’ forecheck and speed gave the Bruins fits when their defense was depleted, but in the last two meetings, that same forecheck was rendered largely ineffective.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Record: 35-16-3 - 1st in the East)
The Penguins are currently in the top spot in the East, four points ahead of the Bruins, who have two games in hand.
The Penguins stumbled out of the gate this year, winning just 11 of their first 20 games. However, they have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the last month or so, going 19-5-2 in their last 26 games.
Led, as usual, by Sidney Crosby (21 goals, 36 assists) and one of the most effective first lines in hockey (Crosby, Rust, and Guentzel), the Penguins have been dynamite offensively this year, scoring 180 goals in 53 games (2nd most in the NHL).
Amazingly they’ve done so mostly without the services of Evgeni Malkin, who’s missed 23 games this year.
The Pens are generating much of their offense with speed and a tenacious forecheck, two attributes that were central in their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.
The Pens have also found their defensive mojo as of late, and Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been very strong during this period.
The Bruins have played very well against the Pens this year, however the near-perfect performances by Pittsburgh in their March 15 and April 1 match-ups (both 4 - 1 victories) against Boston clearly demonstrate the potential of this team to knock off the Bruins if the two square off in the playoffs.
Home-ice advantage could certainly play a role in a match-up with these two teams as well, as both teams have struggled in their opponent’s arenas in recent years.
Washington Capitals (Record: 33-14-5 - 2nd in the East)
No match-up would be quite as intriguing for the Bruins than if they squared off with the Capitals in either the first or second round.
In recent years, bad blood has developed between these two teams, with their games frequently featuring rough stuff (especially this season).
The Caps, who had a stranglehold on the Bruins in recent season series, have now seen the pendulum swing in the other direction.
And let’s not forget about the whole Zdeno Chara mess from this offseason - what a storyline there could potentially be with the former ‘heart and soul’ of the Bruins facing off against his old teammates.
How motivated would Big Z be to beat the team that let him walk for nothing? And how motivated would the Bruins be to prove they don’t need Chara anymore to win?
The Capitals have quietly had another great regular season, despite their core players getting older.
Offensively, the Capitals have been lights out once again this season, leading the league in goals for with 181.
Their power play is excellent (26% conversion rate), but what’s probably been the most interesting thing about their offense is the scoring they’ve gotten from depth players this season.
The Capitals have 9 skaters with 10 or more goals this season (plus Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has 9). Compare that to the Bruins, who have just 5 guys with 10+ goals, and you can see how impressive the offense the Caps have been getting up and down their lineup really is.
Besides depth scoring, the Capitals have also done a great job being their regular bully selves this season.
Alex Ovechkin, Garnet Hathaway, Brenden Dillion, TJ Oshie, and Chara have been bruising opponents all season...and then of course there’s Tom Wilson.
In the minds of many fans, players, and coaches, Tom Wilson is reckless, dirty, and downright disrespectful of his opponents. And for the Capitals, this is exactly what they want from him.
Wilson is one of the most intimidating players in the league, which helps to create space for his linemates and provides insurance if opponents try to run any of the Caps stars. Love him or hate him, Wilson is a very effective player for the Caps and could be a difference maker if the Bruins end up facing them in the postseason.
If the Caps have a weakness, it would have to be their inability to keep the puck out of their own net. Neither Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek has been particularly good this year, and Washington’s defense has some legitimate holes in it.
The Capitals have surrendered 155 goals this season (11th worst in the NHL), including 25 in their 7 match-ups with Boston this year.
The most recent match-up between these teams was clearly dominated by the Bruins, who won 6-3 in Boston on April 18.
The two teams will play against each other on May 11 (the last game of the season for both teams), so it will be interesting to see how this game plays out. Depending on the standings at the time, the game could be extremely important for both teams, or not at all if things have sorted themselves out by then.
There’s the possibility that each of these two teams may want to send a clear message to the other in that game as well.
Boston has shown that they won’t be pushed around by the bigger Washington Capitals, and may want to confirm this one more time before the playoffs.
However, at the same time, if Boston faces Washington in the playoffs, it will be vitally important that they play smart hockey; the Capitals’ power play can quickly end a series if opponents are not careful.
Given that Boston has faced the Islanders, Penguins, and Capitals so many times already this year, we all have a pretty good idea what each opponent brings to the table.
Considering the fact that each of these teams has earned a playoff spot in arguably the toughest division in the league, there really isn’t going to be an easy first-round match-up for Boston.
However, some match-ups may be tougher than others.
Who’s the preferred opponent for Boston in the first round of the playoffs?
This poll is closed
New York Islanders