The Boston Bruins ran out of gas during the final week of the regular season, their mini-collapse culminating on Sunday night in a lethargic loss to the Florida Panthers. The poor showing not only cost the B’s first place in their division but also the guarantee of home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It was a missed opportunity that left some fans (ridiculously) questioning the team’s heart and ability to win big games. But last time I looked, the sky hadn’t yet fallen on Causeway Street. And the Bruins remain favorites in their first-round series with the pesky Toronto Maple Leafs, which kicks off Thursday night at TD Garden.
So here’s a quick reality check: Despite their flagging 1-3-1 record in April, Boston remains a legit Stanley Cup contender after exceeding all expectations this season.
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The team won 50 games and finished with the fourth best record in the NHL. At times the Bruins were a buzz saw, dominating puck possession thanks to seamless transitions from defense to offense and coach Bruce Cassidy’s attack-first philosophy.
Boston’s top forward line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, easily the best three-zone trio in hockey, scored a combined 99 goals while seemingly never letting the other team touch the puck. It was almost unfair.
The old Bruins guard — Bergeron, Marchand, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask — remains the core of this team despite its advancing age. But if there were an x-factor to the team’s success this season, look no further than the contributions of rookies Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. This infusion of young legs and playmaking ability, combined with career years for a number of depth forwards, saw the B’s simply overwhelm opponents on many nights.
Also not to be overlooked: After enduring an absurd amount of injuries all season, including a particularly treacherous spring, the Bruins will enter the postseason fairly healthy. The loss of defenseman Brandon Carlo is significant, though good news definitely outweighs the bad with Bergeron, Chara, DeBrusk, McAvoy and Torey Krug already back in the lineup and Rick Nash, Noel Acciari and Riley Nash nearing a return.
Standing in the Bruins’ way is Toronto. The young Leafs are no longer just happy to be here, getting their first taste of the playoffs last season. Now they’re ready to make their mark, and fans in hockey-mad Ontario are craving a first-round upset to help wash away the pain of 2013’s epic Game 7 collapse in Boston once and for all.
The Maple Leafs are younger and faster than the Bruins. They boast scary-good superstar Auston Matthews, a lethal power play and a goalie that can steal a series in Frederik Andersen. So it’s no wonder Toronto beat Boston three times in four tries during the regular season. One potential weakness for the Leafs: flimsy depth at defense, which the Bruins could exploit with their multiple-line forward attack.
Prediction: It won’t be as dramatic as 2013, but the Bruins gut out another seven-game victory over the Maple Leafs thanks to their depth scoring and elite goaltending from Rask. In Round 2, the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning will be too much for Boston. The Bolts end an amazing Bruins season in six games on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.