We know them as an annually frustrating regular season foe, but this season we got a bigger taste of the Boston Bruins as...division rivals? It’s been a weird year. The New York Islanders won the first five games, lost the final three, and the two teams finished the regular season on different trajectories before dispatching their upper seed opponents in arguably the league’s toughest division.
So now we’re about to get more familiar with the Bruins than we’d ever willingly choose. To help us prepare, we asked Dan Ryan of SB Nation’s Bruins site Stanley Cup of Chowder for perspective on his team. (You can find my answers to his questions there.)
LHH: Much is made of the Bruins underperforming (or under-results-ing?) their underlying numbers before getting hot down the stretch. What do you make of that? Regression? Finally healthy and returning to potential, plus a nice deadline addition?
SCOC: All of the above, I think. The B’s had a number of guys with unsustainably horrific shooting percentages early on, David Krejci chief among them. For guys like that, you knew they’d eventually catch up, it was just a matter of whether or not it’d be soon enough to matter.
Post-deadline, the team has gotten healthy and finally seems to have plugged its holes, so to speak. Taylor Hall has fit like a glove, but Mike Reilly has been an excellent addition as well.
Watching this team earlier in the season was dreadful, at times: lifeless hockey, impotent offense, all of that good stuff. It seems like since the trade deadline, the team has had much more of a spring in its step. Part of that may have to do with the time of year (i.e. “alright, the playoffs are here, let’s move”), but I think GM Don Sweeney deserves some credit for bringing in guys to fill areas of need.
LHH: On that note, tell us a little more about how Taylor Hall is fitting in?
SCOC: He’s been a perfect fit for the Bruins. Krejci is probably the happiest guy in Boston since Hall’s arrival, but Hall himself is up there too. You can tell this guy, who has been an elite hockey player probably since he was 5 years old, has longed to play “meaningful” hockey; he’s doing that now.
It seems like every press appearance he has features him gushing about the group of guys, the team, the city...it’s been a regular love affair.
It helps that he has produced well, too. The team has looked miles better since he came aboard. He fills a need the Bruins have had since the Milan Lucic/Nathan Horton/Jarome Iginla days: a legitimate, play-driving threat on Krejci’s left.
Plus, considering what they gave up for him (no offense to Anders Bjork), it’s hard to not look at the move as a slam dunk.
LHH: In the regular season , the Islanders took the first five games, through a variety of ways, before the Bruins cleaned up the final three. Do you put much stock in those results?
SCOC: If you’re a Bruins fan, you hope the post-deadline series is what you’ll see in the playoffs; if you’re an Islanders fan, it’s probably the opposite.
I think you can look at those games to inform your takes on this series, but the playoffs are always a different beast. The teams’ strengths and weaknesses will still be the same, but we all know all bets are off once a playoff series begins.
I think the last few games of the season series will give Bruins fans some confidence, but we also shouldn’t completely discount the first set of results.
LHH: What most concerns you about the Islanders?
SCOC: Probably speed and high-end offensive talent.
The Bruins aren’t nearly as slow and plodding as they used to be, but any time you’re going up against guys with the straight-line speed of Barzal, Eberle, etc., it’s a reason for concern.
Plus, the Islanders have a very good middle-six, especially after the trade deadline acquisitions. While the Isles’ top line is good, I don’t think it’s unfair to say the Bruins’ top line is better.
However, once you get into that middle-six, things start to even out a bit, if not tilt in the Isles’ favor. Depth matters in a playoff series, so that could be a problem for the Bruins.
One random thing too: the fairy tale factor. Nassau was a wild scene in that clinching game. Knowing this is curtains for the Coliseum, you could see the Isles riding that wave of emotion to a reach another level. Obviously those things are hard to quantify, but it’s something that’s at least in the back of my mind.
LHH: Which good Bruins player do outsiders not appreciate enough or maybe even know much about?
SCOC: I was going to say Charlie McAvoy, but he’s kind of been all over peoples’ radars this playoffs (plus, I know he’s local to Long Island).
One who might be worth mentioning is Connor Clifton. He’s a third-pairing/seventh defenseman, but he’s fun to watch.
He’s not the biggest guy, but plays what could be called beautifully chaotic hockey. He flies around, throwing hits, leading rushes, throwing pucks on net, etc.
The other obvious one would be Krejci, but I think most people are familiar with him. You could argue that he’s among the most underrated players of his generation, and has been an elite playmaker for the better part of a decade.
He’ll rarely have a true highlight-reel play, but his intelligence and vision makes him a real asset for the Bruins.
LHH: This is the teams’ first playoff encounter since 1983, so...from what will Bruins fans draw their pre-series hate (before the games happen and there are new in-series incidents to fuel the good ol’ playoff bloodlust)?
SCOC: The Barzal takes will certainly add a degree of malice to this series, that’s for sure. I think most of us are at the “yeah, we get it” point with those, but it still gets under peoples’ skin.
I don’t think there’s really much of a hate-filled rivalry here though. The teams have had some fun games in recent years, but nothing that you can really point to as a “remember this?” type moment.
The one thing that happened recently, I guess, was Komarov jabbing David Pastrnak, but that wasn’t really much.
My guess is that the Isles’ fourth line (plus Komarov, if he plays elsewhere) will get on fans’ nerves pretty quickly. As you mentioned, things heat up pretty quickly in a series (we saw that a couple years ago in the Bruins-Blue Jackets series).
I’m sure we’ll have enough to yell at each other about by Sunday morning.
LHH Ed. note: Wow, I haven’t thought about the Bruins-pass-on-Barzal thing in a while and forgot that it might be a social meme in this series. It was fun tomfoolery before but over the past year I’ve been focused on...other things.
LHH: Finally, what’s your outlook on the Bruins’ playoff chances overall? If they win this round, do you expect they can knock off the Avalanche/Vegas and Lightning/Hurricanes, or is making it past two rounds about right, and everything else is gravy?
SCOC: I think they can win it all, yeah. They may not be THE favorite, but they should be up there.
They have an elite goalie, an elite first line, and a bordering-on-elite first defense pair. The depth is finally there, both in the forward corps and on defense. I don’t think they’d necessarily be automatic favorites against Vegas, Colorado, Tampa, etc. but there’s no reason to suspect they’d be completely outclassed.
As far as what happens from here on out, the Bruins are absolutely in win-now mode. If they lose this series, or the next one, or the one after that, fans will be mad. Anything less than the Cup isn’t good enough at this point, even if it means beating a better team.
Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Krejci, Rask aren’t getting any younger. This team is built to win now, so while gravy is good, it’s definitely “Cup or bust” for the majority of the fanbase.
Ed.: Thanks to Dan for these insights. Follow more from the Bruins lens at Stanley Cup of Chowder.