The NHL’s reimagined playoff restart was not set up to be kind to the Bruins.
No one had more to lose than the Presidents’ Trophy winners, who had to win at least two of three games last week to have hope of holding on to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They won zero.
That isn’t to say that a 2-1 loss to the Capitals (1-1-1) on Sunday means the Bruins (0-3) are stumbling into the Round of 16. They have not played up to their capability during this glorified exhibition slate, certainly not to the level that earned them a league-best 100 points in 70 games from October to mid-March.
But even though they are the fourth seed, they have recaptured enough of their game in Toronto to feel confident entering their first-round series against fifth-seeded Carolina, which will open Tuesday (8 p.m., NBCSN).
To close the round robin Sunday, the B’s had legs, but not a dog-on-meat desperation. They tightened the screws gradually this week, playing their best defensive game against the Capitals on Sunday (11 shots allowed at 5 on 5). They had scoring chances, but cashed in on one of their 24 even-strength shots. The power play, which went 0 for 2 on Sunday and 0 for 9 during the round robin, is earning good looks but hasn’t changed the scoreboard.
Carolina, sent packing by the Bruins in four straight in last year’s Eastern Conference Final, checked nearly every box in its sweep of the Rangers. Tuesday’s 4-1 win made them the first play-in team to advance.
The netminder who broke the will of last year’s Canes, Tuukka Rask, looks ready to start the meaningful games. He turned back 23 Capitals shots on Sunday, beaten on one spectacular play by Tom Wilson. The other goal he allowed, to a crease-crashing T.J. Oshie, was more the fault of Zdeno Chara, who didn’t see Oshie bearing down as he tried to clear the puck. Rask was seeing the puck well and moving well.
“I think we kind of improved over these three games,” said Rask, who allowed five goals on 60 shots (.917) in two round-robin games. “We worked very hard for our goals, just didn’t get rewarded but I think that’s going to come. You find a way. It doesn’t matter what seed you are, you have to beat every team anyways if you want to advance. I think we feel good. It’s over now and we start real hockey.”
The No. 1 line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak did not score in the round robin. The only Bruins goals in the three games against Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington came from Chris Wagner (2), Charlie McAvoy, and Jake DeBrusk, the last of whom cut the Capitals’ lead in half by sweeping the puck past goalie Braden Holtby (30 saves) with 9:30 remaining.
But Bergy’s bunch looked like their usual selves Sunday, with 21 combined shot attempts, 11 on goal, and nearly nothing for the Capitals (four shot attempts) while they were on the ice. Twice, Pastrnak danced through Capitals defenders, but couldn’t solve Holtby. They earned nine scoring chances to Washington’s one.
“They’ve been held off the scoresheet,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “And I believe that it’s going to be a tough task for Carolina to do that on a consistent basis.
“We’re going to need that primary scoring for one. Maybe some of that will come to life on the power play. I liked our compete today. That’s the other thing. You’re not going to win in the playoffs if you’re not competitive. That part, we’re generally healthy through these four games, got some guys some much-needed work that missed camp. Those are the positives.”
One of those positives was newcomer Ondrej Kase, who slotted to the right of David Krejci for the first time since March 10. That No. 2 line had several strong chances, burying one after Kase took a Krejci feed and entered the zone, then poked the puck through to DeBrusk for a fluid, five-hole finish.
The third line, Nick Ritchie-Charlie Coyle-Anders Bjork, couldn’t break through 14 minutes into the second, when a Charlie McAvoy outlet trickled to Coyle at the far blueline. Holtby stopped Bjork on the rush, and Ritchie had two open-net chances off the rebound. He shot low into sprawling defenseman Brenden Dillon, then shot into Holtby’s midsection.
“Next time will he take the extra second and get it up or will it go in the first time?” Cassidy wondered. “I don’t know. Those are some pretty good looks.”
No lack of those on Sunday. They are creating them and preventing them. How long the Bruins stick around this summer depends in large part on how many they finish. They must bear down.
“This is the dance and this is what we worked all year for,” DeBrusk said. “Obviously, we’d like it to be different circumstances, playing home at the Garden, but I think it’s exciting. It’s a different kind of game. Obviously, we didn’t like how these games went but we got better as we went along.
“It’s just a matter of taking it out in game one here, going up against a really good Carolina team. We saw them last year, we know they’re going to be ready, it’s just a matter of playing better.”