OK, it gets real now for the Bruins. For better or worse. Because two weeks into living and playing in the NHL’s COVID bubble, nothing about the semi-reality of warmup action was very encouraging for the team that arrived in Toronto with the best record in the NHL.
Maybe now the reality of playing an elimination series, starting Tuesday (8 p.m.) vs. Carolina, will shake them from their stunning lethargy.
“It’s over now,” said veteran stopper Tuukka Rask, following Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the Capitals in the round-robin wrap-up, the loss dropping the Bruins to the No. 4 seed, “and we start real hockey.”
Including an exhibition loss to Columbus, the Bruins went 0-4 in the prelims. They gave up the first goal in every game.
Worse, they finished with 00:00 in lead time, and spent 135:57 of 240 minutes (57 percent of playing time) attempting to erase a deficit.
The standard list of success in the postseason includes: Best players must be best players; goaltending must be top-notch; secondary scoring has to deliver, special teams need to be on their mark.
Toss in good health and a little-dab’ll-do-ya worth of luck … and, voila, in six weeks, it’s time for the Cup Final.
“We got better defensively against good offensive teams — Tampa and Washington,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, underscoring the points he believes are promising headed into the best-of-seven series with the Canes. “So we tightened up there structurally.”
Cassidy said he also believed the Bruins, despite scoring only four goals in the three round-robin games, moved better through the neutral zone. He saw some flow and confidence in his club’s attack.
Then there’s the veteran core, players such as Rask, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Zdeno Chara, all of whom were part of the Cup win in 2011.
“Obviously, those stakes will always be in the ground,” he said. “You look at our top line [Marchand and Bergeron with David Pastrnak], they’ve been held off the scoresheet. I believe it will be a tough task for Carolina to do that on a consistent basis. I believe those guys will be able to get their game going. We’re going to need that primary scoring.”
Precisely. See above: Best players must deliver. The big line all but disappeared in the prelims.
If the top line is stifled (and we have seen that here in many playoff seasons), then it’s up to the secondary scorers,. Well, they also didn’t deliver. Fourth-liner Chris Wagner chipped in with a pair of goals, and that was refreshing, but Cup titles aren’t built, or even supported, on fourth-line scoring punch. None of the four lines, centered by Bergeron, Krejci, Charlie Coyle, and Sean Kuraly, had any pop.
Special teams. The power play went 0 for 2 vs. the Capitals and finished 0 for 9 in the three games. Room for improvement. Lots of room.
“I liked our compete today,” said the ever-upbeat Cassidy, who could be seen shaking his head in frustration when Caps winger Tom Wilson nailed in the 2-0 lead (and eventual winner) only 2:49 into the third. “You’re not going to win the playoffs if you’re not competitive.”
The Canes, meanwhile, were confident with the puck right off the hop their play-in-series with the Rangers. They swept the dumbstruck Blueshirts in three straight with top-line producers Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen mashing together a 7-8—15 line. Just the kind of pop we’ve grown to expect from the likes of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak.
“These first round-robin games, or whatever they were,” mused Rask, who went the full 60 minutes in the last two games vs. the Bolts and Caps, “you just try to shake the rust off and get your team game in a place you want it to be. I think we improved over the three games. Obviously, we worked hard for our goals and seemed not get rewarded — I’m sure that’s going to come.”
If the scoring remains dormant, at least in the early going, then Rask’s play will be ever more vital. Goaltending is always essential, if not the most vital. Witness: The stunning knockout the Habs recorded vs. the heavily favored Penguins. Had it not been for Carey Price, Les Glorieux would have been gone.
Teams can afford to be slow off the mark in a best-of-seven series. Perhaps nothing would have saved the Penguins, but the best-of-five play-in round didn’t allow them the chance to see if the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin could get hot and run the table. If forced into a similar predicament, the Bruins at least would have that opportunity.
As of today, however, they really have no reason to know if this will fit together. Perhaps the best thing they can say is that they’ll enter with deep institutional knowledge of what it takes to win in the postseason.
The core guys will be aiming for a fourth trip to the Cup Final, their second in as many years. The Hurricanes, swept by the Bruins in last year’s Conference Final, remain a franchise desperate for that kind of experience, leadership, and postseason know-how.
If brains and experience can carry the day, the Bruins will be in good shape in Carolina. Maybe they’ve been saving their best effort for, as Rask called it, “the real hockey.”
For now, all we have to go on is the make-believe version we watched the last 10 days. They’ll have to be better.