The final day of the 2016-17 NHL season was an off day for the Bruins, after their up-and-down campaign concluded in an unimpressive manner – with losses in Games 81 and 82 to Ottawa and Washington.
Those outcomes, influenced by injuries and the absence of suspended Brad Marchand, left the Bruins in the uncomfortable position of not knowing their opponent for the first round of the playoffs this week.
Would it be the Senators or Capitals, two teams against whom Boston went 0-5-2 this season? As the Bruins sat in front of their TVs or computers tracking the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs game in Toronto Sunday night, they were juggling a Sophie’s choice about their next opponent: Both options were bad.
Boston got its answer when Columbus rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Maple Leafs, 3-2, and, at least on paper, do the team a gigantic favor.
By failing to earn at least one point in Game 82, the Maple Leafs missed their chance to jump up to third place in the Atlantic Division and face Ottawa in the first round. Now, as the No. 2 wild card team, they have to tackle the daunting Capitals.
And the Bruins, third in the Atlantic, will visit the Senators starting Wednesday night. Game 2 is Saturday afternoon, with Games 3 and 4 at TD Garden.
Ottawa, with its stifling 1-3-1 neutral zone trap, is an imposing team – just not nearly as imposing as the Capitals.
The Bruins will head to the Canadian capital confident they can solve the Senators.
“Our record of (0-3-1 vs. Ottawa) doesn’t really tell the real story,” center David Krejci said after Ottawa’s 2-1 shootout win last Thursday at the Garden.
“Other than the first game in their building, I think we could have gotten at least two games for sure, especially at home. I feel confident in this team that we can get the job done.”
Veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles noted Thursday that games against Ottawa may not be much fun to watch.
“What they do is just clog stuff up,” Liles said. “They just clog up the neutral zone. There’s not a lot of room to move. So if you’re not getting through the neutral zone effectively, then a lot of times the puck’s coming right back at you. They play a system that’s frustrating and not easy to play against. It’s not the prettiest thing to watch, but it’s effective. It’s a tough system to play against for sure.”
For winger Drew Stafford, the key will be patience and smart puck management.
“It’s frustrating when you’re not taking care of the puck in the neutral zone,” Stafford said. “They just kind of sit back. Those games (are) like a chess match: It’s kind of boring and slow, wait for a mistake and capitalize.”
Making the task more difficult will be the potential absence of injured top-four defensemen Torey Krug (suspected knee) and Brandon Carlo (suspected concussion) and useful fourth-liner Noel Acciari (upper body).
It’s often said that goaltending and special teams are the keys in the playoffs; in truth, an even greater factor is health. On the way to the Stanley Cup in 2011, Boston was able to keep its lineup mostly intact. As the Bruins return to the postseason after a two-year absence, that may not be the case.
But if the Bruins can prevail over the Senators, it won’t be viewed as a big upset. And if a team can get past the first round, building momentum, who knows what can happen?
Even with their ups and downs, the Bruins have demonstrated many times – most recently with a solid 3-2 win at Chicago on April 8 – that they are capable of big things when they deliver optimal effort, focus and execution.
And, yes, get great goaltending and special teams play.
“Whoever (the opponent) is, we need to erase our minds and get a game plan in there that’s going to work against whoever we’re playing,” said winger David Backes after Saturday’s loss to the Capitals. “And then go execute it and just play harder than the guy across from you. The way this team has played down the stretch here and had to work our butts off to get in, I love our group. We’re going to have a few days here to prep and get it together – and then go out there and play.”