Breaking down possible B's first-round opponents

Breaking down possible B's first-round opponents
April 11, 2014, 6:00 pm
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The potential playoff field for the Bruins' first round opponent is now down to three teams. The Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers are all tied with 91 points, and all three teams have just two games left to play in the regular season.

Both the Flyers (38) and Blue Jackets (37) hold a unassailable lead on the ROW (Regulation & OT wins) tie-breaker category over the Red Wings, so it would be Detroit traveling to Boston for an April 17 playoff opener at TD Garden if all three teams win out to finish the season. A tie between the Flyers and Blue Jackets is still to be decided given how narrow the tie-breaker sits between the two teams, but a Friday night game between Columbus and Tampa Bay carries some pretty interesting Atlantic Division ramifications.

A loss for the Blue Jackets ups their likelihood of playing the Bruins, and a win for the Lightning would take them one step closer to home ice advantage against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

The Red Wings will also play the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, and could potentially jump over both teams for the top wild card spot with a victory. All of the permutations and combinations continue to beg the same question: what’s best for the Boston Bruins when it comes to a first round opponent?

Here’s the obvious: the Bruins are the best team in the NHL and one win away from the second President’s Trophy in franchise history (1989-90), and should beat any team they face. There isn’t a lot of fear when it comes to the B’s playing any of these teams as first round opponents, but there are varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to playoff opponents.

Every Stanley Cup winning team needs at least one playoff round where the series is over in four or five games, and the team gets a little bit of a breather in the middle of a two-month marathon. If it can come in the first round against an eminently beatable opponent, then so much the better. Here are the three choices:

The Detroit Red Wings: The Wings have historically given the Bruins trouble over the years, and a healthy Pavel Datsyuk is the kind of player that can take over a short playoff series. Health is a big question for Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg (who was supposed to begin skating this week after back surgery) and several other experienced Wings players, of course. Those players would get pounded in a physical series with the Black and Gold, but secondary guys like Niklas Kronwall, Todd Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen, Drew Miller and Dan Cleary all have extensive playoff experience, and know what it takes to win. They won’t be intimidated by the Bruins like some other younger, more inexperienced teams would be. Jimmy Howard is a much better goalie than James Reimer or Corey Crawford, and both of those goalies gave the Bruins problems last season. The Wings are extremely well-coached with Mike Babcock, and through their disciplined approach won’t allow the Bruins to tap into their usual emotional touchstones. They won’t let it turn into an alley fight with Boston, and that can frustrate the Bruins in a short playoff series. Beyond the usual suspects there’s also 27-goal sensation Gustav Nyquist and the eternally solid Daniel Alfredsson, and the speed and skill displayed by Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco the last times these two teams met. Beyond that the Bruins haven’t won in Detroit since March 11, 2007, and have been outscored 13-9 by the Red Wings in four matchups this season. There are many, many numbers that aren’t going Boston’s way in this one, and it’s the most likely match of the three teams. The Bruins are 2-5-1 in games against the Wings and Canadiens this season, and that would be a challenge as opponents in the first two rounds. Stat to watch: Henrik Zetterberg averages .5 goals per game vs. the Bruins in his career and has 14 points in 12 lifetime games against the Black and Gold. He could be a difference-maker if he can come back. Odds of Bruins success: this team is the biggest concern even if the B’s are favorites

The Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers are the most entertaining matchup of the three teams, and the one that be both dangerous and helpful given the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams. Quite simply, the Flyers don’t defend well enough (16th in the NHL at 2.7 goals allowed per game) to realistically have a chance of beating the Bruins in a seven-game series. But employing players like Zac Rinaldo, Scott Hartnell and Steve Downie means that Philly could be hazardous to Boston’s healthy, and would realistically take a chunk out of the B’s before they could defeat them. A big part of Boston’s charge would be employing Zdeno Chara and possibly Johnny Boychuk to shut down Claude Giroux and his linemates, and that wouldn’t leave a flawed Flyers bunch with much that could take Boston down. The Bruins have beaten the Flyers in all three meetings this season, and outscored them by a 15-6 margin with all three games coming after Philly had shaken out of their early doldrums. Stat to watch: the Lucic-Krejci-Iginla line combined for six goals in three games against the Flyers this season, and Krejci had six points (1 goal, 5 assists) in those three games. Pretty easy to envision that happening in the playoffs, isn’t it? Odds of Bruins success: pretty good, but as mentioned earlier it could negatively impact them in a long playoff run.

The Columbus Blue Jackets: The largely inexperienced Blue Jackets were the team to play already, and the news they’ve lost playoff beast Nathan Horton is just another log on that fire. It’s a much better matchup for a grizzled, experienced Bruins team against a Columbus outfit made largely of playoff neophytes, and assorted spare parts from other teams adopted by the Blue Jackets. Columbus is already slapping themselves on the back for making the playoffs, and that is their victory for this season. The Blue Jackets are also more blue collar construction worker than elite playmaking star, and that’s exactly the kind of “slug it out” grinding playoff style of play where the Bruins feel most comfortable. They have one 30-goal scorer in Ryan Johansen and one 20-goal scorer in Artem Anisimov, and rank between 14-17th in the NHL in the major team categories. Even their Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been okay rather than great, and goes into the playoffs with a .919 save percentage and a 2.47 goals against average after winning the Vezina based off a hot half-season coming out of the NHL lockout. Let’s be honest here, Bobrovsky is good but he also won an award based on a hot half-season rather than a full 82 game body work like so many other goalies before him.

It’s no coincidence the Bruins have won six games in a row against the Blue Jackets while outscoring them by a 16-10 margin, and haven’t loss to a Columbus team since a home defeat way back on Jan. 21, 2010. If the Bruins take things seriously and coming out of the gate firing on all cylinders, it’s pretty clear this series could be over in four or five games. Stat to watch: the entire Columbus Blue Jackets roster has 208 games of playoff experience (not counting Nathan Horton), and just Zdeno Chara and Jarome Iginla (198) combined have nearly that many between two of them. Odds of Bruins success: this would be slam dunk for Boston given the matchup, and the absence of a healthy Horton.