Handicapping possible Bruins playoff opponents

Handicapping possible Bruins playoff opponents
April 2, 2014, 2:00 am
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WILMINGTON – While there is still time for things to change, the playoff picture is clearing up for the Boston Bruins.

It’s pretty clear the Black and Gold will claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference barring some kind of historic collapse, and that means they’ll earn a date against the weaker of the two wild card teams in the new playoff format. Both the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs could be that bottom seed hockey club in the first round of the playoffs, and those are the two Atlantic Division teams Boston will be facing back-to-back on the road Wednesday and Thursday.

The Leafs are fading from the picture with only five games remaining on their schedule after finally pulling out of an eight game tailspin punctuated by a gut punch loss to the Wings last weekend. But the Bruins will travel to Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday night knowing that the experienced, dangerous Red Wings could be their first round playoff opponent.

The Winged Wheels wouldn’t be the most ideal opponent given the world class, championship talent like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall that still resides on the roster, and that’s part of the reason the Bruins are looking to leave an impression in Motown.

“For us, it’s a good test. They’re already playing playoff hockey and we want to raise our level a bit,” said Bruins rookie defenseman Torey Krug, who grew up a diehard Red Wings fan in Michigan. “We’re always working on fine-tuning games, and to maybe send a message in case we do play them in the playoffs. [We want to] let them know it will be a tough series.”

Clearly every other Eastern Conference team knows they’ll be in for a “tough series” against a Bruins team that romped and stomped their way through the NHL schedule over the last three months. But there’s also a little message that needs to be sent to the Wings after Detroit walloped the Bruins by a 6-1 score at the end of November, and handed them a brutal loss the night before Thanksgiving.

Claude Julien didn’t think the blowout loss was much of a factor, but he didn’t mind the idea of the Bruins packing a punch when they land in Detroit.

“We have to recognize the fact we could see them in the playoffs,” said Julien. “It’s getting closer to being finalized in the last few games, so we need to go there with a purpose and continue to play well. I don’t think it’s an absolute must-win, but we need to play better than we did last time.”

The Bruins will do their level best against the Wings, but they also have to be hoping the standings remain static with the Columbus Blue Jackets as their first round opponent. 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.

The Blue Jackets are much more blue collar construction worker bee than elite star power, and that’s exactly the kind of slug it out playoff games 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.

It’s no coincidence the Bruins have win six games in a row against the Blue Jackets while outscoring them by a 16-10 margin, and haven’t loss to Columbus since a home defeat way back on Jan. 21, 2010.

Many players have changed on both rosters since that game four years ago, but the results never have with the Bruins holding the upper hand on potential playoff newcomers in Columbus.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each of Boston’s possible first round opponents:

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: This is the opponent for the Bruins if the season ended on Tuesday, and it would be an ideal foe for the Black and Gold as they enter the postseason ground running. Columbus is pretty good at several things, but really dominant at nothing. They have a potential budding star in Ryan Johansen and a proven playoff stud in old friend Nathan Horton, but they’re ranked in the middle of the road among NHL teams in every important category. A team built on occasional offense, a physical grind, solid defense and good goaltending is playing right into the Bruins hands, and there’s little doubt Boston’s depth would overwhelm the Blue Jackets. There’s always the off-chance that Sergei Bobrovsky could really heat up and steal a few games, but it’s difficult to envision any scenario where Columbus could actually shock the hockey world. Odds of Bruins success: very good.

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 and several other experienced Wings players, of course, and those players would get pounded in a physical series with the Black and Gold. But the Wings are extremely well-coached with Mike Babcock, have capable goaltending with Jimmy Howard and through their disciplined approach wouldn’t allow the Bruins to tap into their usual energy touchstones. Beyond the usual suspects there’s also 27-goal sensation Gustav Nyquist and the eternally solid Daniel Alfredsson to mention just a couple. Beyond that the Bruins haven’t won in Detroit since March 11, 2007, and have been outscored 12-4 by the Red Wings in three games already this season. There are many, many numbers that aren’t going Boston’s way in this one, and it’s the second most likely match after the Blue Jackets. Odds of Bruins success: this one is a concern.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Based on last year’s playoffs the Leafs could provide some matchup trouble with the Bruins solely based on their speed, top line players and the additional stress level/scrutiny that goes along with playing in Toronto. All of the above pushed the Black and Gold to seven games and required some spectacular Game 7 heroics for Boston to advance, and could conceivably happen again where the B’s and Leafs to collide. But we’re also talking about a team that just ended an eight-game losing streak at the most important time of year. There’s no way on earth that any team employing Dion Phaneuf as their top pair defenseman has any business taking down a team like the Bruins, and Boston’s forward depth would tear up the Leafs defense. Jonathan Bernier would be a more formidable opponent between the pipes than James Reimer, but Toronto has allowed almost 100 more goals per game this season than the Bruins. That alone spells doom for a Leafs club that looks like it needs to make some fundamental changes. Odds of Bruins success: better than odds of Randy Carlyle returning to Toronto next season.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Braden Holtby has been a problem in the past, and there’s always the chance of an Alex Ovechkin explosion when you’re playing against the Capitals. But it sure looked like when the teams played last weekend that the Washington defensive corps couldn’t do anything to stop the Bruins, and was pushed around all over the ice. The top two Washington forward lines also looked like they had little interest in scoring five-on-five against the Bruins, and instead simply waited until they were given power plays by the refs. The ability of Alex Ovechkin to score 48 goals and be a minus-34 in the same season is truly astounding, but 22 of those goals have been on the PP. To put Ovie’s minus number in perspective, if you add the totals of all the minus players on the Boston roster this season you only get to a minus-10. Losing four games in a row when you’re a team on the playoff bubble is pretty weak sauce, and ranking 21st in the NHL while allowing 2.9 goals per game just isn’t going to work against a patient, disciplined, deep team like the Bruins. Odds of Bruins success: this certainly wouldn’t be a repeat of two years ago.