BOSTON – The Bruins have known their opponent would be the Detroit Red Wings since last weekend, but they’ll finally get to take the ice Friday night as the last two teams to jump into the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s given both sides plenty of time to measure strengths and weaknesses, and start getting a feel for Original Six teams that didn’t play each other all that often prior to this season.
NHL realignment means the Bruins and Red Wings certainly won’t be going another 57 years between playoff appearances, and that’s a good thing for a league looking for sexy, ratings-grabbing playoff games. But it’s not necessarily a great thing for the Black and Gold with the storied, solid Winged Wheels wedged into a division they’ve dominated for the better part of the last five years.
The Bruins knew the new realignment would make it entirely realistic that the Stanley Cup road will have to go through both Detroit and Montreal before getting out of the Atlantic Division. The speed and skill of young speed-burners like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco will give the B’s defense problems if they’re allowed to roam free, and players like Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen and Daren Helm are all past champions that will make sure Detroit is a tough out.
The Bruins go into the match-up knowing the Red Wings are a far sight better than a typical first round match-up, and an April date with the Columbus Blue Jackets would have made things easier for Boston.
“It’s a tough challenge with the Red Wings. They’ve had playoff success in the past, and we all saw what they did last year pushing Chicago to seven games before they were eliminated,” said Milan Lucic. “We’re looking forward for the challenge of it.
“I’m just fortunate to be part of another Original Six playoff matchup. Since 2011 we’ve played every Original Six team in a playoff series now. It’s pretty cool to be a part of that.”
More challenging than cool, though, is Detroit’s style of play, which is often described as something between European finesse and bloodless, efficient systems play. The Bruins often have trouble when they’re forced to manufacture hatred and create the hockey rage they need to thrive, and it would seem the Red Wings aren’t going to be itching for an alley fight with the Bruins.
That means emotional touchstone players like Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic will be looked upon to get things started for Boston. That’s been a challenge in the first round for the Bruins in each of the last three years where they’ve pushed things to overtime in Game 7. The Bruins escaped Game 7 at home vs. Montreal three years ago with heroics from Tim Thomas and Nathan Horton, but they fell victim to a Washington Capitals team one year later that kept many B’s players sleeping when they refused to engage them in heated battle.
Last season the Bruins eased up when they built up a 3-1 lead in the series, and then nearly blew it to the Toronto Maple Leafs before their miracle third period comeback for the ages. One would hope the Bruins have learned their first round lessons at this point, but the Red Wings are exactly the kind of team that’s given them issues in the recent past.
Claude Julien called the Bruins “Jekyll and Hyde” last season because he never knew what he was going to get, and the wild fluctuations in the first round vs. Toronto perfectly illustrated that.
There were no such inconsistencies this season while going 17-3-4 over the final two months of the season. That’s the formula Boston is focused on for the postseason.
“We’ve been pretty consistent this season, and especially down the stretch,” said Patrice Bergeron. “Now we just need to carry that over into the postseason. It’s been a fun year for us this year, obviously, but now we know it’s all back to zero now and we need to give our best.”
No matter the trends or the matchups, the bottom line is this: the Bruins should win this series. It’s likely going to be six or seven games, and there will be moments when the Bruins’ weaknesses are exposed by a Red Wings team with enough strength to uncover them. That goes doubly so if Henrik Zetterberg magically heals enough to return to the series despite conservative estimates placing him as only a second round playoff possibility.
But the Bruins are the superior hockey team: they’re deeper, they’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re more well-rounded and dangerous at both ends of the rink, and they’ve got a goaltending advantage with Tuukka Rask over Jimmy Howard. They should be able to impose their will. It isn’t difficult to envision Boston discouraging the Red Wings with their pounding physicality, and easy willingness to grind away European finesse with their dump-and-chase style of punishment in the corners.
The biggest problem with all of this isn’t the short term first round against a bandaged and bruised Red Wings team. It’s the problematic likelihood the Bruins will have to face Detroit and Montreal in the first two rounds: teams they’ve compiled a 2-5-1 record against during the regular season while not looking all that impressive in many of those games.
Looking back at the last 10-15 years just about every Stanley Cup winner has required at least one playoff series that’s gone less than six games. That allows teams to rest, recharge and heal up amid the two month gauntlet of Stanley Cup playoff hockey, so they have something left at the end of their championship push.
It could be that the Bruins will advance past the Wings and the hated Habs, but it will have taken too big a chunk out of them by the end. But that’s a story for another day.
Friday means it’s “game on” for Bruins playoff hockey, and an Original Six date with Detroit just adds to what’s already the best time of year in the professional sports world.