While the Northeast Division is still up for grabs, there are two things that are certain. One is the Boston Bruins have home ice for the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs; the other is they’ll be facing one of three first round opponents: the Ottawa Senators – who come to tonight to close out the regular season – the New York Islanders or the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A regulation win means the B’s will face the Islanders, who are currently in seventh. A win in overtime or a shootout would mean they’ll face the Sens in round one. In both instances, the Bruins would clinch their third straight Northeast Division championship.
A loss in any fashion means the Black and Gold would welcome Phil Kessel and the Leafs for round one, which is arguably the favorable matchup among Bruins fans. With that, let’s break down each potential opponent for the first round.
Toronto Maple Leafs
You can hear Bruins fans itching to say “Thank you Kessel” as we speak. And its safe to say that this potential first round matchup would be another good barometer to measure the trade that sent Kessel to the Leafs in exchange for three draft picks – two in 2010 and one in 2011 – that turned out into Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton. Obviously, Knight is still a year or two away from doing anything significant, but Seguin will be featured heavily and Hamilton could potentially see some ice time as the Bruins’ sixth defenseman.
Matchup wise, the Bruins have the experience advantage and fared well taking three of the four matchups. But these aren’t the same Leafs that hockey fans were accustomed to seeing of the last few seasons. Outside of Kessel, Nazem Kadri is developing into a top-six forward, James Reimer is playing solid between the pipes and Dion Phaneuf leads an improved Toronto defense.
This is still a series that would favor the Bruins, but it won’t be easy.
The Bruins are going for the sweep of the Sens tonight, but their previous four wins haven’t come easy. The Bruins needed overtime to win their first meeting, Kaspars Daugavins’ failed crazy shootout attempt (yes the same Kaspars Daugavins who now dons the Black and Gold) in the second meeting, and game-winners from Dennis Seidenberg and Nathan Horton in each of the last two matchups to come through with the W.
Boston has seen its share of problems offensively, lately, but so have the Sens. Cory Conacher, who came over at the trade deadline from the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Kyle Turris lead the team with 11 goals, while Jakob Silfverberg and captain Daniel Alfredsson (both with 10 goals) are the two others who have double-digit goals for Ottawa in 2013.
The Sens did have some good news prior to the end of the regular season, however. Goaltender Craig Anderson returned from a sprained ankle and defenseman Erik Karlsson, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, returned Thursday night from a sliced achilles tendon suffered from Penguins pest Matt Cooke.
Head coach Paul MacLean has done a tremendous job dealing with injuries all season long. But even with a healthy lineup, the B’s have Ottawa’s number and expect that to continue if they meet in the first round.
New York Islanders
They might have lost their last two, but make no mistake, the New York Islanders are for real.
Barring an 11-goal performance from Brad Marchand tonight, the Bruins’ leading scorer with 18 goals, John Tavares will finish third in the Richard Trophy race with 28 goals – three behind Washington Capitals forward and Hart Trophy favorite Alex Ovechkin. But Tavares should get consideration for the Hart, also, as he continues to make his team better each time he steps on the ice.
With Tavares, Matt Moulson and Evgeni Nabakov in the fold, the pieces are in place in Long Island. Of the three potential first round matchups, this would pose the Bruins’ biggest threat despite the Black and Gold taking two of three this year.
The biggest question in all this: are the Bruins better off not winning the Northeast Division?