A tale of two teams trending in opposite directions
At this time last year, the Bruins were an afterthought. The main focus in The Hub of Hockey was whether or not Claude Julien would last the entire 2016-17 season.
The Ottawa Senators were in third place in the Atlantic Division at the time. They weren’t exactly setting the world on fire, but their structured defense led by Erik Karlsson, timely goaltending from Craig Anderson and a passable offense in Guy Boucher’s first season put the Sens on a good path.
The two teams met in the playoffs as Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins turned the corner from February on and earned one of the final postseason spots. The Senators downed the injury-plagued Black and Gold in six games.
Both teams expected to be in the thick of the playoff picture in 2017-18. After treading water during an injury-plagued October and November, the Bruins are on that playoff path thanks to a balanced depth chart, solid goaltending from Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin and an exciting youth movement.
The same can’t be said for the Sens. Just months removed from their inspiring run to the Eastern Conference Finals – taking the Pittsburgh Penguins to a seventh game – Karlsson, Boucher and company have more questions than answers as the calendar turns to 2018.
Acquiring Matt Duchene from the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team trade (that also included the Nashville Predators)that was a move made in hopes of pushing the Senators from a fringe playoff team to Eastern Conference – and potentially Stanley Cup – contender. That is far from the case as the Sens are now 5-13-3 with Duchene following the Bruins’ 5-1 victory Wednesday night at TD Garden.
“I think as of right now, we aren’t playing to the standards that we expect out of ourselves, and I think that everyone knows that,” the perennial Norris Trophy candidate Karlsson said postgame. “I don’t think that there’s an answer that I can give you that’s going to satisfy anyone, including ourselves. But we have to do a lot better job.”
The Bruins, however, are doing a much better job since their 7-7-4 start.
Now winners of five straight – and 14 of their last 18 – the Bruins have four lines and three defensive pairs rolling right along.
One night, the top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can carry the team offensively. The next – as seen against the Sens – the trio of Riley Nash, Danton Heinen and David Backes can provide that spark. Or, it could be Heinen, Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk leading that youth movement.
Even when they aren’t playing their best hockey, Rask or Khudobin are backing the Bruins up.
“Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think the last month, month or so, you know, everybody’s been contributing,” Rask said about the team’s depth. “We always talk about it. That’s what we need in order to win a lot of nights, and you know, it’s been happening.”
One thing leads to another. The Bruins are finding consistency and are leaps and bounds ahead of this time last year.
With the Maple Leafs idle, the Bruins, with two games in hand on Toronto, moved into second place in the Atlantic. Both the Leafs (at Arizona) and B’s (at Washington) are in action Thursday night.
For Nash and company, Wednesday was about keeping the momentum going and getting a small measure of revenge after last year’s series.
“Everyone had a bitter feeling about what happened last year,” Nash said following his three-point night. “So you know, the position we’re in right now to hopefully keep winning games, and those division games are even more important, more valuable when they’re trying to chase a playoff spot and if we can keep kind of pushing teams down further and further. It doesn’t take the importance out of the last 20, 10 games, but you know, they’re not as critical as they were last year where we were sweating to get in.”
Discussions of the Bruins being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender are premature. Yes, things are coming together, but the Black and Gold still need some pieces – including a top-four, left-shot defenseman – even when David Krejci, Adam McQuaid and Peter Cehlarik return from injury.
Still, Cassidy’s bunch are separating themselves from the fringe playoff discussion, while Karlsson, Duchene, Anderson and the rest of the Senators are digging a deeper hole.
Unless things go haywire in the next four months, the Bruins will, once again, be playing playoff hockey come April. The Senators, meanwhile, are trending towards an early tee time and an uncertain summer.