The Bruins had home ice secured and nothing to play for during the last two games of the regular season. Staying healthy became the top priority in Games 81 and 82 against the Wild and Lightning, respectively.
Bruce Cassidy’s squad put the regular season in the rearview mirror following Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning. The Bruins had a 2-0 lead after one period, but couldn’t keep the foot on the pedal as Tampa scored six of the game’s next seven goals that also included a shorthanded tally.
Yes, the Bruins need to clean a few things up, including their habit of giving up shorthanded goals, when their first round series with the Maple Leafs begins at TD Garden Thursday night. But they feel pretty confident about themselves heading into their showdown against John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and the highly-skilled Leafs.
“Well, I feel terrific. I’m an optimist. I like our team. We play hard. We’re one of the better teams from start to finish I think in the National Hockey League — specifically the second half of the year,” Cassidy said following Boston’s 6-3 loss to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning to close out the regular season.
“We’ve played well at the right times. We’ve earned our way. Got Toronto. I think it’s a great matchup, great rivalry. Guys should be excited to play.”
They’ll be ready to play come Game 1 Thursday night. Here are a few storylines to watch.
Who will skate on the second line?
The Bruins acquired Marcus Johansson from the Devils at the trade deadline to fill that desperate second line need. The veteran winger fared well for himself with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci before sustaining a lung contusion back on March 5.
Johansson is slowly gaining his footing since returning from injury on March 25. He developed chemistry with fellow trade deadline addition Charlie Coyle on the third line for the past few games. The Bruins’ coaching staff won’t want to break that up, at least to start the series.
Cassidy will have a better idea on his lineup during the next few days. But Karson Kuhlman’s performances with Krejci and DeBrusk over the last few games — when they were together — give the third-year Bruins coach an unlikely source. Kuhlman’s raw set of speed and power brings a unique dynamic to the Krejci-DeBrusk duo that they rarely had with their rotating door of wingers they skated with all season long.
“Everybody is in this league for a reason,” Kuhlman said. “Whoever your playing with can make plays and pucks to the net. So, I think I just focus on what I can to help them out.”
He has just 11 career NHL games under his belt. Yet, the former Minnesota-Duluth product skated like he belonged with the big boys in Boston. Now, we’ll see if he’ll stay in the top-six following his good first impression in the regular season.
Will Tuukka Rask have a short leash?
Everyone has an opinion on Tuukka Rask (27-13-5, 2.48 GAA, .912 SV%, 4 SO). There’s no way to sway people toward the other direction regardless of their stance.
The winningest goaltender in Bruins history will be between the pipes on Thursday. Yes, he had his yearly late-season mini-slump again, but the Finn earned his net back after a string of stellar performances following his return from a personal absence before Thanksgiving.
But Rask has someone lurking behind him and ready to go at a moment’s notice. That someone is journeyman Jaroslav Halak, who has a decent postseason history in his own right after backstopping the Montreal Canadiens to an unlikely Conference Final run in 2010. The veteran had a stellar first season in Boston (22-11-4, 2.34 GAA, .922 SV%, 5 SO) and, in turn, pushed Rask during the 82-game slate.
“We got in a rhythm, played in a lot of games and felt good about our games,” Rask said about sharing the net with Halak. “So I think it benefits our team for sure.”
Cassidy has a great luxury here. He has a rested Rask — compared to year’s past — entering the postseason. And he won’t be shy pulling the trigger if Rask struggles.
Rask showed he can backstop the Bruins to a deep playoff run before. He did so in 2013 before running into a Chicago Blackhawks squad in the middle of their dynasty. The Bruins will need him to perform well again for any hope of another Cup run.
Brandon Carlo set to finally make his playoff debut
A potential X-factor in this series hasn’t even suited up in postseason competition.
Brandon Carlo’s season-ending injuries in the first two seasons put the Bruins’ blue-line in a tough spot entering the postseason. But now, the third-year defenseman — barring any strange circumstance before the series — will finally suit up for a playoff game come Thursday night.
Carlo’s concussion in Game 82 of his rookie season paved way for Charlie McAvoy’s debut in Boston’s first round loss to the Senators two years ago. His leg injury last March caused Cassidy to shuffle up his second and third defensive pairings. That reason alone gives the Bruins’ bench boss a sigh of relief with six healthy blue-liners at his disposal.
Every team has to fight for every inch during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The physicality and tight-checking contests pave well for physical teams like the Bruins. Having the 6-foot-5 Carlo at their disposal can only help their cause against the Leafs.
First round schedule:
Game 1 – Thursday, April 11 7 p.m (NESN) – TD Garden
Game 2 – Saturday, April 13 8 p.m. (NBC) – TD Garden
Game 3 – Monday, April 15 7 p.m. (NESN) – Scotiabank Arena
Game 4 – Wednesday, April 17 7 p.m. (NESN) – Scotiabank Arena
Game 5 – Friday, April 19 – TD Garden*
Game 6 – Sunday, April 21 – Scotiabank Arena*
Game 7 – Tuesday, April 23 – TD Garden*
*If necessary (time of puck drop and television info TBD)
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