The Boston Bruins encountered several road bumps during the 2021 campaign. But they smoothed things out on their way to clinching another playoff berth Monday night against the New Jersey Devils.
Scott Wedgewood (39 saves) once again stood tall in net against the Bruins. But Bruce Cassidy’s squad kept at it with their relentless pressure in the attacking end. They finally found the back of the net with Nick Ritchie’s 14th of the season — matching a career-high — midway through the middle stanza and never looked back.
Patrice Bergeron and Matt Grzelcyk added insurance markers late in the second and third periods, respectively, to secure Boston its fifth straight trip to the postseason.
“We knew we could punch our playoff ticket and go in through the front door,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said following the Bruins’ 3-0 win. “I think it sent a really good message to New Jersey that we were here to take care of business.”
Here’s what we learned after the Bruins clinched a playoff spot for the 12th time in 14 seasons.
Bruins showcase an appreciation for postseason accomplishment amidst unusual season
Making the playoffs is merely a checklist item for a team with championship aspirations. But given the different obstacles surrounding the pandemic-shortened season, the Bruins have every right to appreciate this accomplishment.
Don Sweeney took a risk allowing Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara to walk in free agency. The Bruins implemented a younger lineup at the beginning of the year, hoping they’d navigate through the prototypical growing pains. They had the hottest of starts going 10-1-1 in their first 12 games. Then injuries — mostly with the D and goaltending — COVID diagnosis and the subsequent schedule shuffling caught up to them.
Instead of sitting atop the division, Cassidy and company found themselves closer to the cutoff line before the trade deadline. Sweeney landed significant reinforcements in Taylor Hall, Mike Reilly and Curtis Lazar a few weeks back. The deadline trio encountered a brighter outlook arriving from Buffalo and Ottawa, respectively. Their energy and production no doubt impacted the Bruins in a positive way.
Over the last few weeks of a bruising 2021 campaign, the Bruins transitioned from a fringe playoff team to potential Stanley Cup contenders.
“You play for an opportunity to play for the Cup, right? We’ve accomplished the first part of that getting into the playoffs or the tournament or whatever you want to call it,” Cassidy said. “As for the challenges, there were some for sure. I think every team has gone through them. We had our share of adversity as much with COVID rescheduling and injuries and using different people, but the flip side of that — the positive side of that — is you learn a little bit about the guys.”
It didn’t look pretty at times, but the Bruins navigated through their tough stretches during this five-month stretch.
The Bruins now have a stellar second line of Hall, David Krejci and Craig Smith to complement the potent top trio of Brad Marchand — appearing in his 800th career NHL game on Monday — Bergeron and David Pastrnak. The bottom-six continued its sustained rhythm on Monday as Ritchie furthered his case to capture the 7th Player Award. Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar filled in admirably for Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, providing hope for the future between the pipes. Brandon Carlo will likely return on Tuesday, giving an improving back end another significant addition before the postseason.
Boston’s perseverance landed them a playoff spot. They’re playing their best hockey of the year, heading into the second season. But they have plenty of business to take care of over these next five games.
Balancing issues with health, workload and potential standings jump lies ahead
The East Division has its fourth and final playoff team in this unique 2021 season. The lone development left to sort out is the seeding.
Buffalo’s win over the New York Islanders boosted the Bruins from fourth to third in the East. The Bruins have one game in hand on the Islanders, Capitals and Penguins.
Yet, as the battle-tested Bruins eye for a bigger leap in the standings — and as much as some of the players want to keep their routine intact — they also want to enter the playoffs with a clean bill of health as possible.
“Probably one or two games I’m guessing. That will be it,” Rask said of his workload expectations in Boston’s final five games of the regular season. “At this point, less is more I guess.”
Managing the goaltender rotation shouldn’t provide as much stress for Cassidy and goalie coach Bob Essensa. Halak needs some seasoning after returning from COVID protocol and Swayman deserves an extended look following a stellar start to his NHL career.
The forward and defensive rotations provide a different conundrum for Cassidy and his staff. Some of his workhorses, like Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, Krejci and Charlie McAvoy, deserve a breather. Others who sustained injuries earlier in the year, including Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller, could also use a night off or two even with the Bruins closing in on a top-two spot in the East.
A higher seed is a luxury at this point. The Bruins know they have to go through two bruising divisional opponents to reach the NHL’s version of the final four.
No matter who’s in the lineup, Bergeron and company hope to remain sharp before embarking on another hopeful playoff run.
“It’s one of those [situations] where I’ll be ready to play every night if I’m asked to,” Bergeron said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge beyond those last five games with the group that we have.”
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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