The Boston Bruins clinched the Atlantic Division following Saturday’s highly entertaining victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. They followed up that spirited win over the Bolts with a gutsy shootout win in Carolina on Sunday, getting them one step closer to clinching the Presidents’ Trophy and securing home-ice advantage throughout the postseason.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin in three weeks. The Bruins are in as good of a position as ever to hoist their first Cup since 2011.
Boston will unquestionably be a heavy favorite in the first round, regardless of who they play. The question remains about who they’ll match up against and which team poses the greatest threat.
The month of March hasn’t been kind to Detroit, Ottawa, Washington, or Buffalo. The quartet were once playoff contenders in February but now have the math stacked against them with just three weeks remaining in the regular season.
Boston remains poised to face off against the East’s second wild card team. With that in mind, let’s look at the Bruins’ potential first-round opponents.
There’s still plenty of time for the Eastern Conference wild card to sort itself out.
If the playoffs started today, the Bruins and Penguins would face off for the first time since the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand remain the lone holdovers from Boston’s sweep of Pittsburgh 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company embarked on a roller coaster season to date. Injuries, goaltending and inconsistent depth performers have put the Penguins in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since Crosby’s rookie season in 2005-06.
Tristan Jarry missed significant time after sustaining an injury at the Winter Classic. Since his return, Jarry has only managed to piece together a .872 save percentage.
Casey DeSmith has not proven a feasible replacement either. Pittsburgh’s second option in goal is currently sporting career lows in both save percentage (.907) and goals-against-average (3.11).
The Penguins snapped a four-game losing streak with a big 5-2 victory over the Avalanche last Wednesday and held on for a dramatic 4-3 win over Washington on Saturday. They sit in the second wild card slot with a three-point cushion over the current nine-seed Florida Panthers.
As inconsistent as Pittsburgh has been, it’s never fair to count out Crosby and the rest of its deadly top-six.
New York Islanders
With the way the Bruins’ season has gone, it’s hard to consider the 2021 New York Islanders anything but a nightmare.
It seems like a foregone conclusion to label the Bruins as the superior team, but the uber-structured Islanders still pose a solid threat.
Recently, the Islanders have had to slog through a significant injury to their top-offensive performer. Mat Barzal sustained a lower-body injury against the Bruins on Feb. 20. His timeline remains “indefinite.”
Of the 16 teams currently holding a playoff spot, the Islanders sit tied for dead last in scoring.
What makes the Islanders such a threat is one man between the pipes: Ilya Sorokin. In his third year, the Russian has solidified himself as one of the top-tier goaltenders in the NHL.
Very few goaltenders in the NHL can match Sorokin’s stellar .923 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against-average. Two of them, however, are on the Bruins. Without Sorokin, the Islanders’ playoff style-trap isn’t necessarily a formula for regular-season success.
The Islanders currently sit in the first wild card slot, holding a slim one-point lead over Pittsburgh and a four-point advantage over ninth-place Florida. The Penguins and Panthers each have a game in hand on the Isles.
Last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners have slightly cooled off after a hot start to March. After grabbing 13 out of a possible 14 points, the Panthers have lost three in a row to the Flyers, Maple Leafs and Rangers.
Matthew Tkachuk has turned in an MVP-caliber campaign during his first season in South Florida. The 25-year-old is on pace to set new career highs in assists and points. Without Tkachuk, the Panthers would have exited the playoff conversation much earlier in the year.
Florida’s biggest weakness is quite apparent: goaltending.
One of the Panthers’ two options between the pipes, Spencer Knight, entered the NHLPA’s player assistance program and is out indefinitely. With or without Knight as a backup, Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t lived up to the eight-figure cap hit he signed in the summer of 2019.
The Panthers sit three points behind the Penguins for the second wild-card spot. If Florida can get hot again, they could surely challenge either Pittsburgh or New York, who have failed to create comfortable separation from the Panthers.
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