The Boston Bruins have sealed first place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division. With seven games remaining for each team, they hold a nine-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Eastern Conference.
There is not much worth playing for over the balance of the 2013-14 regular season. There is plenty to prepare for beyond the April 13 regular-season finale in New Jersey.
The Bruins should thus prioritize the next two weeks with less emphasis on the quantity of points and more on the quality of competition. They need to put their collective heads on a swivel with a mixed focus on the future and present.
Given the structure of the standings, this week’s dates with Detroit, Toronto and Philadelphia are all potential playoff previews. The four matchups for next week—Minnesota, Winnipeg, Buffalo and the Devils—are not. (Maybe Minnesota, but Bruins-Wild is hardly a realistic proposition for the 2014 Stanley Cup final.)
With that slate bearing serendipitous straightforwardness, the Bruins should not have much difficulty drawing up their tune-up for the postseason.
The regular season’s penultimate week should be about making statements and pulling further away from the Penguins. Boston must expand the gap by five points if it wants to secure home ice for the conference portion of the playoffs without delay.
The week of April 7-13 should constitute the calm before the tempest. Even if they have not clinched conference at that point, the Bruins should thrust that goal into the trunk of the van.
Ahead of that should be conservation of energy and giving a few prospects an authentic look at NHL action in preparation for future seasons. Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask come to mind in the former category, while netminder Niklas Svedberg leads the latter bunch.
This is not to say that the Bruins should spend next week relinquishing their rhythm and dismissing the stakes. They simply need to carve out an affordable block of time to rest their top players and tackle other housekeeping tasks before the playoffs.
Some observers may counter with this question: “What about the Presidents' Trophy? What about beating Anaheim, San Jose and St. Louis for home ice in case the Bruins meet one of them in the Stanley Cup Final?”
Boston’s last two journeys to the final round yielded a variety of ways to discredit the importance of home ice that late in the tournament. In both cases, they faced that year’s Presidents' Trophy recipient in the 2010-11 Canucks and 2012-13 Blackhawks.
The Boston-Vancouver series saw the home club win each of the first six games. That went moot when the Bruins emerged as the more battle-tested, mentally tougher team in Game 7 on enemy property.
Last June, the Blackhawks translated their regular-season crown to a playoff title, but did not need much home ice to do it. They won two of their three visits to the TD Garden, including the Game 6 clincher.
One of the reasons Chicago cemented its victory then and there was because its offense pounced on a crumbling Chara. Because he has not slowed down his workload much since then (1,783 minutes in 72 appearances), the Boston captain is a cause for concern in the same stamina department this year.
The playoff preparation priority should therefore be storing up energy in the key cogs and not extra home games in a hypothetical third- or fourth-round venture. The logical way to do that is to give Chara a midweek break next week when the Bruins embark on their brief road trip through Minnesota and Winnipeg.
Likewise, that would be an opportune time to put Rask in the cooler and give Svedberg at least a second round of regular-season NHL action.
While they are at it, the Bruins should feel free to devote that two-game, three-night venture to any desired experimentation with the offensive depth chart.
For example, as Matt Kalman of CBS Boston recently noted, the team’s hot streak has kicked ice chips over the struggles of Reilly Smith. Smith, a surprise top-six winger for the better part of 2013-14, snapped a five-game production drought with an assist Sunday afternoon.
If the coaching staff wants to try a few tweaks to see if anyone is stale and in need of a shake-up, next week is the time to find out. That way, they will have a better read on what arrangements are the best to work with in the playoffs.
Time to preempt another countering question. You might ask, “What about keeping everybody in rhythm? Why disrupt the flow and mess with success?”
Remember that the Olympic break, which applied to the bulk of the roster, did not yield adverse consequences for this club. Boston had gone into the break 7-1-1 in its last nine and 8-1-2 in its last 11.
Yes, they went winless in two straight (0-1-1) upon their return, but the Bruins did not take long to renew their groove. The result has been a 16-game point-getting streak of 15-0-1 to complete their March slate after a 4-2 loss to Washington on the first of the month.
They should return to their playoff composition for the last two tune-up bouts with Buffalo and the Devils. As long as they have every expected participant healthy and active over the final weekend, they should leave no room for excuses upon transitioning into the tournament.
Speaking of excuses, why should resting the topmost minute-munchers for a couple of nonconference road games convey apathy? It can and should function as an opportunity for the rest of the roster to pad on a layer of mental muscle as they learn to depend less on their stars.
With that being said, Chara, Rask and the other top-tier Bruins will need to dress for the next three matchups as April commences. Wednesday and Thursday will be the last call for each party to set a tone for a prospective best-of-seven bout.
The Flyers, who will visit the Garden on Saturday, are four points ahead of the wild-card leaders with eight games left. A slide to seventh or eighth in the conference is not out the question. If they hang on to second or third place in the Metropolitan Division, a third-round encounter with the Bruins is a possibility.
In addition to being the last realistic playoff preview on Boston’s schedule, Saturday could be the day to clinch the conference. If their nine-point over Pittsburgh sticks throughout this week, the Bruins would need to reap one point from Philadelphia to escape lassoing distance from the Penguins.
As long as they are engaging prospective postseason adversaries, the Bruins might as well salivate after a tangible gain. Despite the aforementioned case against chasing home ice for all four rounds, three rounds of it would be a worthy bonus for asserting oneself against the Wings, Leafs and/or Flyers.
Regardless of where they stand next Sunday, though, the excursion to the next time zone should be the eye of the Bruins’ competitive storm. If they want to translate their regular-season success to when it means the most, they need to rest and recharge at some point.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com