Boston Bruins Must Handle 'Favorites' Label Responsibly in 1st Playoff Round

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Boston Bruins Must Handle 'Favorites' Label Responsibly in 1st Playoff Round
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Where will the Boston Bruins be two weeks from Wednesday?

That question ought to resonate with New England puckheads entering the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Their team has developed an uncanny first-round motif in the previous three tournaments, and another rerun is not an unfeasible proposition.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Bruins hold home ice for their postseason opener and, if necessary, the series’ seventh contest. They tested the implications of that home ice to a maximum boundary by hosting Game 7 in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

If the same happens versus Detroit, it is scheduled for the last Wednesday of April. By then, there would already be multiple layers of uncertainty surrounding Boston’s viability later in the tournament.

The consequences of dropping the first round in Game 7 or sooner are self-explanatory. But even if the Atlantic Division leaders live up to their label and eliminate the fourth-seeded Red Wings, doing so on the last call would not serve their best interest going forward. 

Nine-and-a-half months have passed since the Bruins ended their last playoff run on June 24, 2013. In between, they have played a full regular season and a few undertook a Russian rendezvous.

Bruins returnees from 2012-13 who saw Olympic action were goaltender Tuukka Rask, top defenseman Zdeno Chara and top centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Ditto middle-tier forward Loui Eriksson, although he had a longer offseason that saw him transfer from Dallas via trade.

Now they must take responsibility for recent success. The less labor they log in the divisional portion of the playoffs, the better their chances of rare back-to-back berths in the Stanley Cup Final.

Translation: Boston needs to kick a habit of first rounds past. It must minimize extra games and extra periods whilst asserting itself as the higher seed. Failure to do so could precipitate a downfall in the current series or a later round.

Steve Babineau/Getty Images

In the Bruins’ previous three opening series, all rubber matches required overtime. One of the three sudden-death strikes silenced the TD Garden masses while two triggered “Kernkraft 400.”

The Black and Gold flaunted truer contender’s colors after repressing the Montreal Canadiens in 2011 and Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013. Those two triumphs presaged a voyage to the fourth and final round.

But between those runs, the Bruins incurred a reminder that even the most daring and deft torch-jugglers are susceptible to scalding. In 2011-12, they placed second in the conference, yet spilled a 2-1 decision to the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals after splitting their first six playoff tilts.

That alone should generate enough caution as this year’s Bruins embark on the postseason as the NHL’s top overall seed.

But there is additional incentive to put away the Red Wings before Game 7. If the Bruins muster a multiround journey in 2014, physical energy will be at a greater premium than it was in 2011 or 2013.

If they earn the privilege of playing in May, their next adversary would be Montreal or Tampa Bay. At their best, the Canadiens and the Lightning erupt with several specimens of speed, piloted by Max Pacioretty and Steven Stamkos, respectively.

This is to say nothing of prospective later-round opponents, such as the celestial Pittsburgh Penguins.

None of that, however, will hold any relevance unless Boston overpowers Detroit. As it happens, grounding the Wings will also be a matter of curtailing the opposing strike force’s speed. 

Per Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com, Bruins head coach Claude Julien addressed that aspect of the matchup. In Julien’s words, as attributed by Haggerty:

We’ve played some fast teams before. We can look at the record any way we want, and see us 1-3 (against the Red Wings this season). I look at the games we’ve played against them, and there was one game in Detroit – the first one – that we didn’t play very well. The other two games we could have won.

In their first season as conference and divisional cohabitants, Detroit has practically emerged as a “Montreal West” from a Boston perspective. Its finesse has generated frequent fits for the brawny, balanced Bruins this regular season.

The results resemble Boston’s 2010-11 season series with the Canadiens. The Bruins finished first in the Northeast Division that year despite going 2-3-1 in six meetings with the Habs

The final shape of the standings was instrumental in giving the Bruins the right to host the opening and closing game of the subsequent playoff series. They took advantage at the deciding stage and proved that the postseason is a different dynamic.

Yet, they needed to cram after Montreal nabbed 2-0 and 3-1 decisions in Games 1 and 2 at the Garden.

Of the four wins out of five chances to clear that pothole, three required bonus action. Games 4, 5 and 7 combined for 36 minutes and 45 seconds of overtime.

Elsa/Getty Images

When facing the Caps and the Leafs, Boston raised the initial upper hand but did not keep it. In 2012, 1-0 and 2-1 series leads devolved into a 3-2 deficit. Last year, 1-0 and 3-1 edges evaporated to necessitate Game 7. 

Not unlike the Montreal matchup in 2011, the seesaw series with Washington in 2012 saw four games spill beyond 60 minutes. Those included Boston’s 4-3 victory in Game 6 to preserve its season and 2-1 loss in the ensuing decider.

Imagine if the Bruins had flexed their “favorites” muscles sooner. After all, the reason they needed to win Game 6 was because they had dropped Game 5 at home the day prior. 

Under different circumstances within their control, they could have saved some of that overtime trouble and maybe Game 7 altogether.

Or imagine, alternatively, if a home player had tuned the mesh before Washington’s Joel Ward buried his chance. That would have put the defending champions in the second round on the heels of a first-round grind.

The 2012 Bruins and Capitals engaged in a cumulative 30:28 of overtime on top of seven standard 60-minute tangles. With that 450:28 on top of the previous postseason, Boston would have faced questions of staving off residual wear and tear if it had advanced.

Because it is coming off another journey to the final, the same would hold true this year if the Bruins escape a comparable series with Detroit. General manager Peter Chiarelli is implicitly banking on springtime seasoning helping his employees attain a smoother result.

As quoted by ESPN Boston reporter Joe McDonald, Chiarelli said:

If they were coming in to the playoffs for the first time, it might dominate their mind all day like ‘What’s it going to be like?’ These players know what they have to do, they know that you have to have a good practice tomorrow, a good practice the next day, have some rest, eat properly. All that stuff is in place, so it’s all about experience.

Chiarelli was implicitly speaking of the full scope of the tournament. But given recent history, the first round would be a peerless indicator of that experience blossoming in 2014.

With Detroit’s similarities to Montreal and the target that comes with defending the Prince of Wales Trophy, this will start as a hybrid do-over of 2011 and 2012.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and past playoff results for this report were found via Hockey-Reference.com.

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