The Boston Bruins extended their ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, rallying from a 3-2 series deficit to eliminate them in seven games. The Bruins used a familiar formula: clutch defense and goaltending, dynamic play from their top-line players and the inevitability of Nazem Kadri doing something idiotic to earn a multiple-game suspension.
Now the Bruins have an even tougher test: one of the best regular-season teams in NHL history, the Tampa Ba…
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Wait, what? Swept? In the first round? By the Columbus Blue Jackets, a franchise that had never won three games in a playoff series, let alone four? That really happened? Man, the Washington Capitals really did break the NHL space-time continuum when they won the Stanley Cup …
Kidding aside, the Jackets were never the heavy underdogs they were portrayed to be, finishing 13th in the NHL in points (with a better record than three Western Conference playoff teams) and having won seven of eight games down the stretch to make the playoffs.
Of course, that one defeat during the stretch was a 6-2 embarrassment on home ice. Their opponent? The Boston Bruins. Here we go.
First line: This is a tricky one to analyze. The Bruins have one of the best lines in hockey in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, even though collectively they weren’t the 200-foot juggernaut they were last season. (Injuries were a factor.) But the tricky part is that coach Bruce Cassidy broke them up in the Toronto series; Pastrnak got just as much time at 5-on-5 with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk as he did with his usual linemates. For Columbus, its top line is technically the Artemi Panarin group with Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois, but its most effective line was probably Matt Duchene, Cam Atkinson and Ryan Dzingel in the first round. In any case, the Bruins can still put together the best top trio. Advantage: Bruins.
Depth: The Kadri suspension was a killer for the Leafs because they did have an advantage over the Bruins at forward. Yes, Boston’s second line with Krejci is potent and its bottom-six forwards (Joakim Nordstrom, Marcus Johansson and Sean Kuraly) came up large in Game 7. But for the second straight series, Boston doesn’t have the same level of forward depth as its opponent. The Jackets have two dynamic scoring lines and a third one with Nick Foligno, Josh Anderson and rookie Alexandre Texier that has been really solid in the postseason. Add in a pesky fourth line with Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and former Bruin Riley Nash, and the Jackets are the deeper club. Advantage: Blue Jackets.
Defense: Zdeno Chara, 42, and his youthful ward Charlie McAvoy, 21, weren’t dominant defensively against the Leafs, but they played well enough to keep Toronto’s most explosive line in check in the latter part of the series through solid defensive play (and, in Chara’s case, the occasional punch to John Tavares’ head when the refs weren’t looking). Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug lost the possession match against Toronto but weren’t a liability. Matt Grzelcyk was a minus-3 in goal differential for the series on the third pairing. For the Jackets, Seth Jones is the kind of foundational defenseman a championship team needs, and his pairing with Zach Werenski could be the best duo in the series. After that, the Jackets have David Savard and Markus Nutivaara, and then a combination of Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan and Adam Clendening. Advantage: Bruins.
Goaltending: Whether it’s his impending free-agent contract talks or simply playoff maturity, Sergei Bobrovsky finally put together a postseason round worthy of his regular-season accomplishments, with a .932 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average in four games against the Lightning. Tuukka Rask was also strong in the opening round, and especially in Game 7, posting a .928 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average. Advantage: Even.
Health: The Bruins are missing injured defensemen Kevan Miller, who is week-to-week because of a lower body injury, and Connor Clifton, who missed the last five games of the opening round because of an upper-body injury. For Columbus, Nutivaara was injured on that play when Nikita Kucherov earned his one-game suspension, but the Jackets hope to have him back. They’re less certain about defenseman Ryan Murphy, who hasn’t played since Feb. 19 but is skating again, and deadline pickup Adam McQuaid, a former Bruin who is out because of an upper-body injury. Advantage: Even.
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Special teams: Look, the Blue Jackets aren’t going to roll to a 50-percent clip on the power play against the Bruins the way they did against the Lightning. The real question is whether their penalty kill, which was 5-for-6 against Tampa’s historically good power play and tied for first in the regular season, can tame a Bruins’ power play that was third in the regular season and rolled to seven goals in 16 attempts vs. Toronto. Advantage: Blue Jackets.
Coaching: John Tortorella might not be everyone’s cup of tea, in the sense that tea typically doesn’t bellow and belittle you. But he coached a great series against the Lightning, using the Jackets’ 1-2-2 forecheck to perfection; and behind the scenes, he worked hard to clear the air on issues in the Columbus room throughout the season. Bruce Cassidy, meanwhile, continues to push the right buttons tactically and within his lineup. He outcoached Mike Babcock in the first round … although one is beginning to wonder what level of accomplishment that really is these days. Advantage: Even.
Series prediction: Jackets in six.
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