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by: Ty Anderson on Wed, 04/12/2017 - 5:15pm
The Bruins lucked out in the first round.
Thanks to the Blue Jackets on Sunday, who rallied from 0-2 down to beat the Leafs in regulation, the Bruins skate against the Senators in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs beginning tonight instead of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals.
The collective sigh of relief from the Hub’s hockey-crazed crowd would be enough to almost ruin a perfect week of weather in Boston.
I know that sounds weird to say when you’re talking about a matchup with a team that’s beaten you four times in as many head-to-heads this season, but watching how the Bruins played the Senators compared to how the Bruins played against the Capitals told you everything you needed to know about their odds in a seven-game series with each. And when I say that, I mean that I honestly think that the Capitals would have found a way to sweep the Bruins in three games.
The Senators? Well, that’s a winnable series for the Bruins. An extremely winnable series, actually.
And here’s why they are indeed going to win this series.
In a battle of injuries, Ottawa’s could be more damaging
The Bruins will begin this series with both Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug on the shelf with injuries. Carlo is the club’s No. 2 defenseman and glovelike fit to Zdeno Chara's right, and Krug is the club’s lone consistent puck-moving defender and put up a career-best 51 points in 81 regular season contests this season. The Bruins are also without fourth-line banger Noel Acciari for the start of this series. These are considerable losses.
It’s going to create an interesting dynamic for the Bruins, too, as Carlo and Krug were constants in the B’s lineup this season, with Krug playing in all but the season finale and Carlo suiting up for all 82, though he was knocked out of Game 82 just four minutes into his afternoon.
Can Charlie McAvoy step right in and be a contributor after just four AHL games since leaving Boston University and is it fair to expect that out of him at just 19 years old? What about players like John-Michael Liles and Colin Miller, two puck-moving talents that have been in and out of the lineup this season? Can they find a way to become consistent performers in somebody like Krug’s absence?
“That’s the only way moving forward. It’s the nature of our game,” Liles said when asked if this is a case of everybody pulling their weight. “Nobody’s going to be Torey Krug or do the things Torey Krug does, but we all have to step up our games a little bit and contribute to the overall cause.”
With Carlo's loss, the Bruins are going to need one of Kevan Miller and/or Adam McQuaid to step up and provide the size and physicality to box Ottawa's plethora of net-driving forwards out of Tuukka Rask's way, which is the actual only way to keep their counterattack game at bay.
But the Ottawa blue-line is far from unscathed, too. Despite Guy Boucher calling him everywhere from 100 to 150 percent ready to play, Sens captain Erik Karlsson has been bothered by a foot injury and missed a total of five games in the final few weeks of the regular season. Karlsson at 50 percent is still a very dangerous player, of course, but if he’s hobbled even a little bit, that’s a massive issue for the Senators. There’s also the potential rust on Marc Methot, who has not played since Mar. 23 and who I believe only has a finger and a half now thanks to Sidney Crosby, and his status for this series.
That pairing is the backbone of the Sens, so their health and ability to do what they can do so damn well (blocking shots and then transitioning faster than anybody else), is something worth watching as this series begins, especially if they continue to yield high scoring chances to the Black and Gold.
Given increased exposure, Bruins will find flaws in Ottawa’s neutral zone puzzle
It’s been four games and the Bruins still have not found the fatal flaw in the Death Star known as Boucher’s clog-it-up neutral zone system deployed to four victories over the B’s this season. The mental effects of that have manifested itself in some bad penalties and pure frustration from some of the B’s best snipers, which is something that the Senators have taken tremendous pride in.
“I think that’s our structure, that’s our identity,” Senators forward Alex Burrows said after their last meeting with the Bruins. “When we play well, that’s what we give up. We don’t give up much to the other team. We frustrate them, and then we try and counter them and we try and get some offense.
The Bruins know that, too.
“They’re reliant on denying your speed and at times frustrating you, so it’s about worrying about what we can do and finding ways to not really worry about that too much,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said of the Senators. “We’re facing a good team, we’re facing a team that’s playing that style of hockey. We have to understand that’s what we’re up against.”
And after four meetings, including two late-season meetings, there are no secrets left between the B’s and Sens, and if Cassidy and company have done their homework, three straight games of exposure should reveal the undeniable wrinkles and holes within Boucher’s defensive structure.
“Come now we know what to expect from Ottawa,” Colin Miller said. “We played them enough throughout the year that there’s not really gonna be any surprises there, so we’ll be ready.”
Rewatching the game film of this season series, one of the biggest things you’ll notice is how with each game, the Bruins found more ways to generate more scoring opportunities from between the circles. Of course, it didn’t lead to many more even-strength goals for the Bruins (who have just one in their last 245 minutes of head-to-head action with the Sens), but that starts with finding ways to break through the middle of the ice and into Ottawa’s end. Cassidy has talked about his club’s need to likely get pucks in behind their defense to win one-on-one battles with speed and resist the urge to be stubborn and try to work it through bodies, and if the Bruins apply that, you have to like their chances when you talk about some of the sizable bodies and speed they do possess on the wings.
Experience isn’t everything, but it’s still a gigantic factor for Bruins
So, about that neutral zone nightmare…
In the last head-to-head between the Bruins and Senators, it was David Krejci that really seemed to find some holes and make his way through the middle of the ice. Krejci, as you may know, is notorious for his status as a legitimate playoff monster. When Krejci performs, the Bruins advance. He’s led the postseason in scoring on two different occasions (2011 and 2013, both years that the B’s made it to the Stanley Cup Final) and his loss and/or ineffectiveness in 2010 and 2014 cut postseason runs short.
If he finds the seams through the neutral zone, the Bruins will either draw penalties against the Sens (more on that in a second) or find prime offensive chances.
David Backes, who scored seven goals and 14 points in 20 postseason games with the Blues a year ago, was also brought here because of his know-how come this time of year. Same for Dominic Moore, who has played in the eighth-most playoff games since the start of the 2014 playoffs. And even though it’s been the worst year of Matt Beleskey’s career, there’s something to be said about his last playoff run in 2015, which included eight goals (big ones, too) in 16 games for the Ducks.
These grizzled veteran players with big game resumes are without question expected to be the players that help guide players such as David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano, Riley Nash, and countless others in their first dip into the waters of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey.
Special teams game favors Bruins -- and big time
The Bruins have been flatout denied by Sens goalie Craig Anderson at five-on-five play in the season series. In four games against the B’s, Anderson has allowed just one goal on 95 even-strength shots thrown his way by the Bruins. One! That’s good for an insane .989 save percentage.
But the power play has been a very different story for Anderson and the Sens.
The Bruins have scored on five of their eight power-play opportunities against the Sens this season and Ottawa’s 37.5 percent success rate on the penalty kill against the B’s is the worst by any Bruins opponent this season, and Anderson has yielded those five goals on just 13 shots against.
Of course, penalty-killing struggles are not foreign to the Senators, who finished the regular season with the ninth-worst squad in the league (a 79.7 penalty killing percentage), and it’s worth noting that the Senators did take the most penalties in the league from Feb. 7 on, with 114 minors in 32 games. I used Feb. 7 as a launch date because that’s when Cassidy took over behind the B’s bench, and the Bruins are 20-for-72 on the power play since then, which ranks as the third-best mark in the NHL.
In essence, a strong power play is the biggest factor for the Bruins in this series.
“You can definitely switch and change the momentum of a game by a key goal obviously or just by being good for that power play,” Bergeron said of the special teams importance.
Down Krug, it’s McAvoy that is expected to man the point on the B’s top unit to begin this series.
“If Charlie ends up in there, he’s got some of Krug’s attributes with his ability to distribute the puck so the other four are in place so I don’t see a huge change there,” Cassidy said of the club’s power play with McAvoy in the mix. “It’s a right stick versus a left stick so you do have a one-timer threat from [Ryan] Spooner that you didn’t have before, which can be an advantage, whereas Krug was a one-timer from [David ]Pastrnak but it ran through Spooner so it was less of an option.”
“I think it’s about everybody stepping up,” Bergeron said of a sans Krug man advantage. “[McAvoy] seems to be seeing the ice really well, moving the puck well. I think that was his role at B.U. so he’s used to being there. [Tuesday] was fine. We were seeing the ice well and creating some plays.”
At the other end, the Bruins also finished with the league’s best mark, with an 85.7 P.K. percentage.
“If it does come down to special teams, and you’re going on the regular season, I like our chances. We had the better special teams,” Cassidy said. “So we should be confident with those.”
Prediction: Bruins in six games.