By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins began Friday with six possible opponents in the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But after exits from the Penguins and Panthers, making the winner of the Maple Leafs-Blue Jackets series destined for the No. 2 seed, they'll begin Saturday with two possible options come next week: the Hurricanes and Islanders.
And when it comes to the 'ideal' opponent for the Bruins, it isn't even close: It's the Islanders. It's the Islanders. It's the Islanders.
That's honestly not even a slight against Barry Trotz and the Islanders. Their four-game suffocation of the Panthers in the play-in round was a sight to behold. Just seven goals allowed. A qualifier-low 25.8 shots allowed per game. 128 hits (fourth-most among the 24 teams), 72 blocked shots (also fourth-most), and 27 takeaways (third-most) to date. I mean, this is some downright nasty playoff hockey and team defense being played by the Islanders right now.
...This has way more to do with the Hurricanes.
Yes, the Bruins took their 2019-20 head-to-head with Carolina. And yes, the Bruins swept the 'Canes for the East last May. We also got to hear 'Yakety Sax' go off during a press conference from an outright dejected Rod Brind'Amour, which tested my will as a professional (I'm absolutely not), but that's not really relevant.
But that exact line of thinking may be the problem when it comes to assessing Carolina in Aug. 2020.
If you watched Carolina's three-game sweep of the Rangers, you saw a team that's relentless, turns up the pressure whenever possible (and at all situations), and is led by the dynamic one-two of Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Consider Svechnikov, who scored 24 goals and 61 points during the regular season, along with a hat trick in Game 2 against New York, the real name to watch, too. If you remember last year's sweep, you'll remember that Svechnikov wasn't a factor at all, and he played like it. The 20-year-old was clearly still not 100 percent after the K.O from Alex Ovechkin in round one. That's not the case this year, and he's approaching that experience level where young stars better understand the playoff game.
The Hurricanes also added Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen to their backend at the deadline, and they're getting Dougie Hamilton (the league's fourth-highest scoring defenseman before he snapped his leg like a contract offer from Don Sweeney) back. With the supremely-underrated Jaccob Slavin and ex-Blues d-man Joel Edmundson also part of that group, not even Jake Gardiner's Madame Zeroni curse when playing the Bruins should make you feel like the 'Canes would be a walk in the park yet again.
If there's anything that can almost cancel out the doubts that come with a Petr Mrazek-James Reimer tandem -- a duo that's surrendered 31 goals on 324 shots (a .904 save percentage) in nine career playoff games against the Bruins -- it's all of that.
That brings us back to the Islanders.
For all the great Trotz has done since taking his talents to Long Island (quick shoutout to when I saw the Long Island Medium just existing out in the wild at Roosevelt Field in 2012), beating the Bruins has not been one of them.
In fact, the Isles have beaten the B's just once in six tries with Trotz behind the bench.
It's often looked as bad as it sounds.
In this six-game head-to-head since 2018, Boston's power play has connected for four goals on 15 power-play opportunities. And on just 24 shots in 24:10 of power-play time. The Isles spotted the Panthers almost four power-play opportunities per game in their four-game play-in series, and the Bruins have drawn seven power-play opportunities (and 13 penalties in total) in their two games of round-robin play. These rates would be a recipe for disaster for the Islanders in a seven-game series.
Oh, and the Boston power play actually looked alive in their Wednesday loss to the Lightning, with David Pastrnak teeing up bombs from his normal spot to quarterback Torey Krug's left.
Pastrnak is a key piece of this Boston advantage over New York, too, as the right-side threat on a line that's simply eviscerated whatever the Islanders have thrown at them over the last two years. On the ice for 54:19 of five-on-five play in five games against the Islanders since the start of last season, the Bergeron Line has controlled attempts at almost 67 percent, outshot New York 36-16, generated 19 high-danger scoring chances, and outscored 'em 4-0. (This line was on the ice for all three of Boston's five-on-five goals in their Feb.29 meeting at Nassau Coliseum, too.)
Conversely, that Feb. 29 meeting was probably the B's best showing against Mat Barzal. Ever. Throwing a heavy dose of Sean Kuraly and the Krug-Carlo pairing at him, the Bruins limited Barzal to just two shots (zero at five-on-five), forced him into four giveaways, and beat him into a 1-for-7 day at the dot (his third-worst faceoff night of the year). This, with deadline addition J.G. Pageau in the fold for the Islanders, was a huge step forward for the Bruins. Like 'Billy Joel 33 sold out shows' banner huge.
It's not always foolproof to look at regular-season totals and apply them to postseason play -- and perhaps nobody knows this better than Boston's first line -- but the Islanders have had little answer for this trio. Up front, on the backend, or in net. And the Isles' most dynamic weapon to counteract the Bergeron Line's damage was noticeably bottled up in his last outing, and for the first time ever, against Boston. Perhaps they've cracked the code.
But the biggest advantage the Bruins have over the Islanders comes in net with Tuukka Rask's mastery of New York.
In net for all six of this meetings since 2018, Rask has given Bruce Cassidy no reason to sit him with NYI comes up on the schedule, with a ridiculous .961 save percentage over that stretch. That .961 is Rask's second-best save percentage against any East opponent he's played at least three times since the start of last season (he has a ridiculous .980 in four wins against the Devils), and his .963 save percentage against the Islanders at even-strength trails only his .977 against New Jersey.
The 33-year-old Rask, who looked closer to himself in Wednesday's contest, was nails in Boston's last meeting against New York, with stops on all 25 shots faced, and with over half of those shots coming from the high-danger area of the ice too.
Semyon Varlamov, meanwhile, has dropped three of his last five meetings with the Bruins between the Avalanche and Isles, with a .907 save percentage over that span.
That's one hell of a difference.
Honestly, these numbers are great... but who the hell knows anymore. It's been five months since the Bruins were the Bruins, and a quarantine situation may be enough to negate these advantages. Especially if the ice remains an issue that limits the B's skill players. And no matter the draw, the Bruins are getting a challenge. The play-in rounds, and eliminations of the Oilers and Penguins, have confirmed as much. (I mean, does the East's top seed even feel comfortable playing Montreal right now?)
But this difference in personnel and favorable history is enough to make Sunday's round-robin finale against the Capitals, with the winner earning an opening-round showdown with the Islanders, feel like a must-have for the Bruins.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.