By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Four months later than they expected, and in an empty arena turned television set, the Boston Bruins are ready to begin their quest for the 2020 Stanley Cup.
"This is the dance and this is what we worked all year for," Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk said. "Obviously, we’d like it to be different circumstances, playing home at the Garden, but I think it’s exciting. It’s a different kind of game. Obviously, we didn’t like how [the round-robin] games went but we got better we went along. It’s just a matter of taking it out in game one here."
And for DeBrusk & Co., it begins with a rematch of last year's third-round battle with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Squared up with one another after last year's four-game sweep for the Prince of Wales Trophy, after one 2019-20 head-to-head (which also went to Boston), and following Boston's 0-3-0 round-robin showing and Carolina's sweep of the New York Rangers in the play-in round, the Bruins know they're getting a different Hurricanes team this time around.
"We do have to improve areas of our game if we expect to beat Carolina," Bruce Cassidy admitted. "Our guys do have a recent history against them in terms of this year, the game we played, we won. Last year in the playoffs. But, a lot of that has changed."
But Cassidy isn't concerning himself with anybody other than his own team and their preparation to "get right" in time for the real thing.
"We’ll be ready to play," Cassidy offered. "We came into this with a mindset that we were going to build towards Game 1. And our intention is to be in it for the long haul. That’s a bit of the reasoning behind it.
"We have to prove it on the ice tonight. We feel there are certain areas that we can play well against them. There are areas that we have to make sure we’re on the ball in terms of the pace of their game and their footspeed and us getting back on pucks and supporting pucks so that we can play with the puck. And once we have it, we feel that there’s areas we can do some damage but until we get going here, who knows. That’s the game plan and I think our guys are up for it."
"We know they’re going to be ready, it’s just a matter of playing better," said DeBrusk.
Here are five pressing questions facing the Bruins as they get set for this series with the 'Canes...
Were Bruins telling truth about treating round-robin like preseason?
I think the Bruins are telling a half-truth when it comes to their round-robin showing and its importance.
Prior to the start of the three-game tourney for top-half seeding in the East, the Bruins talked about picking up where they left and establishing their game against some of the conference's best. But when the Bruins dropped the first one, and the second one, the dynamic changed to, "Well, we don't really care about seeding anyway." Maybe they're right and it was all about staying healthy.
But man, that is one heck of a corner to back yourself into. You gotta be either confident or stupid to basically lose three straight, say it doesn't matter at all, and then go "watch this." I tried something similar when I was five after my parents bought me a brand new pair of light-up running sneakers and ended up running head-first into a wall. (It explains a lot, I'm well aware.)
That said, I'd like to think that this team is just confident, and will show it now that these games are indeed real.
If they're not, however, and this trend of sluggish play and uncharacteristic breakdowns bleeds into the true first round, you're going to be right to question how legit their excuses for that 0-3-0 showing really were.
Can Bruins get their power play firing against an aggressive Carolina kill?
One thing you'll notice off the jump when you watch the Carolina penalty kill? Their aggressiveness. The Hurricanes aren't afraid to challenge shooters and force them into bad decisions. On a Boston point manned by David Pastrnak and Torey Krug, that could spell trouble. Especially if the B's man advantage, which went 0-for-9 in the round-robin, remains out of sync.
It's more than just aggressiveness, too. The 'Canes deploy some skill players up front on their penalty kill (I think the Vinny Trocheck addition was huge in this regard), and will get legitimate, high-end chances if the Bruins aren't careful.
"[Bergeron] will be important where he’s the bumper," Cassidy said of the challenges against Carolina's shorthanded group. "He might have to play a little closer to those defensemen for outlet passes in the high pressure. I find their D flex out a lot, and they’ll cut off back of the net plays. I think last year we made an adjustment that I don’t think we did – we started when we were under pressure maybe throwing it to the front of the net a little more to keep them honest. We got a couple goals off it. So, then they’ll make their adjustments. At the end of the day, puck-recovery, all five guys or all four guys away. One guy battling for it, have to be an option, and have to think one pass ahead. Because that is how you end up beating it.
"If you’re one pass ahead and you have an extra man, pretty good chance you’re going to get a good look. When you get that good look, you have to put it to the net. I think what happens a lot of times is when teams break pressure, they then don’t attack. Our mentality is when we break pressure, we tend to want to attack. We get them in a vulnerable spot so you don’t allow them to reset and pressure you again. That’s the players decision on the ice and hopefully they’ll follow through on it and hopefully win those second-effort pucks."
The Bruins allowed a league-high 89 shots while up a man in 2019-20. Carolina, of course, shot a league-high 98 shots on goal while down a man in the regular season.
Does Lauzon hang on to his spot in lineup?
The Bruins were combing the trade market for a potential depth defenseman to plug next to Matt Grzelcyk on the right side of their third pairing. Then Jeremy Lauzon burst onto the scene, thrived on his off-side, and became the team's second-most dependable left-side penalty-killing defender behind Zdeno Chara. Not too bad for a 23-year-old kid.
But Lauzon's round-robin tourney was a little shaky, and Cassidy called his play "OK."
Lauzon will begin the playoffs as the team's No. 6 defenseman, but you wonder how long of a rope he'll get. John Moore played in the team's exhibition contest against the Blue Jackets, and Connor Clifton drew into action on Sunday. One thing working in Lauzon's favor: In addition to the four-month layoff, Clifton has played in just two games since the start of the calendar year, while Moore is a left shot that's never looked all that comfortable playing the right side.
Can Jake DeBrusk keep it rolling?
Second-line wing Jake DeBrusk was having a miiiiiiserable round-robin up until the third period of Sunday's loss. Through eight periods of play, DeBrusk had zero points, and landed just two shots on goal.
"To be honest with you I didn’t feel good about my game," DeBrusk admitted on Sunday. "It’s one of those things that’s kind of hard to judge. For me it’s battles and winning board battles as well. I didn’t really love being moved around I guess, just trying to feel more comfortable each game. I think we played a better game overall [Sunday], just wasn’t the result."
But in the third period, DeBrusk broke through with a finish on Braden Holtby that the B's have to hope is the start of something bigger. And if DeBrusk's recent history tells us anything, it will be.
Since Feb. 2019, DeBrusk has had 23 games following a game in which he scored a goal. In those 23 follow-up performances, DeBrusk has totaled five goals and 16 points, and landed 43 shots on goal.
Paired with Ondrej Kase and David Krejci, now comes DeBrusk recapturing that magic clutch gene from his 2018 run.
Will the Petr Mrazek-James Reimer Factor be the difference for Boston shooters?
Something that I don't think is getting enough play entering this round: The Bruins are going from playing Carter Hart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Braden Holtby to playing Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. That's a big, big dropoff. And I mean that with no disrespect to either Mrazek or Reimer. It's just... it's just the reality of the situation. And it should inspire hope that the Bruins, who shot at a league-worst 4.30 percent clip during the round-robin/play-in stage, are going to pop some home.
And it should really come with a simplified approach: Shoot, shoot, shoot. The Bruins hammered Mrazek for 10 goals on 42 shots in two games in last year's series before Rod Brind'Amour turned to Curtis McElhinney for Games 3 and 4, and it really wasn't done by any sort of magical o-zone wizardry. It was just getting shots on goal and taking care of the rebounds.
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.