Boston Bruins

Mar 3, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) shoots as Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a save during the second period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com

For the first time since 2018, and for just the third time in the history of this rivalry, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are battling in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And not even a pandemic, which took home-ice out of the equation and jumbled the NHL’s playoff format, could have stopped these teams from their crash course for Atlantic Division, and Eastern Conference, supremacy.

“I assumed last year would be the year,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said of his team’s postseason date with Tampa. “I don’t think anyone saw the [2019] Columbus series coming. We assumed we’d get them in the second round. We took care of business, here we are the second round this year even though it’s a different format.”

And it comes with a little revenge for 2018 still on the Black and Gold’s mind entering this year’s battle.

“I believe they were the better team over the course of that [2018] series. Having said that, it was a 2-1 game in game for when I thought it was a call on [Charlie] McAvoy where he coughed up the puck and bang it’s in our net. I think that altered quite a bit,” Cassidy said. “It could be 2-2 versus 3-1. Now, they do what they had to do in overtime to get the win and they closed us out. Full value to them. That break could have really propelled us. We’ve grown since then, I think we’re a better team.

“I believe I’ve had more playoff experience. Now it’s going to be two very evenly matched teams going at it. Each team is probably not 100% healthy but for the most part we have strong lineups and are ready to go.”

Here are five pressing questions facing the Bruins as they get set for this second-round series with the ‘Bolts…

Nov 3, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Boston Bruins goaltender Jaroslav Halak (41) during the third period against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Can Jaroslav Halak handle the workload?

Bruins netminder Jaroslav Halak’s start to the 2020 postseason was spaced out pretty well, all things considered. Three games, separated by an every-other-day stretch. It could’ve gotten a little dicey had Carolina won Game 5 and forced a next-day Game 6, but the 35-year-old Halak did his part with a 23-for-24 series-clinching effort. Halak has no control over that in round two, with a back-to-back for Games 2 and 3, and with the potential of another back-to-back should this series go seven games.

This means that Halak, if the starter throughout this series as expected, will play at least four games in six games. That increases to five in eight if this goes five, six in 10 if it goes six, and seven in 11 if it goes seven.

It’s an incredibly taxing workload. And it’s worth wondering if he’s up to handle such a grind.

The last time Halak was in a similar position was Jan. 2018, when he made five starts in 10 days for the Islanders. So, it’s been at least two and a half years since Halak has faced such a grueling pace, and even then it came with an extra two days of rest. (Halak, for what it’s worth, went 2-2-1 during that five-in-10 stretch for the Isles in Jan. 2018.)

Before that, Halak’s previously rapid-fire stretch came when he made six appearances in 10 days to finish out the 2016-17 season with New York. Halak started five of those six games (though he played 51 minutes in the non-start, so it honestly might as well have been a start), and posted a 5-1-0 record and .955 save percentage over that run.

The Bruins will need something resembling that in round two, though Daniel Vladar (zero games of NHL experience) remains a ‘break glass’ kind of emergency option for the Bruins if necessary.

“For us, obviously the biggest challenge is the advantage we lost in March with two healthy goalies,” Cassidy admitted. “Now, Tuukka [Rask] is not here so do we play Vladar as a backup? Or do we have to ride Halak? And that’s a lot to ask for Jaro. So that’s going to be a decision we make down the road. That’ll be the biggest challenge.

“We watch [Vladar] in practice obviously, but having guys come down and ripping shots in practice, not always a judgment on how a goalie is going to play in a game. So, we’ve got to go on the assumption that he’s a little ahead of Max [Lagace]. So, at the end of the day, it’s an unknown, no matter which one we put in. We know that, because we haven’t seen them all year, live action with us. So, that will be the challenge for them. But at the end of the day, I do feel though that they’ve gotten good reports and would be comfortable. Also, because we play a good brand of team defense, so we’re not asking our goaltenders very often to go in there and stand on their head and win us hockey games.”

In other words, it feels like Halak or Bust, even on short (or no) rest.

How close to 100 percent is David Pastrnak?

I’m not sure that David Pastrnak was fully healthy in Boston’s Game 5 win over the Hurricanes, but he looked pretty close. Probably around 60 to 70 percent, anyway. He came through with two helpers, hammered five shots on goal, and had a strong breakaway opportunity on the Hurricanes’ Petr Mrazek in just over 20 and a half minutes of ice time. Not bad.

He’s since had an extra three days to recover, and will skate in an 8 p.m. puck drop to begin this series.

That could make a world of difference, and that’s a key to this series. The 24-year-old Pastrnak scored three goals and five points in four regular-season meetings with the Lightning this season, and the Bruins have won their last six postseason contests where Pastrnak has scored at least one goal by the night’s end.

Will Nick Ritchie make a difference this time around?

The Black and Gold’s first-round series against the Hurricanes did not feature Nick Ritchie’s finest work. A step behind and largely ineffective through the first two games (the second of which saw Ritchie benched for almost the entire third period), Ritchie moved to the press box for the final three games, all wins by the Bruins, of their opening-round series.

But Ritchie will get a fresh start in round two, and against an opponent that should bring the best out of him.

When you look at this Tampa roster, it’s easy to find potential dance partners for Ritchie over the course of a seven-game war. There’s Pat Maroon and Barclay Goodrow (the man behind an Anders Bjork headshot) up front. Cedric Paquette should draw the ire of the 6-foot-2, 230-pound wing. There’a also Zach Bogosian and Erik Cernak on the backend.

The Bruins want more than a big body out there, though, and that’s where they hope Ritchie can develop into a more reliable three-zone player to ride with Charlie Coyle on Boston’s third line, which has been a secret weapon to postseason success.

“We expect [Ritchie] to be a little better on the walls,” Cassidy said. “He’s obviously, with active D for Tampa, as much in the o-zone as anywhere, he has to be aware in his coverage in D zone. Getting inside, Charlie [Coyle] is a good puck protection guy, can separate. Hopefully, Nick can learn to find those soft spots in the O-zone, preferably around the net. Sometimes you can’t always just park yourself in the crease if plays die, then you’re the last guy out of the zone.”

Can the Bruins continue to annoy the piss out of Nikita Kucherov?

Late in the 2017-18 season, the Bruins realized something pretty damn important: They can annoy Nikita Kucherov. Oh, and that Kucherov is quite combustable when annoyed.

This is perfect for Boston’s fourth line and they’ll certainly have to do it once again.

“At the end of the day, if they don’t relish it, we’re in trouble because they do see a lot of their top players,” Cassidy said of his fourth line’s assignment in this series. “We’ve built it that way for a number of years now. Kind of been ingrained in them, whoever those three, four guys are. Last year it was [Noel] Acciari in the mix and before that, [Tim] Schaller. We use different players and ask them to be hard to play against and defend well and manage pucks.

“They need to embrace that mentality first that they’re going to make it hard on that trio. Keep them off the scoresheet, pin them in their own end at times and frustrate them. They’re almost setting up our next three lines to go over the boards for success.”

Mar 7, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) breaks in on goal while Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy (73) defends during the second period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Is the Boston power play officially back?

After beginning Bubble Life with misses on 13 straight power-play opportunities, the Bruins have once again turned white-hot on the man advantage, capitalizing on five of their last 15 opportunities. The Bruins have also produced 36 power-play shots on goal over that four-game run. And that’s just four shy of the Stars’ league-high 40 power-play shots on goal, with Dallas achieving that with two additional games and nearly 10 extra minutes of power-play time compared to the Bruins.

One big change in this power play: The Bruins have kept David Krejci with the first unit, even with David Pastrnak back. This stability is pretty huge, as the Bruins kept bouncing back between Jake DeBrusk and Coyle on their first unit before settling on Krejci. It’s also something that ‘Playoff Krejci’ has absolutely earned.

“He’s playing really well, really motivated, making good plays,” Cassidy said of Krejci. “I think having discussions with him and [Brad Marchand] about Krech likes that elbow where Pasta is so you got to put him on the other one, it’s a different look for him. And then March moves off his elbow into the net front where you going to take a little more of a pounding, so they had to be willing to do that. I mean we had a pretty good power play as it is the other way, but this is a way to get Krech more involved and then with Pasta not having a lot of reps I think you saw the puck move around to the other side a little bit more because those guys are more into the game flow of things. So that was the other reason. Pasta certainly did his job on it, got to the front of the net, couple of good shots, obviously picked up a couple helpers on it, made some good plays.”

The Lightning, meanwhile, have the worst penalty differential in the 2020 postseason, at minus-17, having drawn 23 penalties while taking 40 of their own. Their 40 penalties are the seventh-most among this year’s playoff field. And in just eight games.

Boston went 4-for-14 against the Lightning penalty kill during the regular season.

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.