Nick Goss

Five Bruins under most pressure in first-round playoff series vs. Leafs

Both of these teams ar under tremendous pressure to reach the second round.

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The Boston Bruins will open the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs against a familiar foe.

For the fourth time in the last 11 years, the Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs will meet in the first round. And for the fourth time, the B's have home ice advantage and enter the series as the favorites.

Even though the Bruins largely exceeded expectations during the regular season and the team didn't add any major pieces at the trade deadline, there's still a lot of pressure on this group to eliminate the Leafs. Losing to an opponent you've dominated in the regular season and playoffs for about a decade would be a disappointment.

The Bruins also have won just two playoff series since reaching the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. They've won multiple rounds in just one of their last seven postseason appearances.

Who is most under pressure to have a good first-round series for the Bruins? Here are five notable names.

David Pastrnak, Right wing

David Pastrnak
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David Pastrnak has owned the Leafs throughout his career.

Your best player is always going to be in the spotlight, and Pastrnak was the Bruins' most valuable and most outstanding player during the regular season. He led the team with 47 goals and a career-high 63 assists in 81 games. It was his second straight year with 100-plus points and third consecutive 40-goal campaign.

Sure, sometimes he commits a bad turnover every once and a while, but that criticism has gotten a little ridiculous. If you look at the players who ranked top 10 in giveaways, it's mostly a list of superstars who carry the puck a lot, including Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Leon Draisaitl.

The Bruins are not as deep up front as they were last season. This means the top guns like Pastrnak might shoulder more of the scoring burden. Luckily for the Bruins, Pastrnak has owned the Leafs in his career with 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists) in 28 career regular season games, plus another 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 14 career playoff matchups. 

Overall, Pastrnak has 79 points (35 goals, 44 assists) in 77 career postseason games. He's been very good at this time of the season, and the Bruins need that to continue if they're going to make a deep run.

Jake DeBrusk, Left/right wing

Will this be the last playoff series of DeBrusk's Bruins career? He still isn't signed beyond this season, and is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in July.

DeBrusk had a chance to improve his value with a strong season offensively. After scoring 25-plus goals in back-to-back years, DeBrusk found the back of the net just 19 times this season despite playing a career-high 80 games. He has definitely improved defensively and is now a good penalty killer, which you wouldn't have said early in his career. But DeBrusk is paid to score goals, and he was again very inconsistent in that regard this season.

If DeBrusk wants to stay in Boston, a stellar postseason performance probably would go a long way. He has enjoyed plenty of success against the Leafs in previous playoff series. His Game 7 performance in 2018 in which he scored two goals stands out the most.

The Bruins have a lot of fascinating roster decisions to make in the offseason, and DeBrusk is near the top of the list. How he handles the pressure in the playoffs will be interesting to watch.

Brandon Carlo, Defenseman

Carlo's defensive performance will be pivotal in the outcome of this series. He left Monday's loss to the Capitals early with an injury, but head coach Jim Montgomery said earlier this week that the veteran defenseman will be available for Game 1.

Carlo played 31:22 of 5-on-5 ice time against Leafs center Auston Matthews during the four-game season series, the most of any B's defenseman, per Natural Stat Trick. Both teams scored once and had 13 scoring chances during those Carlo vs. Matthews minutes at 5-on-5. Matthews and the Leafs typically fared much better at 5-on-5 when Carlo wasn't on the ice.

Those are pretty good numbers for Carlo versus a superstar forward who led the league with 69 goals and has played quite well against the Bruins throughout his career with 29 points in 33 games (including playoffs).

Carlo is the Bruins' top penalty-killing defenseman as well. He averaged a team-leading 3:10 of shorthanded ice time per game and was a major reason why Boston's PK unit had the seventh-best success rate at 82.5 percent. Carlo also played a huge role in limiting the Leafs to just one goal in 11 power-play opportunities during the season series.

The Bruins will have a tremendous chance to win this series if Carlo can help them win or stay relatively even against Matthews' line at 5-on-5. It might be the most important matchup in the series.

Jeremy Swayman, Goalie

There's plenty of pressure on Linus Ullmark in this series and however long the Bruins' playoff run lasts. But there's more pressure on Swayman for a couple reasons.

For starters, he struggled in the final portion of the regular season. He ranked 41st in save percentage (.884) and 21st in GAA (2.87) after the March 8 trade deadline. He gave up three or more goals in 11 of the last 17 games he played.

The ideal long-term scenario for the Bruins is Swayman soon becoming the No. 1 goalie and then shining in that role for another 10 years. He is just 25 years old and has shown the ability to be a top 10 goalie. But for him to be the guy long term, he has to show he can win in the playoffs. And he hasn't done that yet, even though it's a pretty limited sample so far. Swayman is due for a large raise as a restricted free agent this summer. A stellar performance in the postseason could potentially earn him a substantial salary.

The University of Maine product also has dominated the Leafs this season, earning a 3-0-0 record with a .959 save percentage. Two of those wins came in early March -- a pair of 4-1 victories at home and on the road.

It's hard to overstate the importance of this playoff run for Swayman. Can he be a No. 1 goalie for a contending team? We should have a better idea at the end of the playoffs.

Jim Montgomery, Head coach

Jim Montgomery
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Montgomery is entering his second playoff series as B's head coach.

There's plenty of pressure on Montgomery in this series, especially after last season's stunning first-round exit to the Panthers.

The players deserved the majority of the blame for how that series unfolded, but Montgomery made some questionable moves, too. His line combinations to begin Game 5 -- Patrice Bergeron's series debut -- were pretty strange. The Bruins trailed 1-0 in the first period before Montgomery put Bergeron and longtime linemate Brad Marchand back together. Montgomery admitted after the Game 7 loss that he regretted not putting Bergeron and Marchand together to start Game 5.

Montgomery also waited too long to switch to Jeremy Swayman. Linus Ullmark was not 100 percent healthy entering the series and didn't look great in Game 5 or Game 6 (both losses). He finally turned to Swayman in Game 7, which was a tough spot for the young goalie after not having started a game in almost two weeks, not to mention the fact that the season was at stake.

How Montgomery handles the goalie situation this time around will be crucial. Do the Bruins use a rotation or ride the hot hand? He probably has a little more leeway to be creative with his forward lines than last season, given the roster turnover.

If the Bruins lose this series, coaching is unlikely to be a major reason why. But it's still an important series for Montgomery, who owns a 10-10 record in 20 playoff games as an NHL head coach.

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