BOSTON -- All things being equal, the Bruins have to believe they fell into the best possible first-round playoff situation.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs blowing a two-goal lead in a 3-2 regulation loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday night, the Bruins finish as the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division and get a first-round matchup against a very beatable opponent in the Ottawa Senators. Certainly more beatable than the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, whom the Bruins, as the second wild-card team, would have played had Toronto managed to salvage a point out of its game with Columbus and beaten out Boston for third place in the Atlantic.
Still, the Bruins --- in the playoffs for the first time in three years -- have issues with Ottawa. They lost all four games against the Senators this season and have lost 10 of their last 12 yo Ottawa over the past few years. But they've been mostly close games and nobody feels the Sens outclass Boston in the talent department.
“Our record of 0-4 [this season] doesn’t really tell the real story, I think,” David Krejci said after last Thursday night's shootout loss to the Senators at TD Garden. “Other than the first game in their building, I think we could have gotten at least two games for sure, especially at home. So, if it happens that we play them [in the playoffs], I feel confident in this team that we can get the job done.”
The biggest challenge for the Bruins will be fighting through the 1-3-1 trap employed by Senators coach Guy Boucher, who relies on discipline to the system and defenseman Erik Karlsson as a puck-retrieval machine at the end of the neutral-zone sleeper hold.
Karlsson uses his mobility and puck-moving skills to play center field at the end of the trap, and is able to quickly send pucks right back in the other direction when a team is able to make the rare foray into offensive territory. That, in turn, makes it incredibly difficult to generate offense when Karlsson is on the ice, and if healthy one would expect the Hart Trophy candidate to be getting close to 30 minutes of ice time per night in these games.
The Bruins scored a grand total of six goals in the four losses to the Senators this season, and probably felt there was only one game where they effectively and properly busted through the trap for routine offensive chances. The challenge to do that in a seven-game series is going to be made all the more difficult if the Bruins are without puck-moving D-man and power-play quarterback Torey Krug, whose 'lower-body injury' may sideline him for most, if not all, of the series.
All one had to do was watch Thursday night’s game. The Bruins were able to generate offense, and a goal, in the first period when Krug was still healthy, but then got completely bottled up by the Senators with zero transition game in the final 40 minutes after Krug hurt his knee. It was a bit of a depressing look at how easily the Bruins defensemen corps can be defended and contained if they’re missing a player in Krug that really makes their offense go.
“They play a system that’s frustrating and not easy to play against and clog up the neutral zone and, you know, it’s not the prettiest thing, you know, to watch and play against sometimes,” said defenseman John-Michael Liles of Ottawa. “But it’s effective. It’s, you know, it’s a system that if you’re not getting though the neutral zone well, then pucks come right back at you. We try to minimize the times that that happens, and, you know, it’s a tough system to play against for sure.”
While the trap is clearly difficult to bust through, there are plenty of ways to attack the Senators once you get there. They finished ranked 22nd or 23rd in the NHL in goals against, power-play success rate and penalty kill, and don’t have much of a chance of competing if they can’t lock down their defensive system early in a game.
That bodes well for the Bruins, who excel on special teams and will be focused on getting early leads to force Boucher and the Senators into playing a little more desperately than they’d prefer. So while Ottawa will be favored in the series and will have the best player on the ice in Karlsson, the Bruins have more than a fighting chance against a Sens group that many feel got by with some smoke and mirrors this season.
It could have been a lot worse facing the Capitals, who are bigger, stronger, deeper and more skilled than the Bruins, with a No. 1 goalie [Braden Holtby] who’s permanently rented space in the heads of Bruins players. So the B's will take their blessing, hope they can engineer a minor upset to take out the Senators over the next couple of weeks and then maybe, just maybe, earn a second-round match-up vs. the rival Canadiens with old friend Claude Julien behind the bench.
But first things first. And that means preparing for the trap-happy, mundane hockey styling of the Ottawa Senators from the school of “boring, but effective.”