BOSTON – It will go down to the final day of the NHL regular season before the Boston Bruins know which team they’ll be facing in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s down to just two candidates at this point with the Bruins starting on the road next week in either Ottawa or Washington following Boston’s 3-1 loss to the Capitals in the regular season finale on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden. If the Maple Leafs earn just a single point in their final game on Sunday vs. Columbus, then the Bruins will square off against the top-ranked Caps as the second wild card team. If Toronto falls to the Blue Jackets in regulation on Sunday after Saturday’s emotional comeback win over the Penguins, then the B’s will secure the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division and a first round showdown with Senators.
Both first round opponents would be problematic for the B’s based on recent history: The Bruins lost all four regular season matches with Ottawa this season, and sport a 2-9-5 record in their last 16 games vs. the Capitals that’s basically been one-sided domination for the last five years.
“They’re President's Trophy winners. They’ve had the best regular season now, two years in a row,” said David Backes of the Capitals. “They’ve earned it. But you erase all of the regular season statistics and stats and all of that, and you’ve got to win four before the other team does. That needs to be our mentality whether we’re in Washington or Ottawa – I believe that’s our only two choices.
“So whoever it is, we need to erase our minds and get a game plan in there that’s going to work against whoever we’re playing. Then we go execute it and just play harder than the guy across from you. The way this team has played down the stretch here and had to work our butts off to get in, I love our group and we’re going to have a few days here to prep and get it together and then go out there and play.”
Just like Backes, one would expect the other Bruins to be equally reverential of both teams while waiting to see what the hockey gods bring them next week.
That was absolutely the case across the board for a Bruins squad happy to be in the playoffs, but B’s interim head coach Bruce Cassidy did admit the scenario involving a switch to the Metro Division playoff bracket would be challenging for his group.
“We’re going to be confident no matter who we play. In a nutshell, Washington is the better team, I would say that, go on record saying that. Ottawa is playing very good hockey right now and we’ve had a tough time with them,” said Cassidy. “So they both present their challenges. Staying in probably the [Atlantic Division], people have said is probably the easier path. In that regard you don’t want to be the wildcard, but we’re going to end up now – it’s out of our hands. So, we get what we get.”
Clearly it’s not talking out of school for Cassidy to shower praise on a President’s Trophy-winning group like the Capitals that has effectively pulled away from the pack.
Everybody knows they are big, strong, fast, skilled and tough with a deep lineup of star-level players at the NHL level, and that they’re best scorer (Alex Ovechkin) is also a massive, hard-hitting superstar with plenty still left to prove in the postseason.
In other words, the top dog Capitals would be a tough match-up for the Bruins at every level of the game while Boston sits and waits knowing they’re going to be an underdog in whatever series they end up playing.