The Boston Bruins have just one more regular season game left before embarking on their journey in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Expectations couldn't be higher for this Bruins squad. It's literally championship or bust.
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"If we don’t go all the way, it means nothing," Bruins forward Tomas Nosek told reporters after the team set the points record with a 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. "But I know when you get older, probably, and you realize we are something special for sure, I’ll recognize it more as time goes on. Not right now."
Here's our projected Game 1 playoff lineup for the Bruins. All stats via Natural Stat Trick.
Taylor Hall--Charlie Coyle--Tyler Bertuzzi
Trent Frederic--Tomas Nosek--Garnet Hathaway
The top three lines are pretty straightforward, especially if Krejci is ready to return after missing the last six games. If Krejci isn't able to play Game 1, Zacha can slot into the second-line center position and Bertuzzi could play second-line left wing.
The Bruins' depth is far, far better this season compared to 2021-22. Boston's bottom six produced very little offensively versus the Carolina Hurricanes in last season's first-round series. That shouldn't be the case in 2023 -- just look at the third line. A Hall-Coyle-Bertuzzi trio would be a first or second line on a bunch of teams. Those guys getting to play against opponents' third defense pairings will greatly benefit the Bruins.
The real question mark is at fourth-line left wing. If Nick Foligno is healthy, do you re-insert him into his usual spot or opt for the younger, faster and more offensively skilled Trent Frederic? Foligno had a bounce-back season offensively and is a valuable leader on and off the ice, but Frederic is a better player. Frederic set career highs with 16 goals, 14 assists and 30 points. He also brings a level of toughness and sandpaper that is required in the postseason. The 2016 first-round pick has earned a spot in the playoff lineup regardless of whether Foligno can play.
Dmitry Orlov--Charlie McAvoy
Hampus Lindholm--Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk/Derek Forbort--Connor Clifton
Orlov and McAvoy have played 129:59 together at 5-on-5 and the Bruins have accounted for about 60 percent of all shot attempts, shots on net and scoring chances during those minutes. This pairing consistently tilts the ice in Boston's favor from a puck possession and scoring chances perspective.
No Bruins pairing has seen more ice time this season than Lindholm and Carlo. The Bruins have outscored opponents 34-18 with a plus-66 scoring chance differential in this pairing's 631:31 of ice time at 5-on-5.
Grzelcyk is an easy pick on the left side of the third pairing for as long as Forbort is unavailable. He hasn't played since suffering a lower body injury March 16 against the Winnipeg Jets. Forbort is one of the Bruins' best penalty killers, but that unit has actually been pretty dominant without him. In fact, Boston has a league-leading 93.0 penalty kill percentage in the 14 games Forbort has missed.
When Forbort is healthy enough to play, Montgomery can flip flop between him and Grzelcyk depending on matchups. For example, Forbort would be better against a heavier, more aggressive forechecking team like the Islanders, whereas Grzelcyk's smooth skating and playmaking would be valuable versus a speedier opponent such as the Panthers.
Starter: Linus Ullmark
Backup: Jeremy Swayman
Ullmark is an easy choice to be the Game 1 starter. He's earned it after a stellar season that likely will result in him winning the Vezina Trophy. He left Tuesday's win over the Capitals in the third period, but head coach Jim Montgomery said the veteran netminder will be fine. "Just some muscle tightening, that's all," Montgomery explained.
Ullmark should be the No. 1 playoff goalie indefinitely unless his performance takes a dramatic fall or he suffers an injury, and neither scenario is likely to happen. Montgomery hasn't ruled out using a goalie platoon in the playoffs, but if you look at recent history -- which we did here -- very rarely do teams win the Stanley Cup without one goalie earning all 16 postseason victories through four rounds.
That said, it's comforting for the Bruins to know they have another very capable goaltender available if Ullmark needs to be replaced for whatever reason. Swayman has posted a .931 save percentage and a 2.05 GAA in 15 appearances since Feb. 1.