What the Bruins need to do to finish strong, earn first-round home-ice advantage

Matt Kalman
April 01, 2019 - 12:59 pm

The loss at Tampa last Monday was supposed to teach the Bruins a lesson.

That night the Bruins saw a 4-2 lead evaporate in the third period against the Presidents’ Trophy winners because of lax awareness and defensive responsibility. The winning goal was scored by Anthony Cirelli on a set play in the offensive zone, but the comeback was fueled by odd-man rushes that never would have happened had the Bruins defensemen played safer or if their forwards backed up the risk-taking D-men better.

Losing to the Lightning was nothing to be ashamed of, every team has done it this year, and the Bruins were supposed to get back up and continue their march toward second place in the Atlantic Division with the lessons they learned in Tampa fresh in their minds.

What has ensued since that night, particularly over the weekend in losses to Florida and Detroit, has been a lesson for the Toronto Maple Leafs in how to beat Boston in an inevitable first-round playoff rematch.

What the Panthers showed in their 4-1 on Saturday and the Red Wings showed in their 6-3 victory Sunday is that they’re playing out the string the way any team that’s headed to the lottery should -- footloose and fancy-free. That makes those teams difficult for a structured team like the Bruins to play against, but it should be a glorified way for the Bruins to practice their defensive structure and sense based on the time and score.

Although their lineup is almost fully healthy (Sean Kuraly remains out with a fractured hand and Chris Wagner just went out with a lower-body injury), the Bruins shouldn’t be taking this opportunity to try to find a new identity. They should be continuing to create the right habits they developed when dealing with a lineup decimated by injury and play the type of grind-it-out game that can get them deep into the playoffs.

No one’s telling the Bruins to sit back and pack it in in the defensive zone, but they should be leaning more toward caution than flying around at this stage in the season. Instead, against the Panthers and Red Wings, we saw an endless supply of breakaways, odd-man rushes because Bruins defensemen (especially Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug) were too far up in the play. We saw way too many quick strikes after speedy zone entries that the Bruins weren’t able to cut off in the neutral or at the defensive blue line because they were standing still or not alert enough to read the play developing, which is inexcusable when you know most of Florida and Detroit’s players are going to be cheating and looking for their points in games that mean nothing to them in the standings.

And that’s where the Maple Leafs come in. Toronto has had its own struggles lately (3-5-2 in its past 10 heading into a road game against the New York Islanders on Monday). On paper they may have a little more offensive firepower than the Bruins, but their defense corps should not be able to contain the Bruins’ top three lines. It may go against the natural order of playoff hockey, but Toronto’s best bet against the Bruins may be to make another run-and-gun series like last spring. And remember the Bruins were trailing heading into the third period of Game 7 last season. That’s not a position the Bruins want to be in again because it could be such a coin flip.

The Bruins should be approaching these last three games of the regular season like they’re the first three games of the postseason (or at least do this for the first two so they can mail in the season final against the Lightning) and focus on their defense, allowing it to lead to their offense.

That’s the way the Bruins are going to win in the playoffs and it’s also the key to hanging on to second place and first-round home-ice advantage.

*As far as the race for second place, the Bruins have one fewer game remaining than the Maple Leafs but have the easier schedule. Columbus will be tough for Boston on Tuesday because the Blue Jackets are still in a fight, but Minnesota and Tampa Bay (which could rest several regulars) should be exploitable. The Maple Leafs have to host Carolina and Tampa Bay, and then go to Montreal. The Hurricanes are in the fight. The Lightning may treat their Thursday game the same way they treated their last game with the Bruins, as a chance to send a message before a possible playoff meeting. And regardless of whether Montreal is still alive by Saturday you know the Canadiens will go all-in to try to cost Toronto something if home ice is still on the line.

*On Sunday Skate we discussed Marcus Johansson and his inability to find a place in the Bruins’ lineup. He didn’t look much better against Detroit than he did the prior too games. Coach Bruce Cassidy may have no choice but to put Johansson with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk and hope he can feed off their chemistry while the first line carries the Bruins for at least the first portion of the postseason. Regardless of where he goes, Johansson’s going to have to be more engaged and not expect his linemates to create for him the way he has since returning from his lung injury.

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