At the start of the break, I wrote that the Bruins are a really, really good team. They’re not my bet for best team, but they’re my pick for the Cup at this point because of their weaker conference — and therefore easier path to the Finals.
But, there are always questions, x-factors, and keys to success that could swing the race for another cup one way or another. I tried to narrow down the 5 things that are a little up in the air, but the B’s probably need to go right in order to get their 2nd cup in 4 years.
1) Chara holding up:
Sorry to start off with the one that’s most likely to put you in a terrible mood, but the Bruins lost the last 3 games of in the Cup Finals because Chara and Seidenberg wore down from being the entire Bruins defense last year (with some help from Boychuk). Now, Chara turns 37 next month, played 2 games more than usual because of the Olympics, doesn’t have Seidenberg, and might be the anchor of a defensive group that will literally have Chara, Boychuk, and four guys in their first or second year, as McQuaid could be injured or just playing terrible. Also, he’ll be coming off of last year’s 22 playoff games, 48 regular season games, and 25 games in Europe — all in a season that was backed up due to the lockout, therefore creating a shorter offseason. It looks like the B’s are gonna realistically lock up the 2 seed with about 7-10 games to go, so I would rest Chara and give Warsofsky some minutes in early April. Maybe sign someone out of college and play him because of his fresh legs, Torey Krug in 2012-style. Chara not being Chara would be the biggest reason that the B’s would unexpectedly get knocked out in the first two rounds. But this leads us to…
2) Will Chiarelli trade for someone — preferably a defenseman, at the deadline?
The more I think about this one, the more I think it’s a must. Dougie has improved from his rookie year, but he’s not a 3rd defenseman yet. Krug isn’t either. I’m comfortable with Krug getting about the 5th most even-strength minutes for a contender and then a ton of power play time, but if he has to get 3rd or mayyybe 4th Dman minutes, that’s a problem. Bartkowski is fine, but hasn’t been doing as well as expected. McQuaid isn’t good at anything in hockey that involves a puck, and both he and Miller should be 7th defenseman for a contender. Shane Hnidy stuff. I’d take McQuaid assuming he’s healthy for 5 minutes at the time of the playoffs, but I’d rather not have either play.
That means that the B’s need a 3rd defenseman. This would change so much, as it’d give Dougie the 4th most minutes, Krug the 5th, and Barts the 6th. Suddenly, that looks pretty solid. But if Chiarelli doesn’t pull the trigger, then it’s Chara playing Suter-like minutes, Boychuk being a 2nd defenseman for the first time in his career at age 30, Adam McQuaid, and the youngsters. Not a good thought.
So, who could they get? I wrote about this when Seidenberg went down, but I don’t know if the list would be the same today. Stephane Robidas plays for Dallas, who might actually try to make the playoffs, which wasn’t as certain back then. Tom Gilbert looked absolutely horrible in a Panthers-Bruins game last month, and that kinda turned me against wanting to get him. That leaves Ron Hainsey from the guys that I was really excited about. And, honestly, I really like that idea. I’ll have more for the trade deadline later, but here’s a tease: 52.4% Corsi For while only starting 50.1% of the time in the offensive zone, all while playing for the freaking Hurricanes. Do it, Chiarelli.
3) Chris Kelly Needs to be the answer at 3rd line center.
I really like Carl Soderberg has been playing of late. I really like how Reilly Smith has been playing this entire year, as has everyone in Boston and their mother. Watching them on the power play together has been borderline orgasmic at times, and we obviously hope they can do the same things together on the 3rd line come playoff time.
So what do we know about Kelly? Kelly was absolute shit in the first three playoff rounds last year, and many, myself included, were slightly leaning towards wanting the Bruins to buy him out. I have faith in the first two lines to step up, and the Merlot Line is the Merlot line. They’ll be better than most other 4th lines, but they likely won’t swing a series again like they did against the Rangers last year. That leaves Kelly as the biggest question among the forwards. This year, he’s doing pretty well, with 49.9% CF despite 40.4% OZS. If he does that, he’s worth the $3 million that seemed too pricey last summer.
But is he really the fit for Soderberg and Smith? They’re both offensive players, and Kelly is being used much more defensively than people realize. And that could mean line shuffling that people don’t realize. What about Spooner-Soderberg-Smith and Campbell-Paille-Kelly? Or make Kelly the center for that line, depending on what Claude feels is best.
What about Kelly-Soderberg-Smith and Campbell-Spooner-Paille, but then you switch Kelly and Spooner every so often when you want more specialized lines? I put Spooner on the left and Paille the right, because I think Paille would have an easier time going on his off wing. Then again, part of the Merlot Line’s appeal and effectiveness is its chemistry, and Kelly would probably be better suited to retain that chemistry for the line with Thornton out of the lineup. Since I don’t think that Thornton should start in the playoffs unless somebody starts doing terribly, I’d go with Spooner-Soderberg-Smith and Campbell-Paille-Kelly, but leave the door open for Kelly to swap with Spooner when the lines need to be more well-rounded. Spooner and Paille together on a line would be intriguing, after all, given their speed.
If Kelly can play like he did in 2011 and 2012, then he’s the answer. If he plays like 2013 Chris Kelly, he could be the weak link for the B’s up front.
4) The 2nd line being the best in the league, as expected.
If that sounded like high standards, it was. The Bergeron-Marchand-Seguin line was the best in the league for parts of both 2012 and 2013, and Eriksson is still a little better than Seguin this year when he’s healthy and playing well. Remember, Loui has the second-best Corsi for the Bruins this year, and he is probably better suited to play with Bergy than Seguin. That line should be the best in the league, especially and at least defensively.
If the Bruins win the Cup mainly through their defensive system, it will likely be because of the 2nd line. They have the potential to shut down the opponents’ top lines and take a ton of defensive faceoffs — all while scoring at a good rate.
5) Tuukka Rask
I put this one last because it seems like the smallest question mark. Tuukka just went apeshit at the Olympics, and he looks like the best goalie in the world right now. Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, and maybe Jonathan Quick could make claims, but Tuukka definitely seems like the king now.
(Two things to note from that last paragraph: One, anyone who says that Quick was good but not great, or not as important as hoped, at least, should be shot. Quick’s only bad game was against Finalnd, but I’m pretty sure that Ryan Suter was a double agent for Finalnd in the Bronze Medal game. Literally no one cared. He was awesome against Slovakia, very good against Russia, very good against Slovenia, and absolutely brilliant against Canada. That was the biggest game the US could’ve had in the tournament, and he did everything that was needed and more. Not his fault that Weber, Doughty, and Price just shut down the US. Two, it is interesting that the four best goalies in the world, in my mind, were on the top 4 finishing Olympic teams. Price, Lundqvist, Rask, and Quick. Good group. The “hot goalie in the playoffs” thing might be somewhat overrated, but let’s not overdo our reactions to that cliche. It still has a hell of a lot of importance.)
If Tuukka plays like he did in last year’s playoffs, I see the Bruins winning, barring. They may not have won it last year behind his 94.0 SV%, but they’re a little deeper than last year, and I see them scoring better than they did. Even if Tuukka isn’t absolutely lights out again, if he’s “just” great, that can easily be enough. And he’s the best in the world, so I’d say that “great” is a reasonable expectation.