Four months ago, the Boston Bruins had an all but assured plan for postseason vengeance.
In the team’s last game, on March 10, it shut out the Flyers in Philadelphia, 2-0, increasing its lead over its closest Eastern Conference rival to eight points. Boston, a one-goal loser in Game 7 of last year’s Stanley Cup finals against St. Louis, had virtually locked up home ice through this season’s playoffs, winning 16 of its previous 20 games.
If 2020 has taught the world anything, it’s that things change.
When the Bruins gathered Monday morning for a 9:30 practice, it had been 123 days since the N.H.L. paused its season indefinitely. In that time, the league created a plan to restart with an expanded 24-team playoff format hosted in two Canadian hub cities, Edmonton and Toronto. Faced with the terms of this year’s postseason — no bye or guaranteed home ice for top seeds, a round-robin opening round to determine seeding — Boston quickly realized that the accrued advantage of the normal format was gone, replaced by a situation in which it could fall to the fourth seed and meet a difficult first-round opponent.
“Yeah, that’s the biggest challenge,” said Don Sweeney, the Bruins’ general manager. “We’re at a disadvantage in that regard. I think we’d all agree we’d rather have had a bye than play in the round robin.”
Boston will join Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington in a three-game round robin of Eastern Conference top seeds that starts Aug. 2 in Toronto. Against those clubs this season, the Bruins won just three of 10 games, losing four in shootouts. Opening training camp this week, Sweeney emphasized the importance of the three-week preparation.
“The players have to understand it’s a really short window to get up to speed,” he said.
The Bruins appear suited for such an immediate challenge. The roster is deep and experienced, led by a top line that led the league in points and goals when play stopped. The team is backstopped by an elite goaltending duo in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, who shared the Jennings Trophy, awarded for allowing the fewest goals in this abbreviated season.
Coach Bruce Cassidy said he relies heavily on a leadership group that includes defenseman Zdeno Chara, the team’s captain who turned 43 right before play stopped, and center Patrice Bergeron, who is in his 16th season with the team. But the coach acknowledges that with five of his key players under age 25, responsibility for the team’s success does not rest solely on the veterans.
Winger David Pastrnak, 24, who is tied for the league lead in goals (48) with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, and defenseman Charlie McAvoy, 22, who partners with Chara on the top pairing, will also play critical roles.
“It’s not always incumbent on the older guys to be big brother,” Cassidy said. “This is a situation where little brother can pull on the rope a little harder, too.”
Cassidy, for his part, has few roster decisions to make. He will reinforce the message to players that he will continue to tinker with lines and that he offers no guarantees on playing time.
“We’ve put guys in the press box for the odd night to let them know, ‘Hey, listen, we expect a little bit better here and there,’” he said, “and that won’t change.”
Having come so close to capturing the Stanley Cup last season, the Bruins recognize the opportunity at hand, even under these circumstances.
“We know where we ended,” said David Krejci, a center, of the team’s standing in March. “With the team we have, we can start where we left off. Don’t overthink, just trust the system.”
The Bruins leave for Toronto late next week, and they’ll play at least one exhibition game before playing the round-robin matches against the Flyers on Aug. 2, the Lightning on Aug. 5 and the Capitals on Aug. 8. The best-of-seven first round begins Aug. 11, and if the Bruins play out all four rounds, they will have played 28 games in as few as 53 days.
Like the other teams in Toronto and the Western Conference contenders in Edmonton, the Bruins will be in a far more circumscribed environment than they currently are at home. No walking around the neighborhood. No trips to the supermarket. And, most significant, no contact with family. For what could be almost two months, their world will be limited to the team hotel, local rinks for training and the Scotiabank Arena.
Defenseman Torey Krug said he accepted the circumstances of the team’s title chase, which for him include leaving his wife and 1-year-old daughter.
“Any time you get a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup,” he said, “you take it every time you get it.”