The mere mention of a Boston Bruins-Detroit Red Wings playoff series is enough to excite hockey fans. That feeling will be satisfied starting Friday night.
Here’s what to expect when the Original Six clubs meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1957.
The Bruins boast as much depth as they’ve had in the Claude Julien era. The Boston head coach can roll four lines at just about any time, and his defensive-minded system keeps games close. That style wears down opponents and allows the Bruins to maintain a high level of play late in games — it’s a big reason for their plus-48 third-period goal differential.
The Bruins use their depth to produce balanced scoring: Six Boston forwards had at least 19 goals this season. Question marks include whether Jarome Iginla can play the role Nathan Horton did in last year’s playoffs and if Reilly Smith can snap out of a slump in which he’s scored just twice in his last 30 games.
Detroit’s top line has unlimited potential centering around Pavel Datysuk. The two-way wizard is one of the game’s best players, and he’s likely to see a lot of Zdeno Chara during this series. Gustav Nyquist’s emergence makes that unit even more dangerous.
The Red Wings’ biggest advantage in the series might be the speed they possess up front. Injuries have forced Detroit to call on some fresh faces, and that necessary youth movement has been a nice shot in the arm for a veteran hockey club. The Wings don’t possess the same forward depth the Bruins do, but the speed could be an equalizer.
The Bruins’ biggest strength lies in their defensive play, but that’s not a complete reflection of their blueliners. The commitment to defense is a team-wide initiative, and that, along with the play of goaltender Tuukka Rask, has helped the Bruins work through occasional growing pains on a pretty young blue line.
The playoffs can be a different animal, however, especially against a team like Detroit and its team speed. No one knows for sure if Dennis Seidenberg actually will return during the postseason, but it won’t be in the first round. Can the Bruins’ young D-men step up? That’s a huge question. That being said, Chara still is the best defenseman in the league and makes up for a lot of mistakes around him. And some of Boston’s young blueliners received valuable experience in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Red Wings also are young on the blue line, but they don’t have a Chara of their own. Their defensive corps is anchored by Niklas Kronwall, who’s not in the same class as Chara but brings some things to the table. Kronwall is a good offensive defenseman (eight goals, 41 assists this season), and he can change the momentum of a game with a big hit. He also can play the role of agitator. If he can get the Bruins to take a bad penalty, that’s gravy.
Other than that, however, there are plenty of unknowns on defense for the Wings, who ranked 16th in goals allowed this season. Detroit also will be without Jonathan Ericsson (hand surgery) to start the series.
Rask had the best regular season of his young career, including an incredible .941 even-strength save percentage. The Vezina Trophy candidate also has plenty of playoff experience. After a shaky start to last year’s playoffs, Rask was dominant on Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins also were able to give Rask plenty of rest down the stretch this season.
Jimmy Howard has endured an up-and-down season for the Red Wings, but the low points mostly were marked by injuries. He’s healthy now and played well down the stretch. The Bruins might be able to expose the former Maine Black Bear if they’re able to win the puck possession battle. Howard’s .910 save percentage isn’t anything special, and if the Bruins can make him work, they might key into some of Howard’s inconsistency issues.
The Bruins finished the regular season with the No. 3 power play and the No. 8 penalty kill in the NHL. Finishing in the top 10 in both is pretty impressive.
The addition of Torey Krug and Jarome Iginla to the man-advantage can’t be overstated. Those two have made the Bruins’ top power play unit — with Chara down low — one of the league’s best. The penalty kill has seen some ups and downs after losing Seidenberg, but it finished strong allowing just eight power-play goals since March 4. Rask also is a key component.
The Red Wings finished with the No. 18 power play and No. 12 penalty kill. The loss of Henrik Zetterberg is felt on the power play — he had three man-advantage goals in the 42 games he played during the regular season. Detroit’s power play leaned heavily on veterans during the regular season, and Kronwall was a big part of that, as he scored five of his eight goals on the man advantage. The Wings’ penalty kill was good against the Bruins this season, as Boston went just 3-for-16 on power plays in the teams’ four regular-season matchups.
The Bruins have a pretty clear advantage across the board, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Red Wings give them some trouble. Detroit won three of the four regular-season meetings and has the type of speed Boston has struggled with in the past. Another wrinkle is that the Bruins have had a difficult time getting through the first round in previous seasons. Detroit coach Mike Babcock is one of the best hockey minds in the world, and he’ll have a sound game plan, especially with extra time to prepare.
However, the Bruins were the best team in the NHL for a reason. They’re deeper, more talented and have the better goalie. That should be enough for them to advance out of the first round.
The pick: Bruins in 5