Nothing is set in stone yet and there are still plenty of details to iron out, including a timeline, but the NHL took an important step toward a 24-team postseason Friday night when the NHLPA's executive board voted to authorize further negotiations on the format.
Things could certainly change, but the current proposal reportedly includes a round-robin tournament for the top four teams in each conference to determine seeding for the conference quarterfinals.
On the surface, the Bruins would be the team with the most to lose under that plan. At the time the league went on break, they had an eight-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 12 regular-season games to play. Barring a catastrophic finish, they were well on their way to locking up the No. 1 seed.
Now they could lose that in just three games. But, it's worth pointing out that there are a couple reasons to not get too hung up on that. One is that all indications are that the playoffs will now take place in hub cities -- likely one per conference -- without fans in attendance, so the entire concept of home-ice advantage goes right out the window.
Another is that none of those top four seeds, including the Bruins, want to go into the conference quarterfinals cold, especially since their opponent will have just played a best-of-five play-in series. Scrimmage games wouldn't bring the type of intensity it takes to get ready for playoff hockey, so this round-robin tournament is one way to ensure those top four seeds play meaningful games before their first series.
Finally, there's no guarantee that anyone's play is going to be reflective of their seeding anyway. There's no precedent for teams returning from a three-and-a-half or four-month break, getting probably three weeks of training camp, and then going right into playoff hockey. The team that was the eighth-best team in the conference before the break -- and therefore presumably the preferred opponent for the top seed -- could very well return from this break playing much better or much worse than what their seed would indicate.
All that said, the Bruins would still rather win this round-robin tournament and hang onto their No. 1 seed than not. With that in mind, it's a worthwhile exercise to take a look back at how Boston has fared against the East's other top-four seeds -- the Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers -- this season.
LightningOct. 17: 4-3 shootout lossDec. 12: 3-2 lossMarch 3: 2-1 winMarch 7: 5-3 loss
The two meetings in the first half of the season probably don't tell us a whole lot, especially with two much more recent games being played between the two. They were both pretty evenly played games that ultimately saw Tampa come out on top.
The March 3 win was one of the Bruins' most encouraging of the season. The Lightning's strong second half had put them in position to potentially challenge the Bruins for the No. 1 seed, but a recent skid -- which coincided with Steven Stamkos' injury -- had allowed the Bruins to reopen a seven-point lead. It felt like this game, in Tampa, was a chance for the Lightning to make one last push, or for the Bruins to put the nail in the coffin. The B's did just that, building up a 2-0 lead and clamping down defensively, holding Tampa to just 21 shots on goal in the game.
In a rematch four days later in Boston, with seemingly not as much to play for standings-wise, the two sides decided to use the occasion to settle some scores, with emotions boiling over to the tune of 94 combined penalty minutes, including four fighting majors, six roughing minors, and seven misconducts of varying sorts. The Bruins' comeback effort ultimately came up short, but the final score isn't really what this one will be remembered for.
A 1-2-1 record against Tampa probably isn't worth getting too worked up over, but if there's one thing to be concerned about it's that this long break should allow the Lightning to have a healthy Stamkos by the time games resume, and the fact remains that the Bruins haven't beaten the Lightning with Stamkos in the lineup yet this season.
CapitalsNov. 16: 3-2 shootout lossDec. 11: 3-2 lossDec. 23: 7-3 win
Games played in November and December won't mean much come July, but it's worth noting that the first two meetings this season marked a continuation of the Bruins' struggles against the Capitals over the last several years, as they dropped them to 1-12-4 in their last 17 games against Washington. T.J. Oshie emerged as a villain, as he scored the tying goal in the final minute of regulation to force overtime on Nov. 16, then scored twice in the Dec. 11 meeting. Longtime Bruins killer Braden Holtby picked up both wins in net, improving his career record against the Bruins to 22-6-0, including playoffs, up to that point.
The Bruins finally broke through in a big way on Dec. 23, though. They ran Holtby from the game in the first period, scoring four goals on their first 11 shots. They eventually built up a 5-0 lead and the Capitals never pulled closer than three goals from there. The Bruins' top line did a good chunk of the damage, as Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak combined for three goals and five assists.
FlyersNov. 10: 3-2 shootout lossJan. 15: 6-5 shootout lossMarch 10: 2-0 win
In case you forgot, allow this to serve as a reminder that the Bruins really stunk in shootouts this season. Fortunately for them, no part of this return-to-play proposal includes adding shootouts to the playoffs. The Nov. 10 meeting saw the Bruins overcome a 2-0 third-period deficit to force overtime before losing in the shootout, while the Jan. 15 meeting saw the Flyers pulling off the comeback, with the Bruins blowing a 5-2 lead before succumbing in the dreaded shootout once again.
The March 10 meeting, in Philadelphia, was the final game for both teams before the season was suspended, and it was an impressive win for the B's. The Flyers entered as the hottest team in the NHL, winners of nine straight. But goals from Bergeron and Matt Grzelcyk and 36 saves from Tuukka Rask lifted the Bruins to a shutout victory and had them feeling good... at least for about 40 hours until the season was put on hold.