With only six games remaining in the regular season, the Bruins find themselves in an optimistic situation -- they may just be playing their best hockey of the year.
They have a playoff berth almost guaranteed, needing just one point in the standings or a Rangers loss in any of their final four games to send them into the postseason.
With the direction they’re trending, the Bruins may just be elevating their play at the perfect time to energize the team for playoff hockey and give them confidence that they can be Stanley Cup contenders.
And it does seem as though the Bruins are reaching a new height on offense. They’ve scored 40 goals in their past 11 games, with 14 different goal scorers, including Charlie Coyle and Sean Kuraly breaking out of lengthy goal droughts and Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar both contributing after being acquired at the trade deadline. In that span they are 9-2-0 and have scored 21 more goals than their opponents.
Bruins winger Craig Smith commented on whether the quality of play for his team is peaking at the right time, saying, "Yeah, I mean this is a good time to do it. It's the time of year where you're focusing internally and where your game is at.
"I think the halfway mark is kind of a report card," Smith added. "I thought everybody made a good switch and you know if you didn't like where you were, and you didn't like how you were playing, I think there were some changes that you could make, and I think that we've done that. We’re continuing to build. Though we're still a work in progress, I think we’re still as a team working to recalibrate every night and try to be a little bit better.
"Everyone's building to play for the crest. It might be the smallest detail that could win a game and this time of the year those are going to be the biggest things to make the push."
The Bruins' success in April is a positive sign of what may be to come for them in the playoffs but there are still challenges Boston could face, top among them: deciding on the team's optimal playoff lineup and dealing with fatigue from a condensed schedule.
Are all four lines solidified and playoff ready?
One challenge heading into the final stretch of the season was that the Bruins hadn’t solidified the personnel on their bottom two lines, but after the success the team has had since mid-April some of the pieces are now falling into place.
The top two lines are likely set how they are: with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak on top and Taylor Hall, David Krejci and Craig Smith second.
As for the third line, which has struggled to find its identity throughout the year and has seen a lot of shuffling, Cassidy seems to be settling on a combination of Nick Ritchie at left wing, Sean Kuraly at center and Charlie Coyle at right wing.
“Listen, you do what you have to do to put the best lineup together and find chemistry, and right now with Ritchie, they're big bodies and if they continue to sort of play in behind teams, be hard, recover pucks, they're going to be hard to play against,” Cassidy said, explaining why he likes the size and strength of that grouping.
“So we'd like to build that mentality into the [third] line. Get teams to understand or know that that's what they're up against after some skill lines. They're going to have a heavier line. And then a speed line, whatever the case may be, so that they all have their identity.”
An uptick in play has allowed Cassidy to feel more comfortable with those formations for his top three lines rather than giving him a need to tinker with them. The Bergeron line has scored 14 goals in the last 11 games, the Krejci line has scored 16, and each member of the third line has scored in the previous two games.
“You’re just trying to play your best hockey at the right time, and I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve got some work to do, but I think we’ve got a locker room that’s starting to get pretty excited,” Kurally said after the Bruins’ 6-2 win over Buffalo on Saturday.
The fourth line is still a work in progress, though it seems like at least Lazar will be a fixture there. Jake DeBrusk is still without a sure place in the top three lines and Cassidy will have to decide whether or not to keep him on the fourth line, where he was Saturday, or to make him a healthy scratch, as he has done twice this week. Karson Kuhlman, Chris Wagner and Trent Frederic could factor in on that line as well.
Defensively, Boston will be getting back Brandon Carlo. After missing 27 games with injuries, he is expected to step in for Connor Clifton, which would leave the most likely top six playoff defensemen as: Jeremy Lauzon, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Kevan Miller, Mike Reilly and Carlo. While it's not yet completely clear how they'll be matched together, it seems Cassidy is leaning towards Lauzon-McAvoy, Grzelcyk-Miller and Reilly-Carlo.
How will the unique 2021 condensed season and playoff structure affect the Bruins' Cup run?
With a condensed season in which the Bruins are only playing seven of the league's other 30 teams, Boston could be facing new challenges in the postseason.
All teams will be dealing with the physical burdens of a compact schedule. For the Bruins, their 15 games in 29 days in the month of April -- including four cases of back-to-back games -- have the potential to accelerate the rate in which the team wears down.
On the upside, the mini-series formats and high volume of games against the same opponent have brought out playoff intensity in parts of the regular season already, and the Bruins will have already had a good sample of games against the teams they will face in the first two rounds of the postseason.
Another hurdle in the playoffs for teams that advance out of the division will be handling the new playoff structure. The four teams who make it to the Stanley Cup semifinals will all be facing opponents they haven't played the whole season.
It may not seem like an issue in the East Division if the Bruins end up seeded fourth, but if they make it to the semis, get re-seeded based on their regular season point totals, and are placed in the new final four bracket, that’s when that lower finish could hurt them. For example, they could end up playing a true top team like the Golden Knights instead of perhaps a lesser team that makes a surprising run to get out of its division.
This year the Bruins are hoping for a smoother transition into the playoffs than last year. In 2020 they won the President’s Trophy as the top team in the Eastern Conference but had their momentum killed by the COVID-19 pause and could never really get back up to speed in the playoffs.
“Hopefully we’re not going to see that again, something like that, where you get stopped and you start up again and who knows how that's going to go,” Kuraly said. “But this year I think we're trying to build our game and we know what our ultimate goal is here.”