Two of the Bruins’ most exciting games of the season have come in the last two weeks: A 4-3 win over Toronto at TD Garden on Jan. 14, and Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Lightning in Tampa.
That shouldn’t be too surprising. Boston is obviously the best team in the NHL. The Maple Leafs and Lightning are both arguably in the top five.
The games were an absolute treat to watch. Exciting, physical, fast-paced, playoff-type hockey. They were also a reminder of why it’s so important that the Bruins are running away with first place in the Atlantic Division.
Because of the NHL’s divisional playoff format, Toronto and Tampa Bay are nearly already locked into a first-round series with each other. The Bruins are 12 points ahead of the second-place Leafs. The Lightning are eight points ahead of the fourth-place Sabres with a game in hand. While it’s not impossible that one of those gaps closes, it seems unlikely.
You want to be the one-seed that gets to avoid that two vs. three dogfight. You want to be the team that only has to go through one of your fellow Atlantic powerhouses rather than both of them. You want to face a wild card team instead and hope the Leafs and Bolts slug it out for seven games like they did last season, or like the Bruins and Leafs have done in the past.
Obviously, it’s not a foolproof formula. In 2019, the Lightning were the team that ran away with that one-seed and avoided Boston and Toronto in the first round… only to get swept by Columbus instead in one of the most shocking playoff series in recent NHL history. Still, if you have the choice of having to face both of these divisional rivals or just one of them, you’re picking one.
There’s been some talk recently about whether the Bruins should care about the single-season points record, which they remain on pace to break. While it would be a nice feather in their cap, it obviously isn’t anywhere close to their No. 1 goal.
They absolutely should care about getting the top seed, though, because that helps them achieve their No. 1 goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup. Not only would it allow them to avoid Toronto or Tampa in the first round, but it would also give them home-ice advantage.
While home ice isn’t quite as important in hockey as it is in other sports, you’d still prefer to have it. Plus, all the East’s top teams except for the Devils have been excellent at home this season. The Bruins are 22-1-3 at home. The Leafs are 19-3-4. The Lightning are 19-4-1. The Hurricanes, the top team in the Metropolitan Division right now, are 14-5-2. Every little edge helps.
The Bruins have put themselves in a great position with this unbelievable four-month stretch. They’re now 38-6-4 and still 12 points better than any other team in the league. If they keep this up, they’ll give themselves enough of a cushion to get some players some rest down the stretch if they want.
There was nothing from Thursday night that should be overly concerning if you’re the Bruins. One of the Lightning’s goals came on a rare breakdown from the Bruins’ penalty kill. Another came immediately after an uncalled faceoff violation by Steven Stamkos. The third came when Brandon Carlo lost his footing and inadvertently collided with Linus Ullmark, leaving an open net for Victor Hedman. The biggest concern was an injury scare for Charlie McAvoy, who crashed hard into the boards but quickly returned to the game.
“It was a great game, wasn’t it?,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said in his postgame interview with NESN. “I thought it was back and forth all night long. I think the biggest difference -- and this is where we can grow -- there were a couple details in goals against where we made mistakes in how we want to play things. That’s the difference in the playoffs, and this was a playoff-type game. You need to execute in big moments, and tonight unfortunately we didn’t. But it’s an opportunity for us to learn and grow and get better.”
It was a great game. It did feel like the playoffs. It was also a reminder of why it’s so important for the Bruins to finish first and only have to face one of Tampa or Toronto in the postseason.