The Boston Bruins are currently trailing 3-1 in their series against the Ottawa Senators. Multiple injuries have forced the team into assembling a ragtag group of defenders to man the blue line, something no team wants to have to do during the season, much less during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite being banged up and facing an elimination game on away ice, there’s still reason to believe the Bruins are capable of not only extending the series but coming all the way back to win it in seven games.
In the NHL playoffs, teams have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-seven series 229 times. Among those, 20 times have the teams that found themselves in such a hole rallied back to rattle off three straight wins to take the series. Boston’s been on the losing end of this phenomenon twice, the first being during the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against rival Montreal. The second time happened in 2010 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Philadelphia.
Looking at the playoff formats for the four major North American spots, the NHL’s is the hardest to predict. The bounce of a puck or one penalty at the wrong time can decide a game. Despite dealing with injuries, Boston is actually playing well enough to be leading in their series against Ottawa. The fact is, bad penalties, both deserved and undeserved, and a thin bench are why the Bruins are on the brink of elimination. Let’s take a look back at things one game at a time.
The Bruins entered their series against the Senators having lost seven of the last eight matchups between the two teams dating back to 2015. The team was without puck-moving d-man Torey Krug, who figured to be a key piece to solving the Ottawa neutral zone trap puzzle. David Krejci, a playoff performer who led the NHL in postseason points in both 2011 and 2013, was also out. Couple this with absence of young defender Brandon Carlo and scary knee on knee collision that knocked blueliner Colin Miller out of the game, and the Bruins were destined to be down in the series right out of the gate. Instead, Boston won the game 2-1.
Entering the third period, the Senators had a 1-0 lead thanks to Thomas Vanek, I mean, Bobby Ryan, who has turned into a somewhat of a Bruins killer this series with two game-winning goals in games three and four (as well as drawing the game three penalty on Riley Nash which led to Ryan’s power play goal in overtime). The Bruins responded with a goal from Massachusetts-native Frank Vatrano and sealed the deal with a go-ahead goal with 2:33 remaining from Brad Marchand who is in the midst of a career-year.
Suddenly, the Bruins had momentum entering game two. Trade deadline pickup Drew Stafford broke the scoreless stalemate midway through the second period. A little over a minute later, Ottawa responded with an emotional goal from Clarke MacArthur who returned to the Senators lineup after missing the last 18 months while dealing with concussion issues. Instead of sinking into a shell, the Bruins went on the attack with Tim Schaller taking advantage of a Craig Anderson puck mishandle and regaining the lead. Later in the period, captain-in-waiting Patrice Bergeron had a ridiculous tip on a David Pastrnak shot on the power play to beat Anderson and give the Bruins a two-goal cushion.
With the Bruins in the driver’s seat and looking to steal two games in Ottawa, things quickly went south. Highly touted draft pick Charlie McAvoy is having a fantastic series. Essentially forced into playing first-pairing minutes with several injuries to the Bruins, McAvoy has handled the pressure of playing in the playoffs with veteran-like poise. However, his one big mistake in game two has really hurt the Bruins. In the opening minutes of the third period, the Canadian Tire Centre was so quiet you could hear fans discussing their Shawarma orders for after the game. The Sens were moving the puck around the Bruins zone looking for an opening. Charlie McAvoy couldn’t clear the front of his net, screening Tuukka Rask in the process, and Chris Wideman fired a puck that Rask never saw into the back of the net.
Suddenly, Ottawa had life. The rink exploded into cheers and blinding red lights, The Senators rode the momentum wave by scoring again less than two minutes later to tie things up. The Bruins were on their heels but were hoping to hit the reset button in overtime. However, a gassed Zdeno Chara, whose time on ice eclipsed the half hour mark due to the black and gold defense being black and blue, lofted a puck over the glass in an attempt to kill time in the final minute of regulation. Because of this error from one of the game’s ultimate veteran presences, the Bruins entered overtime shorthanded. The team made the kill, but its effect led to an unfavorable line out on the ice when Dion Phaneuf scored the game winner less than two minutes into the extra period.
The Senators fed off that energy to start game three, jumping out to a three goal lead. Perhaps the Bruins were inspired by their opponents’ performance in the last game. Boston scored the game’s next three goals, all in the second period. Neither team could score in the third, but the Bruins were feeding off energy from their home crowd and were dictating play entering overtime. However, Riley Nash was hit along the boards and subsequently targeted in the head by Bobby Ryan. In retaliation, Nash threw a jab that had Ryan sprawling to the ice. The referees sent Nash to the box, and it was Ryan who soon after tapped a pass from Kyle Turris past Rask to give the Senators the victory. An irate Bruce Cassidy called the penalty, “Demoralizing and disappointing,” after the game, as much of the hockey community thought Ryan should be in the box as well with a minor penalty. Instead, he was out on the ice to score the game-winner.
Now for last night’s contest. The Bruins d-corps saw the return of Colin Miller, but the team was still without regular defenders Brandon Carlo, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug. In a grinding game, the Bruins thought they drew first blood midway through the second period when Noel Acciari tipped a shot past Anderson. However, Senators head coach Guy Boucher challenged the play and it was ruled that the Bruins were offside, negating the goal despite it coming nearly 20 seconds after zone entry. In the third period, Bobby Ryan got around McAvoy and fired one on Rask who made the initial stop but couldn’t get to Ryan’s rebound. He slid the puck past a downed Rask and Chara to score the lone goal of the game. Anderson had a stellar performance, making an aggressive stop on Marchand in the first period and a sprawling save on Krejci with about a minute left in the third.
So what have we learned when breaking down this series so far game-by-game? That the Bruins are a very injured bunch at the wrong time? Yes. That the team has taken some penalties at the wrong time? Affirmative. That the offside challenge rule needs to be overhauled and/or clarified? Absolutely. But have the Bruins been outplayed this series? No, not really.
This series has seen incredible shifts in momentum not only from game to game but from period to period. Through two games, the Bruins had just two shots on goal less than the Senators, something Ottawa’s twitter account mistakenly highlighted in game one, which the team lost. Furthermore, between the two games, Boston gave the puck up 17 times while Ottawa lost possession a whopping 36 times. When the series shifted to the TD Garden, the Senators started peppering the Bruins with shots, taking advantage of a further depleted Boston blue line and getting 59 pucks to Rask. In games three and four combined , the Bruins only had 42 shots on goal. The Senators also took better care of the puck when they had it, with just 15 giveaways in games three and four combined to the Bruins’ 17.
Despite the statistical difference in games three and four, an eye test watching the games will show any viewer that the Bruins have not been outplayed in the series. Boston has been forced to put usual healthy scratches and players who were in college or down in Providence a few weeks ago into their defensive pairings. These players have come through. John-Michael Liles has two assists in four games, and Tommy Cross and Charlie McAvoy have an assist apiece.
The winner of every game this series has scored just one goal more than their opponent. Take away the Chara and Nash penalties in games three and four, and the Bruins could have been leading this series 3-2. The offside challenge, through technically the right call last night, is a flawed system, and the league knows it.
Being bounced from the playoffs in five games looks bad, but the series currently reading Senators up 3-1 does not tell the whole story of how close these games have been. Furthermore, Cassidy has injected life into this franchise since the firing of Claude Julien back in February. Under Julien, the Bruins were scoring just 2.56 goals per game while giving up 2.67. For Cassidy, those numbers are 3.37 and 2.30, respectively. With just 58 points in 55 games under Julien, Boston was on pace to miss the playoffs for a third straight year.
The Bruins also boast some of the best young talent in the league, as fans have already seen the emergence of some of those players such as McAvoy and Pastrnak among others. Cassidy spent eight years in Providence and has coached many of the team’s prospects as well as current veterans such as Marchand, McQuaid and Rask. Unlike Julien, who often kept a leash on his young talent and relied too heavily on his veterans, Cassidy has encouraged his players of all ages to be more creative with the puck and to take good shots rather than redirecting a shot from a point in hopes that it beats the goalie. With the Bruins preparing to see a rapid influx of mid-90s-born players, the right man is behind the bench at the right time and deserves a full season as head coach next year, regardless of this series’ outcome.
With all that said, the Bruins still have a very legitimate chance at playing past Friday night. While Carlo, Krug, and McQuaid are likely to be out, the team still has plenty of talent and experience on the roster. On paper, Rask is a better goalie than Anderson. He was outdueled in Wednesday night’s game, but could very well steal some contests ahead. The Bruins are down, but not yet out. As the series has shown, one team just needs to score one more goal than its opponent. For the Bruins, an offside challenge going their way, a penalty at the right time, or the return of a key player on the blue line, could help them achieve that.
Game five will take place on Friday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m.