The Bruins will open up the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Saturday against the Flyers in a matchup of the conference’s sixth and seventh seeds. Boston will have home ice for the series by virtue of the bottom three seeds in the tournament upsetting the top three. This will be the second season in a row that Boston has home ice in the semifinals after claiming it as the top overall seed in the East last year.
Boston won the season series 2-1-1, including a dramatic 2-1 win over the Flyers in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day. The Bruins lost the first two in the series (one in a shootout) before taking the last two, the final a 5-1 thumping in Philadelphia on March 11. The B's outscored the Flyers 11-9, with about half of that coming by virtue of that the five-goal outburst in the final meeting.
The Flyers beat the second-seeded Devils in five games and will have had an eight-day layoff by the time the puck is dropped in Game 1. Will they be well rested and ready to take on the resurgent Bruins, or will they come out rusty and let Boston have a quick advantage on home ice?
Let’s take a look at three reasons why the Bruins or Flyers will advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
Why the Bruins will win:
TUUKKA RASK AND THE DEFENSE
The rookie goaltender is unflappable these days. He carries an aura of confidence around him on and off the ice. He has a selective memory of goals he has allowed but knows when he has let in a couple of soft ones and it is time to buckle down. Rask outdueled the likely Vezina Trophy winner and Olympic darling Ryan Miller in the quarterfinals, posting a 2.18 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. Rask has not been the best goaltender in the playoffs, but he has been one of the hottest down the stretch of the regular season and he already has stolen one series for the Bruins, that one against a higher seed.
SPECIAL TEAMS CONTINUE TO DELIVER
The Bruins held the Sabres scoreless on 19 power plays in the quarterfinals, and it was no fluke. Boston was the third-best penalty-killing team in the league in 2009-10 (the Sabres were No. 2). On the flip end, the Boston power play, which had had one goal in 25 chances in the final stretch of the regular season, got its wheels back on with six man-advantage goals in 22 opportunities, good for a 27.3 percent conversion rate, fourth best in the playoffs so far. The Boston power play has been helped with a couple of different looks from coach Claude Julien — such as putting centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci on the same unit and having two right-handed shots (Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick) manning the point.
Boston also will get one of its better power-play players back as Marc Savard makes his return to the lineup after missing the end of the regular season and the series against the Sabres while recovering from a Grade 2 concussion suffered March 7 against Pittsburgh. It remains to be seen how Julien will configure the power-play units, but Savard definitely will see time on one of the two — though it would be surprising to see the coach break up the successful Bergeron-Krejci combination.
YOUNGSTERS STEP IT UP
For the B's young core, Krejci and Milan Lucic specifically, this is the second time around in the playoffs and second year in a row that they have gone to the conference semifinals. Krejci was good against Buffalo, tied for the team lead in points with five (with Bergeron, Miroslav Satan and Mark Recchi) and goals with three (Recchi). In the dramatic 2008 seven-game quarterfinals series against the Canadiens that the Bruins lost, Krejci was just starting to come into his own as an NHL center, posting five points (a goal and four assists) in that series. Last year he had eight points in Boston’s 11 playoff games (two goals, six assists) and posted a plus-8 for the tournament. The Bruins are looking for him to carry his strong play that started after the Olympic break (6 goals and 15 assists in 22 games) to really give Boston depth at the center position with Savard and Bergeron and possibly Vladimir Sobotka, who had a great series against the Sabres, at times. As of Wednesday Sobotka was playing left wing on a line with Savard, but it would not surprise anyone of Julien put Sobotka on the fourth line at times, bumping Steve Begin to the wing, especially when the Bruins need to win a faceoff. Sobotka is excellent on the dot, shoring up a weakness in the B's game during the regular season, and is fifth in the playoffs in faceoffs won at 58.6 percent.
Look for Lucic to have some big games against the Flyers as well. It looks like he is moving his feet as well as he has since sustaining a high ankle sprain earlier in the year, and he had a strong third period of Game 6, creating space and opportunities with two assists against Buffalo to help put the series away. He probably will be on the left of Krejci to start and should give the Czech center some space in which to operate.
Why the Flyers will win:
The Flyers were one of the better scoring teams in the NHL during the regular season, ranking eighth overall at 2.83 goals per game. In contrast, the Bruins were dead last in the league in scoring at 2.39 and were the only team in the league to fail to break the 200-goal plateau. The Flyers have four players on their roster who would have led the Bruins in points (Bergeron and Krejci were tied with 52 apiece) in Mike Richards (62), Jeff Carter (61), Chris Pronger (55) and Danny Briere (53).
Even without Carter, who had surgery last week and will be on crutches for six weeks and have a shaft inserted into one of his second toes, the Flyers still have more top-end scoring power than the Bruins had during the season. The Flyers also will be without Simon Gagne (40 points in the regular season through 58 games) because he also sustained a toe injury and will miss at least two more weeks. He may be available toward the end of the series, but the Flyers will have to ride without him for the first five games at least.
BRIAN BOUCHER CONTINUES TO STAND ON HIS HEAD
The unlikeliest goaltender to carry a playoff series in the quarterfinals was definitely Brian Boucher. One of the reasons the Flyers went into a free fall at the end of the regular season and were the last team to qualify for the playoffs was because they lacked any kind of quality goaltending. The top two netminders the Flyers had in Ray Emery and Michael Leighton went down to injuries during the regular season (Emery gone for the entire year with a right hip injury and Leighton with a high ankle sprain suffered against Nashville on March 16) and Boucher was 9-18-3 for Philadelphia with a 2.76 GAA and .899 save percentage in relief. Emery and Leighton were 33-20-3 combined.
But Boucher was key against the Devils in the first round and leads the league in all goaltender playoff statistics with a .940 save percentage and 1.59 GA as well as being second in shutouts with one in the Flyers' Game 5 series-clincher. Boston will know right off the bat if the eight-day layoff cooled down the red-hot Boucher when the puck drops at TD Garden on Saturday.
FLYERS BREAK DOWN B'S SYSTEM/RASK
The Bruins and Devils play a very similar game — tight defense predicated around great goaltending. Julien and Devils coach Jacques Lemaire (who retired after the end of the Flyers series) employ a similar strategy that stresses tight defensive pinches on the half walls and neutral zone and keeps opponents from creating too much momentum on the rush.
Philadelphia did not seem to have too much trouble doing that against New Jersey, outscoring the top defensive team in the league 15-9, good for an average of three goals a game in the five-game series. In many ways the Bruins were the Devils-lite this season, finishing second in goals allowed with 191 (to New Jersey's 186), and New Jersey employs one of the best goaltenders in the history of the NHL in Martin Brodeur. Rask may be the hot new thing on the market, but Brodeur has been carrying teams through playoff series for 17 years, winning three championships with the Devils. He may be getting a little long in the tooth, but for Philadelphia to break down Lemaire’s system and get to Brodeur, that should be a cause for concern in Boston.