The Red Wings will be a pretty tough matchup for the Bruins, but the Bruins are a nightmare matchup for anyone.
The first round of the playoffs matches the Bruins against a Detroit team that handled them in the regular season (the Red Wings won three of the four games, including a 6-1 drubbing at Joe Louis Arena on Nov. 27), and is getting healthier than it was for much of the season.
The Bruins haven’t seen Pavel Datsyuk since Oct. 14, but he’s back. Henrik Zetterberg could return from back surgery at some point as well. As such, the Bruins will see a different Red Wings team than they saw over their last couple of meetings.
"I think they’re a classic puck possession team," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Monday. "You can tell they’re very well-coached. For a team that skates, a team that moves the puck well, they’re strong on the puck. I think that’s a bit of a trickle-down from guys like Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who are among the best puck-strippers in the league.
"I think their defense [is] good -- they’re a little young, we’re young, too, on the D. They’ve got a good goalie. They won the season series against us; we played really poorly a couple of games. I’ve watched them quite a bit down the stretch and they’re a good team. They’ve got injuries, they’ve got young guys that are performing well. It’s a different ballgame in the playoffs, but certainly they’ve got speed and they’ve got some youth."
Here’s a look at how the teams match up.
Detroit suffered a ton of injuries to its star players on offense this season, as Datsyuk (37 games missed), Zetterberg (37), Johan Franzen (28), Stephen Weiss (56) and Daniel Alfredsson (14) all saw plenty of time out of the lineup.
Weiss is done for the season, but all the other aforementioned players except for Zetterberg are back in the lineup. Zetterberg has been ruled out for Games 1 and 2 against the Bruins, but he could return at some point in the series. If he does and is effective (he hasn't played since the Olympics), that's a huge boost for the Red Wings. Zetterberg did the nearly impossible -- score a five-on-five goal against the Bruins with both Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara on the ice -- twice this season. The B's only allowed one such goal all last season.
The injuries up front for Detroit required some young players to step up, and they did, most notably 24-year-old University of Maine product Gustav Nyquist, who led the team with 28 goals, and Tomas Tatar (19 goals). As great as Nyquist was -- he also scored a five-on-five goal against Chara and Bergeron -- he was the Red Wings' only 20-goal-scorer.
The Bruins, meanwhile, had two 30-goal-scorers (Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron) and five 20-goal-scorers (Iginla, Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith). The Bruins finished third in goals this season (3.15 per game), while the Red Wings' 16th-best 2.65 goals per game would have been a lot higher had they had Datsyuk and Zetterberg the whole way.
Watch out for the Bruins' first line in this series -- and the entire playoffs, for that matter. David Krejci has led the NHL in postseason scoring in two of the last three seasons, while Jarome Iginla is coming off a very strong regular season, has had the last couple of weeks to rest and is highly motivated to win his first Stanley Cup.
Regardless of which line the Bruins play against Datsyuk, it should make for great hockey, as Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron and Krejci all are elite two-way centers. Datsyuk has won the Selke three times, Bergeron should win his second this season, and Krejci's play in the 2011 postseason led to comparisons to Datsyuk. At the time, Krejci said Datsyuk was "the best player in the world."
Even if the teams' top two lines negate each other -- which they might not given how good Bergeron has been -- the Bruins' third line of Carl Soderberg between Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson can be a series-changer the way the team's third line was in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. The Merlot Line, meanwhile, should be hopeful that the long layoff until the series begins Friday means that Daniel Paille will be ready to go for Game 1.
Detroit has a lot of highly skilled players who know how to win, but the Bruins have a balanced offense and star players who have won more recently.
Put it this way: You'd probably want Zdeno Chara and a bunch of other guys rather than most groups in the NHL.
Chara deserves to win his second Norris Trophy (he probably won't), but even his pairing deserves some watching early in the series, as it won't be Dennis Seidenberg beside him. Instead, it will be Dougie Hamilton, who sat out the final two rounds of last postseason as a healthy scratch. Hamilton had a good sophomore season, but this undoubtedly will be the biggest challenge he's faced in his brief NHL career.
As for the rest of those other guys, it would appear that the team has given Matt Bartkowski the keys, as he looks to be the favorite to play Andrew Ference's role as the team's second-pairing left defenseman alongside Johnny Boychuk. Bartkowski served in that role last postseason against the Rangers. The Red Wings didn't have much trouble exposing Andrej Meszaros in the teams' final regular-season meeting, though Meszaros figures to be a healthy scratch when the series opens.
Kevan Miller has solidified the team's third pairing as Adam McQuaid missed 52 games in the regular season. Torey Krug was a big-time playoff performer against the Rangers last year (four goals in five games), but struggled in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Red Wings likely will be without one of their top defensemen in Jonathan Ericsson, who was third on the team in average time on ice but has had a slow recovery from finger surgery last month.
Reilly Smith's parents probably like Detroit's defense, as Smith's older brother, Brendan Smith, has been playing on Detroit's top pairing in place of Ericsson alongside Niklas Kronwall. Danny DeKeyser and Kyle Quincy have made up Detroit's second pairing, with Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff serving as the team's third pairing.
The numbers don't lie: The Bruins led the league in differential by a mile with a plus-84 rating (the next best was plus-57), while the Red Wings were the only team to make a playoff with a negative differential (minus-8).
The Bruins held the Red Wings to 1-for-8 on the power play in their four meetings this season while going 1-for-12 themselves on the power play. In Detroit’s power play’s defense, Datsyuk only played in two of those games. The Red Wings missed both Datsyuk and Zetterberg on the man advantage this season, as they finished 18th in the NHL with a 17.7 success rate.
The Bruins had the third-best power play in the NHL, scoring on 21.7 percent of their man advantages. However, they finished dead last in the NHL with 230 power plays.
What paints the Bruins’ special teams picture best is the fact that they were one of two teams to finish in the top 10 in both power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage, as they killed off 83.6 of opponents’ power plays, good for eighth in the league. Detroit finished 12th in the league with an 83.0 kill rate.
It’s worth noting that Chara was injured pretty badly by the end of the last postseason. Given that he plays in front of the net on the power play now, this postseason could be even more physically taxing.
University of Maine product Jimmy Howard (the Red Wings roster is pretty much Swedish players and UMaine players) had a down season. After a rough first couple of months, he suffered a knee injury and used the recovery as something of a goaltending sabbatical. His inconsistency continued down the stretch, though he finished with five straight performances in which he held the opponent to two goals (4-1-0).
The 30-year-old Howard (side note: Jimmy Howard is 30, and we all should feel old) has never played past the second round in the postseason, but he did allow fewer goals to the Blackhawks last postseason in seven games (15) than Tuukka Rask did in six (16).
Rask was perhaps the best goalie in the NHL this season, leading the league with seven shutouts and finishing second with a .930 save percentage. He was tremendous last postseason before the Blackhawks finally broke through, and his playoff performance (which included two goals allowed over a four-game sweep of the Penguins) was a big reason why he was given an eight-year, $56 million contract.
The Red Wings might have been a much scarier match in the second round or the Eastern Conference finals, as they would have had a healthy Zetterberg for the full series and would have had the swagger that comes with being a low seed that had knocked off a couple of teams already. Plus, there's no telling which injuries the Bruins might have suffered by then.
Instead, the Bruins are playing Detroit right off the bat with a healthy Chara, a very confident Rask and a highly motivated Iginla.
Yes, the Bruins played their worst regular-season game against the Wings, but that was the regular season. The 2011-12 B's played their worst game against the Sabres, and they sure wouldn't have been afraid of that team had they met in the playoffs.
The Red Wings are a better team than the No. 8 seed suggests, but ultimately Boston's great offense will have an easier time scoring goals than Detroit's very good offense.
Remember: Until the Stanley Cup finals, the Bruins should be expected to win every series they play.
PREDICTION: Bruins in 6