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After a full 82 games composed of highs & lows, injuries & late additions, and joy & (mostly) anger, the Boston Bruins managed to do what some felt was impossible at some points during the season: make the playoffs. Despite scoring the second-fewest goals in the entire league (206 to squeeze by the Calgary Flames’ 204), the B’s clinched the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference to set up a first-round series against the Northeast-Division-winning Buffalo Sabres, a fairly well-known and – shockingly – favorable opponent.
The Bruins and Sabres haven’t played against each other in the playoffs since 1999, when Buffalo won the series, but this season they faced each other six times over the course of the season, as division opponents always do, with Boston going 4-2-0 for eight out of a possible 12 points. Their most recent game was last week, when Dennis Wideman showed up to play in the Bruins’ 3-1 victory. Over the course of the teams’ six games, they combined for only 26 goals, which is hardly a surprise coming from two very defensively-minded teams with exceptional goaltending, and it is unlikely much will change in the playoffs.
This series will feature the top two league leaders in both goals against average and save percentage; some might be surprised to find out that US Olympian, recent silver medal winner, and Vezina Trophy candidate Ryan Miller of the Sabres is second in both of those categories to Boston’s very own Tuukka Rask, who wasn’t even selected by Finland to play in last February’s Winter Olympics. Rask, with a 1.97 GAA and a .931 save percentage this season, played exceptionally well against the Sabres, posting 1.43 GAA, a .954 save percentage and a 4-1-0 record. There’s no question that he will start in place of Miller’s Team USA backup, Tim Thomas, but Rask has never played in the playoffs and posted such incredible stats starting only 39 games (22-12-5), as opposed to Miller’s 2.22 GAA and .929 save percentage over the course of 68 starts. Additionally, in two of Boston’s wins against the Sabres, Miller’s backups, Patrick Lalime and Jhonas Enroth were playing; Miller never allowed more than two goals against the Bruins. For Boston to win this series, Rask will need to keep his cool, which simply translates to not doing this.
Part of the reason Rask’s statistics are so impressive and one of the two reasons the Bruins even made the playoffs (Rask being the other) is the team’s defense. They allowed only 200 goals, second fewest behind only Marty Brodeur’s New Jersey Devils. Buffalo’s defense only allowed seven more than the Bruins and actually finished ahead of Boston’s well-known penalty kill by two-tenths of a percent (86.6% to 84.4%). Because both teams are essentially even on the blue line, the keys to the defensive battle will come down to injuries (see below) and endurance. With such low scoring teams, it’s likely a fair number of these games will be decided by overtime (and only overtime since there are no shootouts). As many fans will remember, Boston’s tired defense blew last season’s Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, which cannot happen this year if the Bruins want to upset the Sabres.
In addition to staying awake, the Bruins will need to score goals in order to win. Their offense managed only 15 goals against the Sabres during the season and, as if fans needed reminding, got only 191 other pucks to touch the back of the net. Buffalo’s offense clicked well enough throughout the season to score 235 goals (11th in the entire league), which is only 29 more than the Bruins, but still a huge difference when the series is going to be a defensive battle. The Bruins deserve kudos for still simply scoring without Phil Kessel and Marc Savard, but kudos don’t win playoff games.
Throughout the season, the Bruins were hindered by injuries, none more so than Marc Savard’s, but the team did not get much healthier as they entered the playoffs. Joining Savard (concussion) on the injured list will be Dennis Seidenburg (wrist), who is out for eight weeks (and, therefore, essentially the season), and Mark Stuart (pinkie). Andrew Ference, who is expected to play after missing nine games after another groin injury, is a welcome return, but the Bruins cannot rely on someone who requires off-season surgery to replace both Seidenburg and Stuart.
Buffalo managed to do the opposite of Boston and actually get healthy as the season ended. While the Sabres lost Jochen Hecht (upper body) and Drew Stafford (concussion, questionable to play), they regained the services of Tim Connelly, Thomas Vanek, Raffi Torres, and Patrick Kaleta as the season ended. Vanek, who scored four goals against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday to finish with 28 on the season, will certainly factor in as an impact player for the Sabres.
Behind the bench, the coaches, too, are evenly matched. Both Claude Julien of the Bruins and Lindy Ruff of the Sabres are Jack Adams Award-winners and both former defensemen in the NHL, which explains their strong defense-first systems. While Julien is in only his third season with the Bruins, Ruff has been at the helm of Buffalo for 14 years, having been a Stanley Cup finalist once (1999) and an Eastern Conference finalist three times (1998, 2006, 2007). Clearly Ruff, who also won a gold medal as one of Team Canada’s associate coaches in Vancouver, has the edge in experience, but he’s never been able to quite make it all of the way. Brett Hull had something to do with that, but maybe Ruff just isn’t quite lucky enough to win it all.
Clearly goaltending, injuries, and endurance will all factor into this matchup, but experience may as well. While Rask has no playoff experience, he has four Stanley Cup rings in front of him: Mark Recchi (two), Miroslav Satan, and Shawn Thornton. Comparatively, Miller has zero.
Additionally, the Sabres are from Buffalo, one of the most cursed cities in all of major league sports. How many straight Super Bowls did the city lose during the 1990s? Four. How did they end the decade? Losing in the Stanley Cup Finals on an erroneous call. Then again, the Bruins haven’t won the Stanley Cup since the Jacobs family bought the team.
Of all of the first-round playoff matchups, the Boston-Buffalo tilt promises to be one of the most contested. While it will most likely lack the offensive excitement a Capitals or Penguins series might have, expect every game to be exciting because of how low the scoring will be. Whoever’s goaltender stays sharper for longer will eventually take this series. While Miller has had a stellar year in both the NHL and Olympics, it isn’t too much of a stretch to see the Bruins win this one. Bruins in 7.
Game 1: @ Buffalo, Thursday, 7 p.m. (NESN, CBC)
Game 2: @ Buffalo, Saturday, 1 p.m. (NBC, CBC)
Game 3: @ Boston, Monday, April 19, 7 p.m. (NESN, Versus, CBC)
Game 4: @ Boston, Wednesday, April 21, 7 p.m. (NESN, Versus, CBC)
*Game 5: @ Buffalo, Friday, April 23, 7 p.m. (NESN, CBC)
*Game 6: @ Boston, Monday, April 26, 7 p.m. (NESN, CBC)
*Game 7: @ Buffalo, Wednesday, April 28, 7 p.m. (NESN, CBC)