Three most likely first-round playoff opponents for Bruins

Three most likely first-round playoff opponents for Bruins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins haven’t locked up a spot in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs just yet, but they will at some point soon, thus extending their postseason appearance streak to eight years (which would tie the Toronto Maple Leafs for the longest active streak).

At this point last season, we knew the B’s would finish first in the Atlantic Division and claim the Presidents’ Trophy. We pretty much knew that would happen in January, frankly.

This year is different. The Bruins could still finish atop the division (and even repeat as Presidents’ Trophy winners), but placing second behind the red-hot Florida Panthers is a more likely scenario. There are four or five teams the Bruins could realistically play in the first round of the playoffs, depending on where they finish.

Here’s a breakdown of the Bruins’ three most likely playoff opponents as of Wednesday, March 13.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The best-case scenario for the Bruins is playing against the Maple Leafs in Round 1. Sure, the Leafs are super-talented and boast more offensive skill than just about any team. Auston Matthews is going to hit the 60-goal mark again and could win the Hart Trophy for the second time.

But the Bruins have a clear advantage on the blue line and in net. The B’s also have a mental edge over their division rivals, which was clear in last Thursday’s showdown at TD Garden, where Boston extended its win streak over Toronto to seven games.

The Leafs tried to be physical, led by Tyler Bertuzzi, who was pushing and shoving his former teammates after every whistle. If that’s the way the Leafs are going to play if these teams meet in Round 1, the Bruins should feel very fortunate. Boston would love to play that kind of game against Toronto, especially at home.

Last Thursday’s matchup could be thrown away by the Leafs because it was the second night of a back-to-back and multiple players had the flu. But these teams played just three days earlier in Toronto and the score was exactly the same. As a result, the B’s swept the four-game season series.

The Bruins aren’t going to sweep the Leafs if they meet in April. Toronto is way too talented and has enough offensive firepower — at 5-on-5 and the power play — to erase pretty much any deficit. But the Bruins’ goaltending advantage and playoff experience are huge factors in their favor.

And even though the B’s have won just 16 of their last 30 home playoff games, they are 14-4 against the Leafs at TD Garden (including the playoffs) since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

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Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are on track to reach the playoffs for the seventh straight year, but if it happens, they will likely be a wild card team for the first time in the current postseason format.

The Bolts are not the juggernaut they were in recent years, but they are still dangerous and would pose a real challenge for the Bruins.

Tampa Bay is one of the league’s highest-scoring teams. This team ranks No. 7 in goals scored per game (3.40) and has the top-ranked power play (29.7 percent). Nikita Kucherov is No. 2 in scoring with 107 points (38 goals, 69 assists) in 64 games and might win the Hart Trophy for the second time. The Lightning have seven players with 10-plus goals scored.

The blue line is an issue for the Lightning. The loss of Mikhail Sergachev is huge, and they weren’t able to find an adequate replacement for the Russian defenseman before the trade deadline. Tampa Bay reportedly was Noah Hanifin’s top choice, but the star d-man landed with the Vegas Golden Knights instead. The Lightning settled for Coyotes defenseman Matt Dumba, who’s not having a good season.

The wild card with the Lightning is Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 29-year-old veteran has been one of the league’s best goaltenders since 2016-17 — his first full campaign as an NHL player. He has led the Lightning to two Stanley Cup titles (2020 and 2021) and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2021. His .921 playoff save percentage ranks No. 1 among all netminders since 2017.

So, what’s the problem? Vasilevskiy is having the worst season of his career. He has posted a .896 save percentage and a 2.96 GAA in 39 games. The Lightning rank 25th in goals allowed per game (3.37) as a result. He’s never finished a season with a sub-.900 save percentage.

If the old Vasilevskiy shows up for the Lightning come playoff time, they could be a dangerous team. If not, a second consecutive first-round exit is inevitable.

New York Islanders

The Islanders aren’t the most talented team in the wild card race, but they’re definitely the hottest. They’ve won six of their last seven games, including a 5-1 win over the Bruins on March 2 in what was Boston’s ugliest loss of the season. Patrick Roy has this team playing better and harder since taking over as head coach on Jan. 20.

The Islanders will go as far as goaltender Ilya Sorokin takes them. He finished second in Vezina Trophy voting last season and is having another strong campaign with a .910 save percentage. Sorokin has the ability to steal a series. He’s that good. And that makes a potential Islanders matchup tough for the Bruins. New York also plays a heavy forechecking style of hockey, which is something that has given Boston plenty of trouble in previous playoff runs, including a 2021 second-round series versus the Islanders.

The Islanders do have several weaknesses. They have the worst penalty kill in the league. They also get consistently out-shot, ranking 25th in shot attempt percentage and 23rd in shots on net percentage during 5-on-5 action.

The Bruins would be favored in a series against the Islanders, but it would not be an easy matchup. The Islanders aren’t afraid of the Bruins, and their style of play and previous success versus Boston would give them plenty of confidence.