If/when the 2019-20 NHL season resumes, the Bruins will not have a clear picture as to who awaits them in the first official round of the augmented Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Such a picture will not become clearer until 16 of the 24 teams included into this expanded bracket duke it out in a best-of-five “play-in” round, with the top four seeds in each conference staying out of the fray.
With seeding among those top-four spots up for grabs during a round-robin format — coupled with the likely upsets on the docket during that play-in round — it would be rather foolhardy to start delving into some extensive playoff previews until the overall postseason picture clears up a bit.
But just a quick glance at the overall playoff field and the circumstances surrounding this overhauled playoff format does raise a few eyebrows when it comes to charting out what potential path awaits the Bruins as they look to hoist the Stanley Cup later this fall.
Here’s an early look at three “play-in” clubs that could cause issues for the Bruins and other Cup favorites once playoff hockey gets back underway.
Columbus Blue Jackets — No. 9 Seed in Eastern Conference
Play-in matchup: Vs. No. 8 Seed Maple Leafs
If there was a club outside of the top-four seeds that I’d want to avoid in the Eastern Conference, it’d have to be the Blue Jackets.
It seemed like a longshot that Columbus would even be in such a position at the start of the 2019-20 season, with GM Jarmo Kekäläinen going all in last season by acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to a core headlined by pending UFAs in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
After getting bounced by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, all four players departed via free agency, leaving John Tortorella with a roster headlined with young talent but likely in line for a rebuild.
But such wasn’t the case this year, with the Jackets remaining in the playoff picture by adhering to a stingy, tenacious defensive structure that regularly clogs up shooting lanes and limits Grade-A chances.
While that defense (3rd in NHL in GA/G at 2.61) and the emergence of Elvis Merzlikins (.923 save percentage, five shutouts in 33 games) have anchored Columbus' surprising surge this season, you could make the argument that this roster is far from reaching its potential — given that the Jackets rank first among all NHL teams this season in man-games lost to injury at 352.
Among those that were currently on the shelf at the time of the pause included franchise defenseman Seth Jones (ankle injury), Josh Anderson (shoulder surgery), Cam Atkinson (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Alexandre Texier (back) and Dean Kukan (knee) — with this extended break likely allowing most, if not all, of these regulars to return to the lineup.
The return of these skaters would likely do wonders for the Blue Jackets' lone flaw — as Tortorella's team ranks 26th in 5v5 goals (125) and 27th in power-play percentage (16.4).
As the Blue Jackets can certainly attest to, anything can happen in the span of a few playoff games, and this battle-hardened roster has all the makings (defense-first, health, a breakout goalie) of a team that will be a tough outcome the postseason. Man, can the Maple Leafs ever catch a break?
Pittsburgh Penguins — No. 5 Seed in Eastern Conference
Play-in matchup: Vs. No. 12 Seed Canadiens
Picking the Canadians in the upset is a prediction that has regularly been peddled since this format was announced, with the risk of the going up against a netminder like Carey Price in a best-of-five series raising quite a few eyebrows.
Yes, the Penguins' tandem in net of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry may not have the reverence that Price carries around with him, but the Habs netminder has been quite mortal over the last couple of seasons — ranking 32nd among NHL netminders (min. 1,000 minutes) in even-strength save percentage at .919.
A Penguins team already loaded with offensive firepower should be licking their chops at such a matchup.
Much like the Blue Jackets, the Penguins are set to benefit from this extended break — as Pittsburgh ranked third in man-games lost to injury this season at 298. While forward Dominik Simon (shoulder surgery) and Nick Bjugstad (spinal surgery) are not going to be in the playoff picture, there stands a good chance that top-six forward Jake Guentzel (20 goals, 43 points in 39 games) can return from shoulder surgery that he underwent back in December.
Even with the number of injuries they've sustained, the Penguins still boasted a top-10 offense (3.20 GF/G) at the time of the break — with the usual suspects like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang leading the way. Add in pieces like Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist and deadline pickup Jason Zucker (12 points in 15 games with Pittsburgh), and the Pens have the forward depth to land punches against even the most stout D corps in the league.
Pittsburgh does have flaws elsewhere across the roster (Murray has struggled and the power play is surprisingly 16th in the league), but the Pens have both the firepower and championship experience that could have them poised for a big push this summer and fall.
The Bruins should know firsthand not to underestimate this club — given they relinquished a three-goal lead in their last meeting with the Pens back on Jan. 19.
Carolina Hurricanes — No. 6 Seed in Eastern Conference
Play-in matchup: Vs. No. 11 Seed Rangers