Ryan: A disappointing round-robin tournament made Bruins’ road back to Cup Final that much tougher

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(Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

Tuukka Rask summed up the Bruins' thoughts on round-robin play rather succinctly following Boston's 2-1 loss to the Capitals on Sunday afternoon. 

"I think these first round-robin games, or whatever they were, you just try to shake the rust off and get your team game in a place you want it to be," the B's netminder said. "We worked very hard for our goals, just didn’t get rewarded. But I think that’s going to come, you find a way. It doesn’t matter what seed you are, you have to beat every team anyways if you want to advance. I think we feel good.

"It’s over now and we start real hockey."

Indeed, there appeared to be some cognitive dissonance on display this week with the Bruins — with the B's production and urgency not exactly matching what was up for grabs during round-robin action.

Granted, a couple of losses only guaranteed a dip in seeding, rather than a plane ticket out of Toronto. As such, the Bruins focused more on building their own game and shaking off the rust, rather than spending their time dwelling over the shifting standings in the East.

That being said, it would be awfully nice for the B's to have their game breakthrough against the Capitals — given that the No. 3 seed in the East was up for grabs.

Sure, you could label Boston's showing as another step in the right direction. After all, Boston held a 6-2 edge in shots on goal through the first 20 minutes of regulation against Washington, while Boston generated an absurd 21-4 edge in shot attempts in the 8:55 of 5v5 ice time that Patrice Bergeron's line logged throughout the afternoon.

But, in a development that has continued to pierce the hearts of analytics fiends like yours truly, those fancy numbers haven't meant jack when it comes to actual goals on the board. Through three round-robin games, the Bergeron line has yet to light the lamp, while that strong start in the opening period against Washington was negated when T.J. Oshie out-muscled Zdeno Chara to a loose puck and tapped it home with 16 seconds to go in the frame.

So yes, marginal steps forward, I guess. But not nearly enough to alleviate the creeping fears of a fanbase underwhelmed from what they've seen from the reigning President's Trophy winners.

"We pushed back, certainly," Bruce Cassidy said of Sunday's loss. "We stayed in the game, clearly generated more offense tonight than we have in other games more consistently. Didn’t finish well around the net a lot 5-on-5. Our power play is still work in progress. ... It’s not like it was a breakdown through the middle of the ice all night like Tampa – not all night like with the Tampa game with the slot coverage. Certainly, Washington is a good offensive team but I thought we were much better on both sides of the puck. We just again didn’t win."

Since arriving up in Toronto back in late July, the Bruins have spent more time focused on the big picture when it comes to traversing through this revamped, upended playoff bracket the NHL has instilled this summer. Even with the expected road bumps that were to come with this unprecedented tournament, Boston entered Phase 4 action as a battle-tested crew – boasting of confidence that doesn't expect to waver with any setback or sluggish start.

A drop in the seeding won't change that mentality with Cassidy's club. But, at least at first glance, it sure does make the road back to the Cup Final a hell of a lot harder.

With a win against the Capitals on Sunday, the Bruins would have managed to right the ship up in the bubble by at least securing the No. 3 seed in the East — setting up a first-round matchup against the No. 7 New York Islanders.

As we stressed in our weekend notebook, yes, the Islanders are still a very strong team — one that could give many opponents fits thanks to the stingy defensive structure instilled under head coach Barry Trotz. But as far as first-round opponents go, a slumping Bruins team would REALLY like their odds against the Isles, given how porous that same defense has been when matched up against the likes of Bergeron and Co. over the last few seasons.

A club like New York that likes to pack it in in their zone often has a hard time silencing an opponent like the Bruins — who can do plenty of damage when afforded time and space up high and along the half wall with the puck. Over the last two seasons, Boston's big guns have owned New York, with the B's outscoring the Isles, 4-0, and outshooting them, 36-15, in 54 minutes of 5v5 ice time that the Bergeron line has matched up against them. In total, since Trotz has taken over down on Long Island, Boston holds a 5-0-1 record against New York.

Of course, had Boston managed to best the Islanders in the First Round, there stood a good chance that the No. 2 Lightning — Boston's top threat in the East entering the 2019-20 season (in what feels like five years ago) — would await in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But even then, Boston could have been the beneficiary of some bad luck for the Bolts. Even if Tampa Bay manages to get past either No. 8 Toronto or No. 9 Columbus in the first round, they could be without some key cogs for both up front and on the blue line for quite some time.

Already with Steven Stamkos ruled out "indefinitely" by bench boss  Jon Cooper, Tampa received another devastating blow during their round-robin finale against Philly, as Victor Hedman appeared to suffer a serious ankle injury — with no recovery timeline established quite yet.

Yes, Tampa still boasts an absurdly talented roster with guys like Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Andrei Vasilevskiy and many more still in tow — but any extended absences for both Stamkos and Hedman would significantly close the gap quite a bit between Boston and the Lightning.

Alas, such wasn't the hand that Boston was dealt — or rather, the one Boston drew for itself following its showing during the round robin.

Instead, as the No. 4 seed, the Bruins will have to do battle with a team that has managed to close the gap between themselves and the B's in the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes — a young, relentless club that shredded the Rangers in a three-game sweep during qualifying play last week.

Carolina, who only trailed for 3:06 of game action in all three matchups against the Rangers, are a very different club from the one that was outscored, 17-5, during last year's Eastern Conference Final.

Yes, Carolina's goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer likely won't steal a series, but the 'Canes often offset their faults in net by attacking in waves down the other side of the ice. Yes, stars like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov will draw most of the top matchups, but Rod Brind’Amour's roster is relentless as a unit, peppering in shots from all angles, activating defensemen off the blue line and swarming on the forecheck.

It's the exact kind of roster that could give an older team like Boston, especially a rusty-looking Zdeno Chara so far in Phase 4, fits during 5v5 play, while Carolina's aggressive PK unit could exacerbate the struggles already present on Boston's usually stout power play.

Boston might still be considered the favorite in this first-round matchup, but this is far from the type of team that one would want to play in the opening weeks of what will be a grueling couple of weeks of playoff hockey. And, if Boston manages to defeat the 'Canes, there stands a good chance that the No. 1 Flyers — who have looked like an absolute wagon up in Toronto — awaits in the following round.

Of course, it doesn't do the Bruins much good to ponder what could have been with their route back toward the Stanley Cup Final. Ultimately, this is the course they set for themselves after a frustrating couple of nights at Scotiabank Arena — and one that is going to require a lot more than what they've shown so far in their return to the rink.

"It’s definitely nice to go into the playoffs," David Krejci said. "You start preparing for that team. This round robin, obviously it was kind of like playoff hockey, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t best of seven, it’s just not the same, so I’m looking forward to first round."

At long last, "real hockey" with real stakes are back for Cassidy's crew, just as they've wanted.  Now the journey really begins — and they've got a hell of a hill to climb.