The Bruins have 22 games left this season. Barring an unforeseen meltdown, they ought to make the playoffs and earn a high seed in the process, possibly even the top spot. After Wednesday night’s tie with the Islanders – in which they should’ve won, but surrendered a goal to Michael Peca with 1.4 seconds left – the B’s are 32-16-5-7, and unlike last season, when they battled with Carolina for the 8th playoff spot in the East, they now control their own destiny.
In their last eight games before the Olympic break, the Bruins went 6-1-1. Their power play has come alive as of late, and Lord Byron has been sharp. But keeping up the intensity will be critical down the stretch, when they face some stiff competition. Half of their games will come against teams who’d make the playoffs if they started today, and they’ll also play Montreal, Calgary and Phoenix, who will all be scrapping for a playoff spot come April.
But the Bruins indirectly caught a break, literally, on Tuesday night when Toronto netminder Curtis Joseph broke his hand. He’ll most likely be out for nearly two months, and the Maple Leafs were only three points behind Boston on Thursday night. While nobody likes to see a great player go down before the playoffs (well, most of us don’t…), the Bruins know they have to take advantage of this. If Toronto falters, Boston looks to be the only team able to contend with Philadelphia for tops in the Eastern Conference, and as luck would have it, Boston will get two cracks at Philly before the playoffs, including one this Monday at home.
The Flyers are incredibly deep, and if they can finally answer their annual “So, who should we have in goal in the playoffs this year?” question (Roman Cechmanek looks to be their guy), they’ll be tough to beat. However, the Bruins always seem to play well against the Flyers, and if Philadelphia’s special teams remain in the pits, the Bruins will match up quite nicely with them should they meet in the playoffs.
What the Bruins need to show over their next 22 games is hunger and desire. They’ve proven they can play with the best, but now they must do it with the playoffs not far off. The playoffs are something that used to be automatic for Boston. They missed the playoffs in the 1996-97 season for the first time in 30 years, but since the 1993-94 season they’ve only made it past the first round of the playoffs once.
The Bruins lost Eric Weinrich and Jason Allison over the past year, but the additions of Marty Lapointe, Sean O’Donnell, Glen Murray, Jozef Stumpel and P.J. Stock have created some quirky chemistry that was missing last season. Thornton is playing at a level the B’s thought he’d reach when they drafted him, and Bill Guerin, Sergei Samsonov and Brian Rolston are providing some heavy duty offense that will make Boston a fast, strong and exciting team in the playoffs.
Joe Thornton is the key to this team right now, however. His play over the next 22 games must, and will, set the tone for how the Bruins will approach the playoffs. He had impressive stats last season (37 goals, 34 assists), but he’s made his presence felt on a much larger scale this season. He’s finding his linemates for many more scoring chances, and his large 6’4″, 220 pound frame is being maximized in front of the net in John LeClair fashion, wreaking havoc for opposing goaltenders.
His only problem is that he sometimes loses his cool and takes cheap, stupid penalties, some at key times in the game. One instance was a roughing penalty he took in Vancouver on February 12 with the score knotted at 1-1 late in the third period. This is the first season Thornton will be the go-to-guy in the playoffs, and with teams picking up the hitting and tempo during that time, how he handles this role will be crucial to the Bruins’ success.
Besides Detroit, who is simply insane this season, it doesn’t seem like there are too many teams who are genuinely being feared across the NHL, more so in the Eastern Conference. The Isles had been slumping but are once again showing possible signs of life with the season winding down, and New Jersey is finally playing with the intensity they lacked for most of the season. But the Rangers are self-destructing, with a concussion-waiting-to-happen Eric Lindros and a whiny Theo Fleury leading the inevitable plunge. The Hurricanes and Senators I can never take seriously either, but that’s just me.
So now its time to sit back and watch for the next month and a half. The playoffs will come much sooner than its seems now, and if the B’s can beat out Philly for the number one seed, they’ll be where nobody thought they could be before the season began. But they’ll also be at the top of all the other teams’ hit lists.