Boston enters the first round of the NHL playoffs as underdogs, and perhaps that is the best roll for them. Boston did not handle their success from last year very well and did not start playing their best hockey until their backs were completely against the wall. Boston seems to be at their best when they have to fight for every inch of ice.
The Sabres have been at the top of the Northeast Division, and near the top of the NHL, all season long. They are well coached, defensively responsible and have arguably the best goaltender in the NHL this season.
Boston and Buffalo are familiar with each, having played each other six times already this season. Boston won four of the six meetings and enters their match-up with a bit of confidence. Can the Bruins claw their way to a first round victory?
Thomas Vanek returned to the Buffalo line-up and scored five goals in 2 games, four against the Ottawa Senators. Vanek is a dangerous shooter, having scored 30+ goals in three of his five NHL seasons. A streaking Thomas Vanek will be trouble for the Boston Bruins.
On Boston’s end, the Bruins will only go as far as Tuukka Rask takes them. Boston ended the season with the league’s 30th ranked offense and has little margin for error. Boston’s confident rookie netminder holds the key to their playoff fortunes.
Boston ranked 2nd in the league with just 200 goals allowed, while Buffalo ranked 4th with just 207 goals allowed. Those expecting an offensively explosion are going to be sorely disappointed. Defense is going to be key for both low scoring teams and the team that capitalizes most on their opponents mistakes will likely emerge victorious.
In addition both teams in all likelihood will also experience a “power outage.” Buffalo ranked 2nd in the league with an 86.6% penalty kill while Boston ranked 3rd at 86.4%. Factor in that neither team is especially gifted on the power play (Buffalo ranks 17th at 17.6% and Boston ranks 23rd at 16.6%) and you have low scoring, defense marked games. The goalie, or defense, that makes the first mistake each game will likely be the loser.
As stated, Rask has the Bruins fortunes on his shoulders. The question is whether or not he can handle the pressure of the playoffs. Rask has consistently looked cool, calm and collected in the Boston crease and has just oozed confidence. The last 5 or so games of the Bruins schedule were played with a playoff like atmosphere as the Bruins tried to secure a spot with Rask backing them the entire way. He believes he is ready and so do his teammates.
Boston’s offense has sputtered this season but has managed 10 regulation goals in their last three games. But do they have enough in the tank to beat Ryan Miller four games out of seven? Boston is just the third team since the 1979-80 season to qualify for the playoffs with the lowest regular season goal total.
Buffalo, on the other hand, ranked 11th in the league with 235 goals scored and Vanek’s hot streak could boost them further. Boston’s 2nd ranked defense will have their hands full and the offense will have to grab dirty goals against Buffalo.
The Masked Men:
Tuukka Rask and Ryan Miller finished first and second respectively in the NHL in goals against average and save percentage. Rask finished with a 1.97 goals against average compared to Miller’s 2.22, while Rask had a .931 save percentage compared to Miller’s .929. Miller, however, started 29 more games than Rask and is the front runner for the Vezina Trophy this year.
A key stat for Boston is that Rask went 4-1-0 against Buffalo this season, with a 1.43 goals against average and a .954 save percentage. Rask won four of his last six starts and allowed 1 goal, or less, in four of those six starts heading into the playoffs to boost the team’s confidence.
But a team with Ryan Miller between the pipes is not going to go down easy. Miller proved to be a big game goalie in the Olympics despite coming out on the losing end in the gold medal game and will be hungry to add more silver to his collection in the form of a Stanley Cup.
Rebounding Players Could Be Key:
Milan Lucic has certainly had a disappointing, injury riddled season but has really picked up his game over the last month. Lucic is not lighting up the scoreboard but his physical presence and intimidation and be a huge factor over the course of a seven game series.
Struggling defenseman Dennis Wideman has turned obnoxious boos into roaring cheers at the TD Garden lately as Boston’s favorite whipping boy has upped his game. Wideman had 2 goals and 5 points in his last 5 regular season games and could be rounding into form at just the right time for the Bruins.
Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford are all nursing various injuries, but may be ready to play in Game 1 on Thursday in Buffalo. For the Sabres that is 52 goals and 141 points sitting on the bench if they are not good to go.
Boston will be without Marc Savard (concussion) and Dennis Seidenberg (wrist) regardless of how far they go in the playoffs. Mark Stuart (finger surgery) is doubtful for the series against Buffalo but has an outside chance of returning. Defenseman Andrew Ference (groin) is questionable but may be good to go Thursday.
Final Words – Predictions:
Boston holds victories over the Capitals, Devils and Sabres over the last two weeks and enters the playoffs full of confidence. Boston has grinded their way to wins, scored dirty goals and left all they have on the ice on their recent march to the playoffs.
“The last few games, guys have really come to play. You’re going to get a bunch of clichés out of me because I don’t know what else to say,” said winger Shawn Thornton. “Everyone for the most part is coming to play and we need that. We’re a good team when everyone is here, and not so good when we have passengers. Right now everybody is coming to work and concentrating on what we need to focus on: hard work and defense.”
Hard work, defense, physicality and a ferocious forecheck have been hallmarks of this Bruins team during their recent turn around and it is those same values that give Boston a chance in these playoffs. Boston will defeat Buffalo in a hard fought, exhausting seven games.
*This article was written by Jonathan Fucile from Boston Sports Then and Now.