TORONTO – In the world before this one, the Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy.
They were on cruise control to lock up home ice in the postseason as far as their Stanley Cup dreams would take them. Then they’d wield that TD Garden lion’s den as a significant advantage on their mission to reliving 2011 and avenging 2013 and 2019.
The Bruins were the only NHL club in 2019-20 to amass 100 points in the standings, eight points clear of their closest contender, the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’d need to squint to see the Washington Capitals (10 points back) and Philadelphia Flyers (11 points back) in their rear-view mirror.
Way back in March, the Bruins were the stingiest of all 31, keeping their opponents to a league-low 174 goals against. They’d amassed a hefty plus-53 goal differential.
Coming into this summertime reset tournament, how could we not elevate Boston to the peak of our power rankings?
These were the defending Eastern Conference champions guided by a 2020 Jack Adams finalist coach, backstopped by the 2020 William Jennings Trophy–winning goalie tandem, led upfront by a 2020 Selke finalist centre and a 2020 Rocket Richard Trophy–winning sniper.
Isn’t it so 2020 that what you’ve worked so hard for in 2020 doesn’t matter in 2020.
On Wednesday, those very same Boston Bruins assured themselves no chance of being the No. 1 seed in the East. Or even No. 2. The best they can now hope for is No. 3.
“Well, that part sucks. I’m not going to lie to you,” coach Bruce Cassidy said after a nail-biting, impassioned 3-2 regulation loss to the undefeated Lightning. “But that’s the situation this year with the stoppage of play. We knew the rules going into it — that we would lose a bit of the advantage we’d gained. We are where we are now.
“Would I have rather been No. 1 seed? Absolutely, keep it. That’s not going to happen.”
Under rules voted upon and passed by all 24 teams returning to rinks inside bubbles inside a global pandemic, the Bruins agreed that three round-robin games against Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington would instead determine their Round 1 fate. (Ironically, the only two teams to vote against the format, Carolina and Tampa, hold perfect records.)
President Cam Neely grumbled a bit publicly, but, hey, at least Boston was getting one more shot with an aging core, before 2020-21’s flattened salary cap weakens the roster.
Last Thursday, the puck dropped.
Boston threw away cold pucks like hot potatoes and looked scattered in a 4-1 exhibition loss to 9-seed Columbus.
Sunday’s 4-1 defeat at the hand of the Flyers was more concerning. So have the “unfit to play” labels getting stamped on Tuukka Rask, Ondrej Kase and Brett Ritchie at various points since the flight to Toronto. Boston showed refreshing fight and spark in the second half of Wednesday’s loss, rallying from a deficit and forcing some late heroics from Tyler Johnson.
Yet the Bruins are down to 60 minutes to get their game in shape before the results really matter.
“The worst case that’s going to happen is we’re going to lose the locker room in our practice rink,” said Rask, downplaying the plummet in seeding.
“I really don’t care where we finish. We just have to focus on our game and try to improve that come Sunday (versus Washington) and going into next week. You got to beat everybody anyways, so whatever.”
The tone in Tampa’s room rings a little different. Even without injured captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have rolled like a juggernaut this week.
If the world’s upside down and the top seed is up for grabs? You might as well snatch it.
“To get a first seed compared to a fourth seed could be so beneficial once the playoffs truly begin,” Alex Killorn said. “We’re treating these games like they’re playoff games — as you can see by the intensity. I don’t think it’s quite playoff hockey yet, but it’s getting there.”
“Look at both of our games,” says new Bolt Blake Coleman, who’s added some necessary sandpaper to the bottom six.
“There’s been a lot of big hits, a lot of scrums, a lot of skirmishes after whistles. We’re treating it as if it’s do-or-die right now, even though we have a bit of leeway. We’re still playing for seeding; it still matters.
“The teams that are competing in the qualifiers are going to be ready, so it’s on us and the [other] teams in the round robin to treat it the right way. And if you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”
The Bruins haven’t been behind the 8-ball all season. Maybe these early bubble stumbles will serve as a helpful dose of adversity. Or maybe they’re just watching other contenders gather confidence and the coveted last change.
Way back when the NHL first mapped out a blueprint to save the season Boston dominated, Brad Marchand was Zooming from quarantine.
He made this prediction: “I honestly think that the teams that are going to come back and look good are the really young teams – teams like Toronto or Tampa. Really high-end skill teams,” Marchand said. “But older teams are really going to struggle.”
He hasn’t been wrong.
“This is a brand-new season,” Johnson, a big-game player, reminded after firing Wednesday’s winner with only 87 seconds on the clock.
With brand-new seeding and a brand-new feeling.
Imagine: all these games battling for home ice when none of the eight round-robin bye teams have a chance of playing at home.
So, in 2020, how important is securing the No. 1 seed, truly?
“It’s the last change. It’s not as important because the home ice and the crowd can really help a team,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
“This is probably the least important it’s been compared to a regular playoff. The one big thing regardless: You do get last change. So, that you guarantee yourself, and I do think that is an advantage.”
Another advantage: embracing the weirdness of it all.
“It’s pure of hockey you’re going to find. Because it’s almost like you’re throwing two groups out there on a pond and they’re going at it. It’s a great environment,” Cooper said.
“I never expected this.”