The Boston Bruins, who compiled the NHL’s best record over a regular season halted on March 12 by the COVID-19 pandemic, will enter the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
The fall from No. 1 overall was completed on Sunday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, where the B’s played perhaps their best game since resuming the season, but still dropped a 2-1 decision to the Capitals to complete a round robin tournament against the three other top seeds with an 0-3-0 record. They’ll open a best-of-7 first-round series against the No. 5 Hurricanes, whom they swept in last year’s Eastern Conference final, later this week.
The Bruins beat the Hurricanes in this season’s only meeting, scoring a 2-0 decision on Dec. 3 in Boston. Two other games scheduled after March 12 weren’t played. The Hurricanes reached Round 1 by sweeping a best-of-5 qualifying series against the Rangers.
“I thought we were much better on both sides of the puck” than in their previous games, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday. “We just didn’t win.”
The Bruins entered the game with all players healthy and available for the first time since the team assembled for practices on July 13.
Winger Ondrej Kase, who spent approximately three weeks in quarantine after returning to Boston from the Czech Republic, made his debut, skating on a line with center David Krejci and left wing Jake DeBrusk. He had an assist on the Bruins’ only goal, with DeBrusk converting his pass with 9:30 remaining in regulation to make it a 2-1 game.
“(That) line, I thought, looked comfortable — played well, had their legs, made some plays,” said Cassidy, who also gave third-pairing defenseman Matt Grzelcyk a game off so that Connor Clifton could see action before the playoffs.
Tournament-long problems continued on Sunday, though, primarily on the offensive side of the puck. The Bruins, outscored 9-4 over the three games, never held a lead or scored a first-period goal. Their top line of Brad Marchand (no points), Patrice Bergeron (one assist) and David Pastrnak (no points), who tied for the NHL lead with 48 goals, were kept off the score sheet again, although they did land 11 of the Bruins’ 31 shots on goal.
“I believe that’s going to be a tough task for (the Hurricanes) to do that on a consistent basis,” Cassidy said. “I think those guys will be able to get their game going, and we need that primary scoring.”
Cassidy did like the improvement in the Bruins’ defensive game over the course of the tournament. After surrendering four goals apiece to the Blue Jackets (4-1 winners) in an exhibition and then to the Flyers in the round robin opener (also 4-1), they held the Lightning to three and the Caps to two. The B’s surrendered a tournament-low 25 shots on Sunday, including only two in the first 20 minutes. The second one, however, gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead with 16 seconds remaining, when T.J. Oshie chopped the puck off B’s captain Zdeno Chara’s stick as Chara tried to clear a rebound.
“We got better defensively against good offensive teams (Lightning and Capitals),” Cassidy said. “We tightened up there, structurally.”
Rask, who couldn’t play in the round opener against the Flyers because he was quarantined after reporting a COVID-19 symptom (a cough), played his second straight complete game and pronounced himself ready for the playoffs.
“I got to play a couple games,” said Rask, who surrendered the game-winner to Tom Wilson 2:49 into the second period, after Wilson beat defenseman Charlie McAvoy in a race for the puck and flipped a shot over Rask’s glove and off the post from in tight. “There was enough action to get your rhythm back ... I feel good.”
Rask feels good about the team, too, despite its record since arriving in Toronto, where games are being played without fans.
“In these round robin games ... you just kind of try to shake the rust off, and get your team game in a place you’d want it to be,” he said. “We’ve kind of improved over these three games.
“Obviously, we worked very hard (during the regular season), and it’s a shame not to get rewarded, but I’m sure that’s going to come if we just keep plugging away. So it’s over now, and we start real hockey.”