Well, that’s all folks. Six games into the first round of the NHL playoffs, the Bruins’ season has ended. I don’t think shock would describe the feelings of many Bruins fans; frustration would suffice. Looking back at the series, there are just as many what ifs as there are explanations. What if Boston had held on in game two? What if the defensive core did not consist of a majority of AHL players due to injuries? What if Riley Nash and Bobby Ryan both ended up in the penalty box at the end of game three? What if Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pasternak had played better? In the end, fans do have reasons for frustration. It’s not like Boston didn’t have a chance. A lucky bounce here or there and the Bruins could have easily won the series in spite of dumb penalties and a defensive lack of discipline. Unfortunately, those bounces never came and the series ended in six games. Fortunately, Boston fans have reasons for encouragement. The team’s gotten younger and gained experience in the playoffs. Charlie McAvoy might be the biggest revelation of the 2017 postseason.
First, let’s take a quick look at the final two games of the series. In game five, a total lack of defensive awareness resulted in two breakaway goals. Kevan Miller and Joe Morrow allowed Marc Stone to sneak behind them and score on an uncontested breakaway in the first period. (0:39)
Not even a minute into the second period, Zdeno Chara moved out of position, sliding next to Charlie McAvoy while they both tried to pinch, allowing Jean-Gabriel Pageau to sneak behind them. Pageau put the puck through Tuukka Rask’s five-hole putting Ottawa up by two. (1:00)
It looked as if the Boston would be packing up their lockers in just five games; until Sean Kuraly had other things to say. The rookie scored the game tying and game winning goal in overtime for not only his first NHL playoff goals but his first career NHL goals. Clutch doesn’t come close to describing Kuraly’s play. (2:42)
With a two-goal, double overtime comeback victory seemingly putting wind back into their sails, the Bruins traveled back to Boston for game six. I won’t lie and tell you I didn’t have hope. Cliches like, “Win this one and anything can happen in game seven” crept into my head, although I told myself they wouldn’t.
As game six dawned, that hope morphed into expectation. I remembered the previous Patriots and Red Sox comebacks as well as the Bruins’ game seven comeback in 2013. For the first period of game 6, it looked like they would, until foolish penalties were their undoing. To spite finally grabbing a lead in a game, the Bruins found themselves trailing again entering the third period. That’s when Patrice Bergeron scored off a Brad Marchand rebound and it finally looked like the Bruins’ top line wanted to make a statement. The Bruins dominated the third period but the Senators escaped to see overtime. In overtime, David Pasternak committed another undisciplined penalty that would result in a Clarke MacArthur series ending goal.
Three major factors contributed to Boston’s first round exit. While blaming injuries feels like a cop-out, it can’t be ignored. The Bruins lost Adam McQuaid, Tory Krug, and Brandon Carlo. Colin Miller missed two games in the series. On top of that, David Krejci left game five with a knee injury. Boston skated half of an AHL defense for most of the series and lost a key offensive playmaker for multiple games. Additionally, as I mentioned after game four, the Bruins’ top line did not come to play and failed to produce at a higher than the Senators top players. Finally, Boston committed stupid penalties at an unfathomable rate. Delay of game, too many men on the ice, undisciplined roughing and flat out tackling opposing players spelled doom for the Bruins. Even if Boston killed off twelve consecutive Senators powerplays until Bobby Ryan’s second period game six goal, as Bruins writer Fluto Shinzawa notes, that penalty kill time took a heavy toll on the their top players and may have contributed to their lack of production. Boston fans do have reasons for optimism. Charlie McAvoy’s emergence represents the most obvious positive development in the Bruins’ first round exit. Without a single game of regular season experience, McAvoy routinely lead the team in playing time per game. He notched three assists and demonstrated that he’s not just a puck mover. He used physicality and blocked shots. I would argue that although Bruce Cassidy partnered him with Zdeno Chara so that Chara could cover McAvoy’s mistakes, the reverse actually occurred. McAvoy bailed out Chara on multiple occasions, and Chara ended up with the more crucial errors. In just six games, it looks like the Bruins hit with their 14th overall pick in 2016. In fact, the Bruins’ defensive core, a weakness for the previous three seasons, looks like it will be revitalized with young players. Brandon Carlo showed promise this season and if his development continues, he could start on the Bruins’ blue line for years to come. Kevan Miller played at an impressive level as well. Colin Miller gained playoff experience as well as Tommy Cross who will likely play in the AHL for much of his career but has now cut his teeth in the playoffs as well. If the Bruins can entrust McAvoy and Carlo with more minutes next season, they can save Zdeno Chara and increase his effectiveness throughout the season at 40 years old. Adam McQuad and Jean-Michael Liles are expendable, and the Bruins could look at picking up Kevin Shattenkirk as a free agent. It’s safe to say their defensive play should make strides next season. Finally, the Bruins removed the interim tag from Bruce Cassidy’s title signaling their confidence in his abilities as a head coach. While his past may give the Bruins front office pause, his turnaround of a team that seemed destined for another early off-season was impressive. His ability to coach to his roster’s strengths rather than cramming them into an outdated albeit previously successful formula was a prime factor in Boston’s turnaround. His bluntness and honesty with the Boston media makes him well liked, although it may eventually grind at his players. I think the Bruins will be in good hands for the next couple years with him as coach. These positives far outweigh the negatives of the series loss to Ottawa. With Toronto emerging as a young and formidable opponent for years to come, it’s important that the Bruins young players gain experience as well, which they did. Besides, the Bruins loss doesn’t hurt that badly, considering they lasted a day longer than the Claude Julien-coached Montreal Canadians.