2021 NHL Playoffs: Ranking Bruins' potential first round opponents

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Ranking Bruins' potential first-round playoff opponents originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins clinched a spot in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday night, but we still don't know which team they will play in the first round.

The East Division standings are so tight that the first round matchups could shake out in several different ways.

The gap between first place and fourth place is only five points. The Bruins have played 52 of the 56 scheduled regular season games, which is tied for the fewest of the four playoff teams in the division.

Bruins playoff picture: Where B's stand in tight East race

Which teams are the best and worst matchups for the B's in the first round? Let's rank them, with No. 1 being the toughest and No. 3 being the easiest.

But first, here's a quick table showing how the Bruins fared against these three teams in key 5-on-5 stats through May 5 (all stats via Natural Stat Trick).

Bruins 5-on-5 Stats

vs. Capitals

vs. Islanders

vs. Penguins

Shot Attempt %

54.74

54.64

51.62

Shots on Net %

55.37

54.95

55.43

Goals For

17

10

13

Goals Against

12

13

14

Scoring Chances For

128

167

132

Scoring Chances Against

113

144

154

Save %

0.912

0.913

0.914

 

3) New York Islanders

The Islanders are limping toward the playoffs. They are 5-6-2 in their last 13 games, including back-to-back losses to the last-place Sabres this week. The month of April was a grind for the Islanders as they earned a 7-5-1 record while opponents tallied more shot attempts, more shots on net and more goals at 5-on-5. 

New York lost captain and top-six winger Anders Lee to a torn ACL in March. They tried to replace his production in the lineup by acquiring winger Kyle Palmieri and center Travis Zajac in a pre-trade deadline deal with the Devils. Palmieri has been a non-factor offensively with only one goal and 23 shots in 14 games since the trade. 

The Islanders also have the 24th-ranked power play. Their penalty kill remains strong (fifth-best in the league), but they aren't a huge threat to score with the man-advantage. 

The last two games between the Isles and B's came on April 15 and 16 in Boston, where New York was dominated and lost both matchups by a combined score of 7-1.

We shouldn't put too much stock in regular season head-to-head results, especially a two-game sample. However, these games made it very clear that the Bruins' new-look lineup post-trade deadline with Hall, Lazar and Reilly in the fold made them a much better matchup against the Islanders compared to earlier in the season when Boston lost its first five games to New York.

B's goalie Tuukka Rask also has played fantastic versus the Islanders in his career, posting a 18-7-1 record with a .937 save percentage and 1.88 GAA.

2) Pittsburgh Penguins

You could make a case the Penguins are the ideal first-round matchup for the Bruins solely based on the fact that Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry has only one game of postseason experience. He also hasn't been great in the regular season. He's tallied a .911 save percentage and 2.71 GAA in 37 appearances -- hardly impressive numbers. 

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Another factor in the B's favor is they have someone who can slow down Penguins superstar center and leading scorer Sidney Crosby. That man is Patrice Bergeron. The four-time Selke Trophy winner did a fantastic job against Crosby in the regular season. In eight games, the B's had a 63-29 edge in shot attempts, a 44-17 advantage in shots on net, a 29-16 lead in scoring chances and a 4-0 goal differential in the 59:25 of 5-on-5 ice time when Bergeron was on the ice with Crosby. 

Pittsburgh's other all-world center, Evgeni Malkin, returned to the lineup Monday night after missing the previous 23 games with a lower body injury. It's fair to wonder whether he'll be 100 percent healthy when the playoffs arrive. He also has just three more games to find his footing before the regular season ends.

Not having home ice advantage also shouldn't be a huge issue for the B's in a series against the Penguins. Boston went 2-2-0 at Pittsburgh in the regular season and held the Pens to one goal or fewer in three of the four games.

1) Washington Capitals

The Bruins can absolutely beat the Capitals, but there are a few reasons you don't want to play them off the bat. 

For starters, this series would be enormously physical. Washington plays a punishing style of hockey, and we saw plenty of that truculence in its games against Boston this season. We all remember Tom Wilson being suspended for hitting B's defenseman Brandon Carlo up high.

It's in the Bruins' best interest not to play a grueling matchup in the first round, which could weaken them for a potential second-round series. 

Washington's special teams also are very good. The Caps' power-play is the third-best in the league while their penalty kill ranks eighth.

The B's have struggled against the Capitals for much of the last 10 years, and Rask's stats are pretty bad versus Washington. He's posted a 4-11-7 record with a .894 save percentage and a 3.03 GAA against the Capitals in his career.

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