While the rest of the hockey world rushes to anoint the Bruins as “Most Likely To Hoist The Cup,” many of Boston's die-hard fans are more inclined to curb their enthusiasm ... at least until after the opening round.
At play here is more than just the legendary fatalism of New England sports fans, the caution born of heartbreaks caused by Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner, Eli Manning and David Tyree/Mario Manningham and --for Bruins fans in particular -- "Too many men on the ice." Indeed, the first round has become almost an annual tripwire for the Bruins, with lower seeds extending them to overtime of Game 7 in each of the past three springs. They survived the scares in 2011 and '13. But in 2012, one round is as far as their playoffs went.
So a spike in the collective anxiety of New England is understandable as the Presidents' Trophy winners take on the Red Wings on Friday night in the opener of a series that could be treacherous for the Stanley Cup favorites.
It's not just that Detroit was the only team to beat Boston three times in regulation this season, or even that the Red Wings' puck possession game is the Kryptonite to the Bruins' physically punishing style. It's that these Wings might be better than they were at any time during the regular season. They're still missing some key players -- word now is that Henrik Zetterberg has almost no chance of skating in this series -- but Detroit is deeper and healthier than it has been almost all year.
The return of Pavel Datsyuk is catalytic. The otherworldly pivot changes both the Red Wings' depth down the middle -- always a key to their success — and their ability to play exactly the way they want. No one controls the puck better in all three zones than Datsyuk, and his wizardry sets the emotional table for the rest of the team.
Boston blueliner Zdeno Chara and goalie Tuukka Rask shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last spring, but Datsyuk, with his quick-strike opportunism, presents an entirely different challenge. He'll center an imposing first line that includes Johan Franzen and Justin Abdelkader, two wingers who will test the physical resolve of the Bruins' blue line.
Detroit's kiddie line of Riley Sheahan between Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist has become a consistent scoring threat, with Nyquist the hottest sniper in the league during the final month. His speed gave Boston fits the last time the two teams met.
Injuries have sidelined the Wings' Darren Helm in each of the past two springs, but he looks ready to be an impact player this time around, centering a third line between veteran Daniel Alfredsson and youngster Tomas Jurco. The line has a nice mix of breakneck speed and finishing touch. And with Datsyuk back, David Legwand now plays on Detroit's dangerous fourth line alongside junkyard dog Luke Glendening and veteran Drew Miller.
It's not the biggest group of forwards, and it's not fancy. Once these guys get the puck, they're willing to go to the heavy areas to earn their chances.
“I think we’re complete,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told reporters on Thursday. “I think we’re way better than people think. I think we’re going to be a hard out.”
Not that the Bruins will be intimidated. Their depth is the envy of the league, especially down the middle. David Krejci -- the leading postseason scorer in two of the last three seasons -- centers Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla, who is chasing his first career Stanley Cup. The sublime Patrice Bergeron, the likely Selke Trophy winner, steers the second unit, and Carl Soderberg, back in his natural position after starting his NHL career as a winger, gives Boston a big body with elite playmaking skills at the helm of the third line. The defense is solid, even without Dennis Seidenberg or Adam McQuaid, and the Bruins seem to have a real edge between the pipes with Vezina-favorite Tuukka Rask playing at a higher level than Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard.
But the Wings aren't about being intimidated. Instead, they are all about playing the game they want to play. It took them a while to get there, but since coming out of the Olympic break, they've been playing with the sort of confidence that comes from a blend of veteran guile and youthful enthusiasm. Mix in the complete absence of pressure -- Boston is a heavy favorite -- and this series could be a perfect storm, one that might be strong enough to take down the Bruins.
Here are a couple quick thoughts on Friday night's other games:
Montreal at Tampa Bay: Game 2
Goalie Anders Lindback was better than expected in the Lightning's series opening loss to the Canadiens on Wednesday, stopping 39 shots and frequently bailing out his defensively skittish teammates. But he still allowed five goals, two of which were his fault, and that's not exactly promising as the Bolts attempt to salvage a split at home.
Ben Bishop allowed a total of four goals in four games against Montreal this season, and while it's unfair to expect his back-up to play to that standard, Lindback has to be better -- a lot better -- in Game 2. That starts with his rebound control, which would alleviate some of the puckhandling miscues that his defense struggled with in Game 1. And he has to do a better job of sealing off his posts.
Of course, it would help if his teammates limited his exposure. The Canadiens averaged 28.4 shots per game during the regular season, 24th in the league, but they poured 44 on Lindback in Game 1. Granted, Montreal had 18 minutes of overtime to run up its total, but the fact remains that the Habs are a team that shouldn't be so difficult to bottle up, especially for a club that's trying to protect a backup goalie.
The Bolts need more out of Lindback to get back in this series, but the road to victory starts with limiting Montreal's chances.
Dallas at Anaheim: Game 2
The Stars really have to be concerned about the extent of Brenden Dillon's injury ahead of Game 2 in Anaheim on Friday night. The big defenseman didn't skate on Thursday and wasn't expected to see the ice on Friday, which puts the Dallas blue line in a terrible spot.
The top pair of Alex Goligoski (28:39) and Trevor Daley (26:14) sucked up about five more minutes of ice time than they're used to because the Stars' bottom four defensemen were off-kilter from the get go. Jordie Benn, one of the season's most improved players, really struggled after switching to Dillon's spot on the right side. While Benn might be more comfortable tonight, he'll still be tasked with covering for partner Patrik Nemeth, who will be playing in only his 10th NHL game. Sergei Gonchar and Aaron Rome were a disaster, their sluggish feet exposed on almost every shift. Rookie Kevin Connauton could slide in for Rome, but that might mean trading one problem for another.