The Toronto Maple Leafs have the opportunity to close out the Montreal Canadiens tonight to advance out of the first round of the NHL Playoffs, but the crazy thing is that the second round already begins tonight. That will be the later of the two games on Saturday night with the New York Islanders on the road against the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins have taken a lot of money to this point to be favored in the -185 range at BetOnline Sportsbook with a total of 5 for the tone-setting game of the series. The Islanders topped the Penguins to advance and the Bruins beat Washington in five games, having eliminated the Capitals all the way back on Sunday.
Will the rust factors hurt the Bruins in this game? Has this line moved too much? Let’s take a look.
New York Islanders
This was a weird NHL regular season for the players. COVID-19 protocols and restrictions on the road made those treks away from home pretty uncomfortable. Players were largely limited to their own rooms and approved meal sites. A lot of room service was probably ordered. Players weren’t even able to congregate in each other’s rooms for a while. It was a solitary life on the road away from family when you’re supposed to be having fun with the boys.
Whether or not that was part of the Islanders’ ugly 11-13-4 road record or not is hard to figure out, but the reality is that New York was significantly better at home in Nassau Coliseum than on the road. That was thought to be a key to the series against the Penguins, but then the Islanders went 2-1 on the road and set themselves up to finish the series at home in Game 6 with a double-overtime victory in Game 5 in the Steel City.
The Islanders open up on the road here against the Bruins. The trade to acquire Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were thought to lengthen the lineup a bit and help the Islanders match up a bit better with the road disadvantage of having the first line change. Maybe it worked, as Palmieri had three goals in the series against the Penguins, but Zajac only played one game. Maybe it was the COVID restrictions and those have been less of a factor as the pandemic has wound down.
Whatever the case, the Islanders looked different. They looked like a more competitive road team. Against a more talented, more explosive Penguins squad, the Islanders held an 18-12 edge in 5-v-5 scoring, even though the Penguins had 177 scoring chances to 123 for the Islanders. Pittsburgh did only have a 58-53 edge in high-danger chances, though, as the Islanders got in close and got some quality looks.
Ultimately, what can help the most on the road is the goaltender. Semyon Varlamov struggled in the series for the Islanders with seven goals allowed on 72 shots, but Ilya Sorokin was the savior. He posted a .943 SV% in the series and allowed just nine goals on 159 shots. He was the winning netminder in all four of New York’s wins. He’ll have to be on that level if the Islanders want to pull this series upset. He may even have to be on that level to win Game 1.
Anytime you advance in a series, it is a good thing. The series between the Bruins and Capitals got very physical and very chippy as both teams got under each other’s skin early and often. Putting away Washington in five games was good for the long-term health of the Bruins, but you do have to wonder about having five full days off in advance of Game 1 of this series.
Practice days were few and far between with the condensed regular season schedule, so it’s entirely possible that Bruce Cassidy and the coaching staff put the downtime to good use. It also couldn’t have hurt for the Bruins players to rest their bumps and bruises.
At 5-v-5, the series between the Capitals and Bruins was a bit closer than what the end result would suggest. Boston did outscore Washington 11-7 at 5-v-5, but only had nine more scoring chances. However, the scoring chances Boston did get were of a much higher quality, as the Bruins had 48 high-danger scoring chances to just 30 for Washington. It was an excellent defensive performance from Boston in a series that featured three one-goal games to start and then a couple of puck line wins for the Bruins to end it.
What really helped Boston is that Tuukka Rask was excellent. After leaving last year’s bubbled playoffs to tend to a family matter, Rask seemed like a man with something to prove in the first round. He stopped 159 of 169 shots for a .941 SV% and was the reliable last line of defense that allowed the Bruins to push more on the offensive side. Boston did keep a lot of shots to the outside and made it easy for Rask to have clean looks at incoming shots and that is truly one of their strengths.
This should be another physical series. The Islanders play a lot of tight-checking games and few in the business are as good at prepping for opponents as Barry Trotz. The Bruins are fine with playing low-scoring games.
Islanders vs. Bruins Free Pick
Ilya Sorokin and Tuukka Rask are the two most important players in this series. Scoring chances should be rather limited, so the goaltender that has the most success should be the winning netminder more often than not. This does not appear to be a high-variance series. This does not look like a series that will feature many blowouts. Real estate will be hard to find.
That’s why the under 5 is the first look coming out of the gate. We should have a feeling-out process in the first period of this one and the neutral zone will be bottled up, limiting transition opportunities and allowing both teams to get set up defensively. I’d expect a low of low-scoring games here.
Pick: Under 5