Bruins vs. Oilers in the Finals: Who Says No?
Boston Hockey Now Photo
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
There’s no rest for the weary if you’re a hockey fan
During the past few weeks in the United States we’ve crowned youth and girls high-school and club national champions as well as NCAA champions for men and women at the Division I and Division III levels. We’ve also cheered the Team USA women on to their first world championship since 2019.
It’s been just as busy on the ice north of the border as Canadian minor provincial and regional championships wrapped up, Ontario hosted the Women’s World Championship and qualifying teams prepared to compete for national championships starting next week at the women’s U18 ESSO Cup and men’s U18 Club National Championship.
Junior hockey playoffs also are ramping up, with the United States Hockey League Clark Cup Playoffs and the North American Hockey League Robertson Cup Playoffs set to begin next week. Canadian Junior Hockey League teams will be competing for league titles and an opportunity to play in the Centennial Cup for a Junior A national championship and Canadian Hockey League Major Junior clubs will be vying for league titles and a chance to play for the Memorial Cup.
On top of all that, starting Monday night the most-anticipated portion of the National Hockey League season – and arguably the greatest tournament in all of sports – begins. Eight teams embark on their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup Monday, with the remaining eight opening their first-round playoff series Tuesday.
It’s been a memorable year for the NHL as the Boston Bruins started the 2022-23 season on fire and never cooled down, running away with the Presidents’ Trophy after setting all-time records for wins with 65 and standings points with 135. Their plus-128 goal differential is 62 better than the next-best team, and the .931 save percentage compiled by their dynamic goaltending duo of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman far surpasses the New York Islanders’ second-best mark of .931. Boston also surrendered the fewest goals per game (2.12), again leaving Carolina, the No. 2 team in that category at 2.55, in the dust.
The Bruins’ season is even more remarkable considering it was accomplished under the guidance of first-year head coach Jim Montgomery. Montgomery was hired to replace fan-favorite Bruce Cassidy, who was let go last year in what many felt was a panic move by a franchise whose Stanley Cup window appeared to be rapidly slamming shut.
If that’s the case, we all should panic more often.
It’s not like Cassidy is chopped liver, either. He was scooped up almost immediately by the Vegas Golden Knights and led them to a 51 wins, 111 points and a Pacific Division title a year after they had missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Amid much grumbling among the Bruin fanbase, Montgomery took over what was perceived by many to be an aging, declining roster that had seen its longtime goaltender retire and would open the season missing two of its best players – defenseman Charlie McAvoy and forward Brad Marchand – because of injuries. All Montgomery did under those circumstances was lead the B’s to an 11-2 start, and a team that was hoping to tread water until its stars returned ran away with the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference regular-season titles from Day 1 without looking back.
It's a performance so dominant that casual sports fans might look at Boston’s historic season and assume that crowning the 2022-23 Stanley Cup champion is a mere formality. In the franchise’s 99th season, Boston became the fastest team to reach 100 points and 50 wins in NHL history, surpassing those totals in the 61st and 64th games, respectively.
Everyone kept waiting for inevitable losing streak and for the team to take its foot off the gas, but the Bruins never faltered. Their worst months were January (10-3-1) and March (11-4-0), and they lost no more than two games during any other month while falling just once in October, January and February. And for those who thought they would cruise to the finish line while resting up for the playoffs, Boston went 7-0-0 in April.
When the dust from the 2022-23 regular season had settled, the Bruins were on top of the NHL mountain with a 65-12-5 overall record, including marks of 34-4-3 on the road and 31-8-2 at home.
So, let’s just hand them the trophy, right?
Wrong. That’s not how it works in the meat grinder that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With the Bruins having won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, its possible to argue that Boston shouldn’t even be the favorite to win the Cup. The last regular-season champion to hoist the champions’ chalice in June was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, and even the recent back-to-back Cup winners from Tampa Bay faltered after a phenomenal season in which they chased history.
The 2018-19 Lightning went 62-16-4 and compiled a phenomenal 128 points only to be swept in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Of course, the Bolts rebounded to win the next two Stanley Cups and came within a whisker of capturing a third-straight title last year.
That Tampa Bay team was on the rise, however, and destined to soar among the league’s elite for several years after that shocking first-round upset. Perhaps the Lightning took the Blue Jackets lightly that year. Much like the dominant Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s, in hindsight Tampa Bay probably needed that type of a wakeup call to understand what it takes to survive the most grueling playoffs in all of sports and win a championship. Maybe the Lightning only win one Stanley Cup – or maybe they don’t win any – without that punch to the mouth.
Boston entered this year with the sense of urgency of a franchise that knew it’s time to win likely was running out, and the Bruins played that way throughout the regular season. Because of that, they should be sharp and at the top of their game entering the playoffs.
And while the coaching change, initial roster restructuring and additions to their roster likely have them in a better place moving forward than they might have been previously, history tells us that it will be very difficult for them to win the Stanley Cup.
That has nothing to do with how good they are. The Bruins, without a doubt, are the best team in the NHL, but that may not matter. In hockey, for whatever reason, the team considered to be the best rarely skates away with the coveted Cup.
That same sense of urgency that has worked so well for the Bruins all year along, ultimately could work against Boston in the postseason. Hockey is a funny game. One team can completely dominate and be shut down a by a hot goaltender. The puck can bounce the wrong way at the wrong time, causing an overtime loss. Questionable calls or ill-advised penalties can be the difference in games decided by a single goal and in series that lasts seven games.
The best and most fortunate teams over the course of a season may see the tide turn in the postseason because of a few unlucky breaks, an untimely injury or a few slumping players. In the postseason when benches are shortened, teams are more desperate and coaches are more concerned about matching up the best defensive players against the top offensive guys, the more talented teams often find it much more difficult to impose their will.
How will the Bruins – and their fans – respond if something goes wrong? If they lose an early game or two, will the players be able to relax and stick with the plan knowing that they are the better team and understanding what they need to do, or will they feel the pressure and tense up?
Tense hockey players are not good hockey players, and Boston has been so good this year that they are likely to be a heavy favorite against all but two or three team they might come up against. Those teams are going to have nothing to lose and be more likely to play freely because expectations will be low.
In Boston, nothing short of a Stanley Cup is acceptable, and that type of pressure can wear on a team – especially if the players can feel it in their own building.
Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, while the Bruins have been the league’s top team all year long, the Edmonton Oilers have been the hottest team in the NHL of late. Edmonton is just the fourth team in NHL history to enter the playoffs on a nine-game winning streak. Each of the previous three teams who have done that won their first-round matchup, with one advancing to the conference finals and one winning the Stanley Cup.
The Oilers also enter the postseason on a 15-game point streak, having concluded the regular season on a 14-0-1 roll. Five other teams have accomplished that feat, with all of them winning their first-round series, one advancing to the conference finals and one winning the Cup.
That’s why the “best team” doesn’t always win the Stanley Cup. Instead, it’s the team that is playing the best hockey at the right time, the team that has enough depth to endure the postseason grind and overcome any injuries that happen along the way and the team with the goalie who makes the big saves in key situations.
Edmonton no doubt is playing its best hockey of the season entering the playoffs. The Oilers also happen to have the best player on the planet in Connor McDavid, another interplanetary top-five player in Leon Draisaitl and a top-six forward group that’s as strong as any. Three Oilers eclipsed the 100-point mark (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the third), and Zach Hyman added 83 points. Eight other players scored between 10 and 16 goals.
The depth up front is there, and the addition of Mattias Ekholm on the back end has coincided with the team’s late-season surge. Rookie goaltender Stuart Skinner has emerged as a Calder Trophy candidate and solidifies the one area that has always been the team’s biggest question mark.
The Oilers have all the ingredients necessary to make a deep run and challenge the Bruins. Last year Edmonton escaped a seven-game first-round series against Los Angeles, the same team they play this year, and exorcised some recent postseason demons in advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals after years of coming up short.
There they fell in four games to a Colorado team whose time had come. Much like the upstart Oilers of the ‘80s, who were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by an Islanders team that knew what it took, and more recently the Lighting, who got their first-round wakeup call after cruising through a historic regular season, this Edmonton group likely figured some things out last year.
The Oilers have improved their depth, defense and goaltending and are the one team that has the star power to compete on a nightly basis for seven games with the Bruins. The biggest question with the Oilers is whether their young netminder can stand up to the pressure, while for Boston the pressing question is whether the Bruins will be able to handle the expectations of the fans along with the pressure of knowing this may be the last opportunity for some of the organization’s core players to win a Stanley Cup together.
The road may be easier for the Oilers, who open play Monday against the Kings and then would take on the winner of the Vegas-Winnipeg series if they were to get past Los Angeles. Defending-champion Colorado, which came on strong in the second half after a difficult start to the season, appears most likely to give Edmonton a run for its money, but the Oilers should be ready for the Avs this time around.
Boston’s series against Florida also gets underway Monday. The Bruins will have to run through a gauntlet of tough Eastern teams to make the Finals. The Panthers match up well with the Bruins offensively, but Boston has a decided advantage on defense and in goal.
Florida likely has no shot against Boston if the Panthers go with veteran Sergei Bobrovsky, a career playoff disappointment, in goal. Young netminder Alex Lyon has been impressive in his 15 games this year, posting top-20 numbers among all NHL goalies for goals saved above expected and a 0.51 better-than-expected goals-against average. The Panthers have nothing to lose and appear to be leaning toward Lyon in goal. That could make things interesting.
If the Bruins advance, they will play the Leafs-Lighting series winner, while New Jersey, the Rangers and Carolina lurk on the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket. As good as Boston is, it’s by no means a slam dunk that the Bruins will advance all the way to the Finals.
But the hope here is that they do make it. And that Edmonton does, too.
Don’t we all deserve to see the best player in the world take on the best team in the world for the greatest trophy in sports?
Yes, we do. So, that’s our pick for this year’s Stanley Cup Finals: Boston vs. Edmonton.
And the winner will be … the Oilers in seven.
Enjoy the playoffs!
2023 NHL Playoffs First-Round Matchups
Boston vs. Florida – Bruins in five
This will be the one series the Bruins won’t need to be at their best to win. They are simply too strong in goal and defensively but still can run and gun with the Panthers as needed. Florida may struggle to score vs. the B’s despite their offensive-oriented style of play.
Toronto vs. Tampa Bay – Leafs in six
The Lightning have regressed, and Toronto still has as much talent as anyone. The Leafs have gotten improved goaltending, but will that hold up in the playoffs? If it does, this team is a threat to knock off Boston in Round 2.
Carolina vs. New York Islanders – Canes in seven
New York has one of the best young goalies in the league, and the Islanders have been playing meaningful games for a few weeks now. Carolina has not been the same team without Andre Svechnikov in the lineup, and while Frederik Andersen finally appears to be healthy for a playoff series, his numbers this year have been pedestrian, and he may not even start. New York can steal this series if Ilya Sorokin is on top of his game.
New Jersey vs. New York Rangers – Rangers in six
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for New Jersey, but it ends here in what should be an entertaining series. New York is loaded up front now with the addition of Partick Kane and has a big goaltending advantage despite Vitek Vanecek’s strong season. The Rangers also have enough recent playoff experience to be dangerous.
2023 NHL Playoffs First-Round Matchups
Edmonton vs. Los Angeles – Oilers in five
The only thing that can make this series interesting is if Joonas Korpisalo returns to the record-setting playoff form he displayed against the Lighting during the COVID year. He will steal one game, but the Kings just don’t have enough of anything to beat Edmonton four times.
Vegas vs. Winnipeg – Jets in seven
We’ll take one of the top-five goalies in the world against a Golden Knights team that has fought through injuries and may not know who will be in goal from night to night.
Minnesota vs. Dallas – Wild in seven
This could be the under-the-radar most fun series of the opening round, although Devils-Rangers figures to be great to watch, too. Jake Oettinger has the playoff history and after an okay start to the season, he has been great down the stretch. Filip Gustavsson, on the other hand, has compiled top-seven advanced goaltending numbers. There may not be a ton of goals in this series, but there could be a bunch of overtimes. Sensing that Dallas, with its aging offensive core, has overachieved this year, we’re going with Minnesota.
Seattle vs. Colorado – Avalanche in five
The Avs simply have too much of everything for the Kraken, who will steal a game and make a couple of others interesting before bowing out. Colorado has gotten healthier and played its best hockey of the year down the stretch. Experience and superior talent are tough to overcome in the postseason.