March 24, 2012

Bruins can't afford to go 0-for-California

By Jesse Connolly

UMass alum Jon Quick is 5-1-0 in his career against Milan Lucic and the Bruins. (Getty)

On Thursday night in San Jose, the Bruins were fighting to put together any semblance of offense as their game against the Sharks wore on. With the tilt wrapping up around 1 o'clock in the morning for those watching on the East Coast, their fans back home were fighting to stay awake.

The B’s turned in an absolute dud at HP Pavilion, losing their first of three tilts against the NHL’s trio of clubs in California. If they don’t come home from their voyage out west with at least a few points in hand, their position among the top eight clubs in the conference will likely be in for a change.

Boston will take on the Kings in Los Angeles on Saturday before traveling to Anaheim to face the Ducks on Sunday night.

The Kings have been white-hot of late. Led by netminder Jonathan Quick (Milford, Conn.) -- now an absolute lock to earn a Vezina Trophy nomination -- L.A. has won six straight to jump back into the playoff picture.

The Ducks, though now all but mathematically out of postseason contention in the Western Conference, have still been fighting the good fight. Anaheim has won two straight, beating the Sharks 5-3 on Monday before dispatching the conference-leading Blues, 4-3, on Wednesday.

In the meantime, Southeast Division-leading Florida sits just one point behind the Bruins for second in the East. They’re off on Saturday but will take on the cellar-dwelling Islanders on Sunday at 5 o’clock. If Boston loses to the Kings and the Panthers take care of business against the Isles, the B’s could enter their tilt with the Ducks in third place.

But that’s not where the implications of this weekend’s results end.

Two teams in the Northeast Division still have a shot at catching the B’s. Buffalo has 82 points through 75 games and sits in ninth in the conference, tied with the eighth-seeded Capitals. The Sens, who also have seven games left on the docket, are in seventh at 84 points.

Having two games in hand makes the B’s lead look cushier, but a pair of losses this weekend will leave them just three points up on Ottawa.

Furthermore, even if the Bruins maintain their lead in the division, finishing in third would mean they’d likely face the Devils in the first round of the playoffs.

New Jersey, currently in sixth at 90 points, has a six-point edge over the seventh-seeded Senators. The Devils are four back of the Flyers for fifth. After a so-so start to the season, Peter DeBoer’s club has gone 20-11-4 in their last 35 games.

If the Bruins had their choice, they’d undoubtedly rather embark on a No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup with Ottawa. The B’s are 4-1-0 against the Senators this year and have outscored them 19-12 in the season series, laying a five-spot on them on three occasions.

On the surface, a matchup with the Devils does look just as appealing. The Bruins swept the regular-season series against New Jersey, outscoring them 18-8.

But at the end of the day, even if you want to consider the preceding facts a wash, who would you rather face: Martin Brodeur (arguably the greatest goaltender ever), Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and the Devils, or a Senators squad that features Craig Anderson (who just got lit up in his return from injury and has never won a playoff series), a top-heavy forward corps (Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek) and an offensively potent (Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar) but defensively woeful back-end?

Of course, if the Senators slide out of the playoff picture, that opens up the possibility of Boston meeting one of Washington, Buffalo or Winnipeg in the first round. But that’s a topic that can be dissected another day. Making the playoff picture a little clearer is certainly one benefit of faring well the rest of the way in the Golden State, but ending this stretch of alternating wins and losses is paramount if the B’s hope to get on a roll heading into the second season.