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2020-21 NHL Preview: How new divisions, shortened schedule will impact Bruins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The NHL returns Wednesday, but the league will look a little different in 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the league to realign its divisions, shorten the regular season, change the schedule format and take other actions to lessen the virus' impact as much as possible.
Here's a breakdown of how the shortened schedule and new divisions will impact the Bruins.
Divisional realignment didn't help the Bruins because the East looks like the toughest division in the league. The East has four of the top seven teams from last season's final league standings. The Bruins were No. 1, the Capitals were No. 5, the Flyers were No. 6 and the Penguins were No. 7 in 2019-20.
The Islanders also were a strong team and reached the 2020 Eastern Conference final. The New York Rangers are a team on the rise after selecting elite prospect Alexis Lafrenière with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. The Sabres are slowly improving and signed the top free agent forward of the offseason in Taylor Hall, who should form a lethal 1-2 punch on Buffalo's top line alongside superstar center Jack Eichel. The Devils are the worst team in the division, but they do have some promising young talent, including 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes and 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier.
The top four teams in each division earn a playoff spot. The No. 1 team will play the No. 4 team in the first round, and the other series will feature the No. 2 team and the No. 3 team. The winners of these series will square off in the second round. The league will re-seed for the semifinals based on regular season point totals, and those teams will be put in a new No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 bracket.
The Bruins are the betting favorites to win the division at +250. The B's have flaws, most notably a lack of secondary scoring and a weak left side of the blue line. These issues could prove fatal come playoff time, but the Bruins have enough talent to again be one of the top teams in the regular season. Boston's biggest strength is having the league's best goaltending tandem with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Rask finished second in Vezina Trophy voting last season after helping the Bruins allow the fewest goals per game.
The expectation for the Bruins with their current roster should be winning at least one round in the playoffs. It would be a colossal failure if they failed to reach the postseason, despite the fact that their division is full of quality teams.
The NHL has decided to play a division-only schedule this season, which means all of the Bruins' 56 regular season games will come against their seven division opponents. They will play each of these division rivals eight times, which should rekindle some old rivalries with the Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Sabres.
Unfortunately, this division-only schedule means the Bruins won't play any games against their two main rivals -- the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. Boston also won't play against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who eliminated the B's from the playoffs in two of the last three playoffs.
The league tried to reduce travel as much as possible by having teams play multiple opponents in a specific region over a few days. For example, the Bruins open the season with a three-game road trip in the New York metro area. They will play at the Devils on Thursday and Saturday before playing at the Islanders on Monday.
The divisional schedule format should make for many exciting games because it won't take long for animosity to build between these teams given how often they'll be playing each other.
Getting off to a strong start will be even more critical than usual for the Bruins because with a shortened schedule there will be fewer games later in the season to gain ground in the playoff race. Therefore, the B's must find ways to generate enough offense with leading scorer David Pastrnak set to miss at least the first three games recovering from offseason surgery.