2022 Stanley Cup playoffs: Ranking Bruins' potential first-round opponents

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Ranking Bruins' potential first-round opponents in 2022 playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs are fast approaching, and even though the Boston Bruins have just seven games left on their regular season schedule, their first-round opponent remains up in the air.

The Bruins enter Wednesday as the first wild card team in the Eastern Conference with 99 points (47-24-5). If the season ended today, they would play the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 1.

However, there's still a chance the B's could secure one of the three playoff berths from the Atlantic Division. They trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by one point for third place and the Toronto Maple Leafs by nine points for second place.

There are four realistic opponents for the Bruins in the first round:

It's still mathematically possible for the Tampa Bay Lighting to play the Bruins if both teams secure a playoff spot from the Atlantic Division. That scenario is very unlikely, though, and would require a huge late-season collapse from the Leafs and nearly flawless results from the Bolts and B's through the end of the campaign.

Bruins' road trip is great chance for Swayman to solidify No. 1 goalie job

Let's rank the potential first-round opponents for the Bruins, beginning with the team Boston should least want to play against.

(All advanced stats via Natural Stat Trick)

4) Florida Panthers

The Panthers have led the Eastern Conference standings pretty much the entire season. They are an absolute juggernaut, especially offensively. The Panthers' deep forward group loaded with high-end talent ranks No. 1 in goals scored per game (4.18) and No. 6 in power-play percentage (23.8).

Explosive Offense

Goals Per Game

4.18 (1st)

Power Play

23.8% (6th)

Variation

Double

Panthers left winger Jonathan Huberdeau leads the scoring race with 111 points (30 goals, 81 assists) in 76 games, while reigning Selke winner Aleksander Barkov has tallied 85 points (37 goals, 48 assists) in 63 games. Florida made a huge deal to acquire Claude Giroux from the Flyers before the trade deadline in March and he's scored 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) in 14 games for the Panthers. He's been a tremendous fit.

Even though the Panthers aren't a dominant defensive team, they still rank top 10 in shot attempts against, shots on net against, scoring chances against and goals against at 5-on-5.

Florida also is playing some of its best hockey of the season right now. This team has won 11 consecutive games, outscoring teams 61-29 over that stretch.

One potential concern with the Panthers is their best players -- Huberdeau, Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Aaron Ekblad, etc. -- haven't proven they can dominate in the playoffs. Another issue could be Florida's goaltending, which has been good but not great with a .919 save percentage at 5-on-5 (14th in the league). Veteran goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has failed to meet expectations in the postseason with a .899 save percentage and a 3.26 GAA in 41 career games. Rookie netminder Spencer Knight has just 58:10 of playoff experience (two career appearances).

But when you look at the Panthers' scoring depth, impressive defense and quality special teams, the Bruins should want no part of Florida in Round 1.

3) Toronto Maple Leafs

It would be awesome, at least from a storyline and entertainment standpoint, if the Leafs and Bruins squared off again in the playoffs. These Original Six rivals met in the first round back in 2013, 2018 and 2019 -- with the B's winning Game 7 on home ice each series. The 2013 Game 7 saw the greatest third-period comeback in postseason history.

This time would be a bit different. The Leafs would have home-ice advantage, which is a real plus for a team that's posted a 28-8-2 record at Scotiabank Arena (second-best home record in the East).

Toronto's goaltending doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, though. The Leafs have allowed 235 goals this season -- the most of the eight East teams currently in a playoff spot. Leafs netminder Jack Campbell hasn't enjoyed a ton of success in 2021-22. He's posted a .912 save percentage and a 2.71 GAA. The Leafs, as a team, have a .907 save percentage at 5-on-5, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league.

Toronto is an offensive powerhouse. This team ranks No. 2 in goals scored at 3.86 per game and owns the best power play at 27.8 percent. Auston Matthews has a league-leading 58 goals and likely will win the Hart Trophy as MVP.

But the Bruins have the ability to slow down this Leafs machine.

Boston, at 5-on-5, ranks No. 5 in goals allowed, No. 1 in expected goals against, No. 1 in shot attempts allowed, No. 1 in shots on net allowed, No. 1 in scoring chances allowed and No. 1 in high-danger chances allowed. Put simply, the Bruins don't give up many quality looks at their net. Of course, the Bruins have given up 10 goals in two games to the Leafs this season, but overreacting to a tiny two-game sample from the regular season isn't wise.

Another positive for the Bruins in this potential matchup would be the pressure on the Leafs. Even though the B's are under tons of pressure themselves to make a deep run, a strong case could be made that no team will face more pressure in Round 1 than Toronto. The Leafs haven't won a playoff series since 2004, and during that drought they've had a couple memorable meltdowns. We already mentioned Game 7 in 2013, but last year's Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens after having a 3-1 series lead is another notable Toronto collapse.

Another first-round loss could lead to significant changes for this star-studded Leafs roster. This group is facing enormous expectations. And, of course, a fourth Round 1 defeat at the hands of the Bruins in the last nine years would be a tough pill to swallow for Leafs fans.

The 2022 Leafs are better than the 2013, 2018 and 2019 teams the Bruins beat in the postseason. That said, the Bruins are well-equipped to send Toronto on an early summer vacation once more.

2) Carolina Hurricanes

A Bruins-Hurricanes series would feature two of the best defensive teams in hockey. In the Leafs section above we detailed where the Bruins rank in many key defensive 5-on-5 metrics. The Hurricanes are among the league leaders in those same stats.

Here's a comparison between them:

The Hurricanes aren't as potent offensively as the Leafs, but they still generate chances and score goals at a solid rate. Carolina ranks No. 9 in goals scored per game (3.31) and 10th in power-play percentage (22.4).

You might be saying, 'hey, didn't the Hurricanes outscore the Bruins 16-1 in three games during their season series?' Yes, they did. But again, we shouldn't overreact to such a small sample. The 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins were expected to roll the Bruins based on, among other factors, an impressive regular season versus Boston that year. The B's ended up sweeping Pittsburgh in epic fashion.

The Hurricanes also haven't played well over the last month. They've posted a 8-8-3 record since March 13, while ranking 12th in goals scored and 21st in save percentage over that span. Like the Bruins, the 'Canes have a couple important players battling injuries. Captain and top-six forward Jordan Staal left Monday's 7-4 loss to the Avalanche. Starting goalie Frederik Andersen also left the defeat early with a leg injury.

Andersen had a tough time against the Bruins in postseason play. He went 6-7-0 with a .916 save percentage and a 3.26 GAA over two first-round series with the Leafs in 2018 and 2019. Andersen gave up nine goals combined in those two Game 7 losses versus Boston. He's led his team past the first round once in 2014-15 with the Anaheim Ducks. Andersen is having a tremendous season, and he likely will be a Vezina Trophy finalist, but whether he can be a goalie on a title contender remains to be seen.

1) New York Rangers

The Rangers have caught the Hurricanes for first place in the Metropolitan Division, so if the Bruins finish as the first wild card team, playing New York in Round 1 is a very real possibility.

The strength of the Rangers is their goalie, Igor Shesterkin, who's the Vezina Trophy frontrunner with a league-leading .936 save percentage and a 2.01 GAA. Shesterkin has very limited postseason experience, though. He's played only one game and allowed three goals back in the 2019-20 bubble. Will he continue his elite play when the pressure increases quite a bit? It remains to be seen.

Shesterkin needs to be really good for the Rangers to win in the playoffs. New York's defense does give up quality looks at the net. This team ranks 17th in shot attempts allowed, 13th in shots on net allowed, 23rd in scoring chances against and 24th in high-danger chances against at 5-on-5. Shesterkin has covered up a lot of the Rangers' issues in their own end.

From an offensive standpoint, the Rangers rank 17th in goals scored per game. They also rank 20th in goals scored and 25th in scoring chances created during 5-on-5 play.

The Rangers are capable of making a deep playoff run because Shesterkin is good enough to carry a team on his back. But New York is a little too reliant on its goalie, and if he's not playing at a super-high level, do the Rangers have enough scoring to beat a top defensive team like the Bruins, especially at 5-on-5? It's unlikely.

The East is absolutely loaded this season. But the path of least resistance would be through the Metro, and a first-round matchup with the Hurricanes or Rangers would need to be part of that.

Nick Goss on B's playoff path

One of the biggest reasons why the Rangers/Hurricanes are preferred Round 1 opponents for the Bruins is that drawing Carolina or New York means Boston would play on the Metropolitan Division side of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

In this scenario, if the Bruins beat the Hurricanes, they would play the winner of the Penguins vs. Rangers series in the second round. Both the Penguins and Rangers are more favorable Round 2 opponents for the Bruins than the Leafs, Panthers or Lightning from the Atlantic Division.

A road to the Cup Final where the Bruins have to face just one of the Leafs, Panthers or Lightning is probably most advantageous for Boston. Of course, neither path is going to be easy. The East is absolutely loaded this season. But the path of least resistance would be through the Metro, and a first-round matchup with the Hurricanes or Rangers would need to be part of that.