By Mike Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
In March, the Boston Bruins appeared poised for another deep run into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. David Pastrnak was tied for the league-lead in goals with 38 and Tuukka Rask was first in the league in goals saved above-average (23). The only team in the NHL to reach 100 points during the regular season (44-14-12 record), the B's were firing on all cylinders.
Suddenly on March 12, the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Unclear if the season would even return, the Bruins and their fans quarantined and waited for answers. Finally, on June 11, the NHL announced its return-to-play plan: a nine-week gauntlet split up into two host cities (East - Toronto, West - Edmonton) where 24 teams would play for the Stanley Cup. The regular season was over.
The top-four teams in each conference would play three round-robin games against one another to determine the top-four seeds. The remainder of the teams would play best three-out-of-five qualifying series. Following the round-robin and qualifying series, the 16 teams remaining would be re-seeded and compete in the quarterfinal round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
All of the hard work that the President's Trophy-winning Bruins had put into earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference was now at risk of being compromised. During their three round-robin games, the Bruins went 0-3-0, giving them the No. 4 seed in the playoffs despite holding the league's best record throughout the regular season.
Despite the non-ideal start inside the bubble for the Bruins, there were some positives on a more local note. Walpole native Chris Wagner led the team in goals (two) during the round-robin, scoring against Philadelphia in the opener (4-1 defeat) and Tampa Bay (3-2 defeat). Coming off a career-year in 2018-2019 where he registered 12 goals and seven assists during the march to the cup final, Wagner has continued to play a serviceable role for the Bruins during his second year with the team in 2019-2020, registering six goals and four assists during the shortened regular season.
Following a 4-3 double-overtime victory against Carolina in game one of the quarterfinal round, the Bruins lost David Pastrnak (undisclosed injury) for games two, three and four. Along with the void of their top scorer in Pastrnak, Boston also lost starting goaltender and Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask, who opted out of the season between games two and three citing a personal matter. Rask, whose play in net has always been a key talking point of the Boston sports media, was heavily criticized by many for opting out and leaving the bubble. Despite being without Rask in game three, the Bruins battled to an impressive 3-1 win to grab a 2-1 series lead. Wagner, who played alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on the top line for almost the entire third period of game-three, spoke to the media and defended his teammate, Tuukka Rask, ahead of game-four.
In game four on Monday, the Bruins strung together unarguably their best period since entering the bubble. With Carolina leading 2-0 with just over 12 minutes remaining in regulation, Jake DeBrusk broke in on a mini-breakaway, avoided a poke check from Carolina goalie James Reimer and deposited home his second goal of the postseason to get the Bruins on the board.
At 10:10, the Walpole native Wagner forechecked hard behind the Carolina net and caused a turnover. Line-mate Joakim Nordstrom picked up the loose puck, cut around the goal on his forehand and dished a one-timed pass to defenseman Connor Clifton, who unleashed a cannon into the top-left corner of the net to tie the game at two. Wagner was awarded the secondary assist on the goal, bumping his playoff point total to three (two goals, one assist).
Even after a Carolina timeout, Boston continued to dominate the period. A breakaway goal by Brad Marchand just 1:30 after the tying goal by Clifton gave the Bruins their first lead of the contest at 3-2. Jake DeBrusk notched his second of the night moments later, streaking out from the right corner and receiving a pass from Ondrej Kase before depositing home a shot under the blocker of Reimer to make it a 4-2 game.
In total, Boston outshot Carolina 16-2 in the third period. The Bruins held on for a comeback 4-3 victory to claim a 3-1 series. Even without David Pastrnak and Tuukka Rask, the Bruins have put themselves in a prime position to advance. At the time of print, the Bruins will look to close out Carolina on August 19 in game-five.
For funny and incisive sports analysis as well as video highlights of games, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter and Instagram handles @flano0.