Four post-All Star break Bruins storylines to watch before playoffs begin originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Have you missed the Boston Bruins?
The team’s bye week is almost done, and its first game after the NHL All-Star break is Saturday afternoon at TD Garden against a Washington Capitals side fighting for a playoff spot.
The Bruins will exit the All-Star break in great shape. The roster is close to full health. They rank No. 2 in goals scored and No. 1 in goals allowed. The special teams and goaltending have been elite, too.
However, the Bruins haven’t accomplished anything yet and still have plenty of work to do over the final two months of the regular season.
Here are four post-All Star break storylines for Bruins fans to keep an eye on from now until the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Add at the trade deadline?
The Bruins would be wise to make at least a depth move or two before the March 3 trade deadline. And judging by general manager Don Sweeney’s history, we should expect the Bruins to be active. He has made at least one move in all seven of his trade deadlines as Bruins GM.
What do the Bruins need? A top-four defenseman would be the ultimate prize, and they’ve reportedly shown interest in Arizona Coyotes star Jakob Chychrun. If that kind of deal can’t be made, then a depth defenseman would be a strong addition. Luke Schenn of the Vancouver Canucks fits that mold.
A winger who can score is a need, too. Craig Smith hasn’t given the Bruins much offensively (three goals in 37 games) this season. Nick Foligno has cooled off after a strong start to the season. Taylor Hall has scored two goals in his last 21 games. Another goal scorer on the wing — right wing, preferably — should be addressed. A bottom-six center who can add toughness, size and penalty killing would help a lot as well. Nick Bjugstad of the Arizona Coyotes would be perfect for that kind of role.
The Bruins don’t need a seismic change to their group. Plenty of guys up and down the roster are having career seasons and the team chemistry has been fantastic. But depth is mightily important in the playoffs, and it only takes one injury for a lack of depth to show up and become a real problem.
Therefore, the Bruins absolutely should make an upgrade or two prior to the trade deadline.
Can Jake DeBrusk score at the rate he did pre-injury?
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DeBrusk reportedly fractured his fibula in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2 and he hasn’t played since. B’s head coach Jim Montgomery said Thursday that next week’s games versus the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators are realistic return dates for DeBrusk.
Before his injury, DeBrusk was having a career-best season and on pace to surpass 30 goals for the first time. He also was killing penalties, excelling defensively and doing all the little things we didn’t see enough of from him on a consistent basis earlier in his career.
The Bruins have fared pretty well without him. They’ve scored the fourth-most 5-on-5 goals (45) during his absence. That said, his return will give the team a significant boost up front and will allow other players to slot back into roles more suitable for them.
The team must avoid rushing DeBrusk back to the lineup. They need to make sure he’s 100 percent before returning because the 26-year-old wing is going to be a very important player for this group down the stretch and into the playoffs. If DeBrusk comes back and he’s not scoring anywhere near the pace he did pre-injury, then maybe the Bruins’ trade deadline approach changes.
Will B’s hold off ‘Canes for top seed?
The Bruins are having one of the best regular seasons of all time, but they still lead the Hurricanes by just seven points for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Presidents’ Trophy. While seven points is a nice cushion, it’s far from an insurmountable hurdle for the ‘Canes.
It’s very important the Bruins hold off the Hurricanes for the top seed, and that’s because they need home ice advantage in the event these teams meet in the Eastern Conference Final.
For whatever reason, the Bruins have struggled mightily at PNC Arena in Raleigh in recent years. They went 0-4 at Carolina during last year’s first-round playoff series, and they’ve also lost their last three regular season games there, including a 4-1 defeat on Jan. 29.
Finishing ahead of the Hurricanes in the standings and playing a potential Game 7 at TD Garden and not PNC Arena would be massive for the B’s. Boston has been one of the most dominant home teams in league history with a 22-1-3 record at the Garden.
Will Linus Ullmark continue his consistently elite play?
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Fans around the league waiting for Linus Ullmark to come back down to Earth and not play at such an elite level so consistently have been sorely disappointed through the first 51 games of the season.
The Bruins’ No. 1 goalie leads the league with a .937 save percentage and a 1.90 goals against average. For comparison’s sake, Dallas Stars goalie Jake Oettinger ranks No. 2 in both categories with a .926 save percentage and a 2.22 GAA — far behind Ullmark.
Ullmark has allowed two goals or fewer in 23 of his 33 games played, and he’s only given up more than two goals in back-to-back appearances one time.
The 29-year-old netminder going from good to very good last season, to consistently elite in 2022-23 is the primary reason why the Bruins lead the league standings. One challenge for the Bruins is managing his minutes and workload after the All-Star break. He’s on pace to start 51 games, which would easily surpass his previous career high for a single season of 41 set in 2021-22.
The Bruins should not run the risk of fatiguing Ullmark because they’ll need him at full strength for what the team hopes will be a lengthy playoff run that stretches into June. Luckily for the Bruins, they have one of the league’s best backup goalies in Jeremy Swayman. Swayman is capable of beating any team on any night. He has posted a .944 save percentage and a 1.65 GAA in seven starts since New Year’s Day.
If Ullmark continues to play at the Vezina Trophy level he has shown to this point, there’s no way the Bruins fail to capture the No. 1 seed in the East. Accomplishing that goal and managing Ullmark’s workload at the same time could be among the toughest post-All Star break challenges for the B’s.