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Handicapping the race for Boston’s next opponent

04.27.09 at 10:01 am ET
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After an action-packed weekend of playoff hockey, nothing has been decided about the opponent that the Boston Bruins await after dispatching the Montreal Canadiens in a cool four games last week. The Black and Gold will have had more than a week of off-time before the next round begins (I keep hearing that Friday and Sunday will be the days for Game 1 and Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the TD Banknorth Garden), and there could be a real dangerous scenario that a sharp hockey team — fresh off a Game 7 – might steal a Game 1 from the idle B’s when things get going again. With the reseeding in effect, it won’t be the New Jersey Devils or the Washington Capitals until the Eastern Conference finals — which leaves three potential teams for Boston to tangle with in the semifinals.

“You try to pick up on certain things if you’re playing certain teams, but right now we’re talking about the possibility of three teams,” said B’s Claude Julien. “It’s hard to pinpoint one team and say ‘This is what we’ve got to do’ because obviously each style is totally different from the other (teams).”

With that in mind, let’s take each squad still alive by the order of likelihood that they’ll be Boston’s final opponent when the ice chips settle on a pair of Game 7′s scheduled for Tuesday night:

Pittsburgh Penguins (2 to 1 odds that it’s the Pens): This is the team that the Bruins would least like to see in a second round series after watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (four goals apiece in the first round vs. Philadelphia) alternate taking over portions of their opening round series against a tough Philadelphia Flyers squad. The Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Bill Guerin line has been electric since both wingers were brought in at the NHL trade deadline, and — truth be told — the Pens have been a different team since the trades and a healthy Sergei Gonchar fortified the blueline half-way through the season. There’s still a chance that it won’t be Pittsburgh if a road team can come through with a Game 7 upset, but this could potentially be the toughest conference series that the Black and Gold will face in their run for the Cup. Counting the playoffs, the Penguins are a red-hot 18-4-3 since the beginning of March.

Bonus points to any NHL conspiracy theorists out there that already assume the NHL is trying to maneuver for a Sid the Kid vs Alex the Great conference finals, and that the Bruins will have a wake of questionable calls in their path through Pittsburgh. Not saying that it’s going to happen, but the greatest wishes of the hockey networks and league have got to be in the back of anybody’s minds going forward.

Carolina Hurricanes (5 to 1 odds that it’s the Hurricanes):The ‘Canes are 3-0 in Game 7′s since shipping down from Hartford, so don’t underestimate their ability to take down the New Jersey Devils in Tuesday night’s in Newark. Carolina has plenty of players with Cup experience and Cam Ward is very capable of rising to the occasion as attested by the one goal that the Devils have scored in the last two playoff games against the Hurricanes. Carolina put Ray Whitney and Erik Staal on the same line prior to Game 6 and that seemed to spark a team that — to be truthful — couldn’t beat the Bruins during the regular season in four attempts. David Krejci led all B’s scorers with 7 points in those four games against the ‘Canes, but most of those games came in the first half of the season — and this Carolina team is a much better version of that hockey squad.

New York Rangers (50 to 1 that it’s the Rangers):This is the opponent that the Bruins wanted to host, but it doesn’t appear that it’s going to happen after everyone assumed it to be manifest puck destiny. Concord native John Tortorella made the egregious mistake of trying to be “The Show” as head coach and benched Sean Avery for disciplinary infractions with the team firmly in control of the series and up 3-1 after Game 4. The Rangers got spanked in the next game which again proved the “If it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” theory to full effect, and then Tortorella compounded his blunder by engaging in the ultimate undisciplined action: throwing a water bottle at unruly Washington Capitals fans behind the Rangers bench. Tortorella ended up with a one-game suspension for his actions in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday where the Blueshirts should have been closing out the Caps. Instead hockey fans were treated to a this cockamamie excuse for the “disciplinarian” tossing a water bottle off a woman’s forehead. Can you imagine Claude Julien using this as a reason for losing his mind on the Boston bench? The mess that is the New York Rangers is exactly why Boston wanted the Rags in the next round, but it appears that their shot has gone by the board after they had two golden opportunities to go for the kill against the Capitals.

‘€œAccording to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay, one patron was screaming at the team, in graphic language, about whether defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have a sexual relationship,’€ Sather wrote in his letter to Bettman. ‘€œThis was within earshot of several children seated nearby. Several other fans also made repeated homophobic remarks’€¦ Washington’€™s failure to respond to what its personnel knew’€”and were specifically warned’€”was a potentially dangerous situation contributed significantly to this unfortunate incident.’€

It should have been the Rangers vs. Bruins in the second round, but I give them a zero percent chance of beating the Capitals in DC on Monday night. Blame it on “Torts” when the Penguins come to town for a surefire seven game series at the end of this week.

For those that missed it, here’s a pretty clear look at Tortorella gunning the water bottle off a fan’s head behind the New York bench before it bounces away and hits another woman sitting to the right of the unruly fan.

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