Bruins playoff lineup projection 3.0: McAvoy, Lindholm on top pairing?

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The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs will renew their rivalry in the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Bruins went 4-0-0 against the Leafs during the regular season and eliminated Toronto in the first round in 2013, 2018 and 2019. But despite this recent success against the Leafs, there’s no question Toronto presents plenty of challenges for the B’s. Few teams have as much elite scoring talent as the Leafs, who finished as the NHL’s second-highest scoring team this season.

“Offensively, they’re a gifted hockey club,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Thursday in a press conference. “They present a lot of challenges down around the net front area, and we’re going to have to be really sharp there. We’re a pretty good team defensively when we stick to what our principles are, so I expect it to be a tight series overall.

“Obviously, their power play is really good, our penalty killing has been pretty consistent throughout the year, our power play needs to come back online here. Fortunately, we scored a goal the other night to hopefully give the guys a little bit of confidence. It’s going to be a really good challenge on all levels. A good hockey club, a good opponent. If you’ve made it to the playoffs, you’ve earned a right here, and Toronto will present a really good challenge.”

What will the Bruins’ lines and pairings look like for Game 1 on Saturday night? Here’s our third and final playoff lineup projection.

The Heinen-Zacha-Pastrnak trio outscored opponents 16-6 in 175:27 of 5-on-5 action this season. Breaking up this line would be a mistake, particularly when Zacha and Pastrnak have such great chemistry from playing together each of the last two years. Heinen is a versatile forward who has spent time on pretty much every line at some point this season, but he’s recently found a home on the top line with the Czech duo.

No Bruins line played more together this season than the Marchand-Coyle-DeBrusk trio. This line outscored opponents 14-9 despite often playing against top competition. All three players are skilled offensively, but they also can be trusted in tough defensive situations.

One objective for Montgomery and his staff should be getting some offensive production out of Frederic in the playoffs. He tallied a career-high 31 points last season but was held without a point in five games against the Florida Panthers in Round 1. He has zero points in nine career postseason matchups. After setting a new career high of 40 points this season, it’s time for Frederic to carry that success into the first round.

Geekie and Frederic played 398:57 of 5-on-5 ice time together this season, so there’s definitely some familiarity there. Frederic’s toughness and scoring depth will be important in this series. The Bruins need their secondary scorers to step up and produce to match the firepower in Toronto’s lineup.

“Most of the time we talk about with Trent is play with pace and emotion, and the rest of the game seems to follow suit,” Sweeney said. “The playoffs should lend to that if he can channel those energies and get to the interior ice. I think it’s an area that he himself can do a better job of now that he has more experience having gone through those things. We’re excited about the progression that Trent has shown the last two seasons, and hopefully that translates starting Saturday.”

The fourth line could go through a few different iterations before the series concludes. Unfortunately for the Bruins, it doesn’t sound like Justin Brazeau will be much of a factor, at least not early in the series. He hasn’t played since April 2 with an upper body injury.

“I still think we’re in that week-to-week phase, so the early part of the series is very unlikely,” Sweeney said about Brazeau’s status. “We’re hopeful, but there’s no guarantees on that one. That one’s going to take some time. He is skating, clearly, but he has some hurdles to get through.”

Johnny Beecher has been very good on faceoffs this season and can kill penalties. He doesn’t have any postseason experience, though, and his scoring production has been inconsistent. James van Riemsdyk hasn’t scored in 20 games, but he has 71 games of playoff experience and his ability to win net-front puck battles will be important against a team like the Leafs.

Maroon made his Bruins debut last weekend and played in two of the last three regular season games. His toughness and experience (three Stanley Cup rings) should prove valuable to the B’s. They acquired him at the trade deadline with the playoffs in mind. Maroon isn’t just a fourth-line tough guy, either. He’s capable of chipping a bit offensively, too. Maroon’s 16 points were more than Boqvist, Lauko and Beecher even though he played in fewer games than all of them.

The Bruins used a Hampus Lindholm-Charlie McAvoy pairing at practice Thursday. It wouldn’t be shocking if they used it to start Game 1. Lindholm typically plays with Brandon Carlo on the second pairing. In fact, no other duo on the team has played more together this season than Lindholm and Carlo.

But in this particular matchup against a Leafs team that is absolutely loaded with elite talent up front, it’s not a bad idea for the Bruins to stack the top pairing with their two-best defensemen.

The Leafs’ top line of Tyler Bertuzzi, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner might be the best trio in the league. Matthews tallied 107 points, including a league-leading 69 goals. Marner posted 85 points in 69 games. Bertuzzi hit the 20-goal mark for the fourth time in his career. It’s difficult to imagine the Leafs winning this series if the Matthews line doesn’t score goals. It’s the most important matchup in the series, which is why creating a shutdown tandem of Lindholm and McAvoy to defend this trio makes a lot of sense.

“The coaches feel comfortable with a bunch of different pairing sets,” Sweeney said when asked about a potential Lindholm-McAvoy pairing. “I think they were experimenting in some situations to play in matchup roles, and clearly they’re going to occupy a 60-minute game, anywhere from 25 to 26 minutes…And that’s the lock down mentality. But if you’re going to spread it around in what the opponents present, then you’re able to go away from it.

“Obviously Lindholm and Carlo have both played an awful lot together, (Matt Grzelcyk) and McAvoy have played a lot together. So, we’re able to mix and match effectively, and you just never know. I mean, we’re all hoping for complete health throughout the playoffs, but it’s unlikely. So, we may face some of those challenges… but they’re comfortable playing in high leverage situations against the best players, and they’ll hopefully tilt the ice in our favor.”

Grzelcyk and Carlo played 171:53 at 5-on-5 during the regular season, and the results weren’t great. Opponents earned a 95-68 edge in shot attempts, a 96-57 advantage in scoring chances and outscored the Bruins 6-2 during those minutes, per Natural Stat Trick. So, in some ways, the Bruins would be taking a risk using this pairing. But Montgomery can always change things up as needed.

The third pairing is an interesting one. Wotherspoon had a really nice debut season for the Bruins. He’s good defensively and is capable of killing penalties. Peeke brings many of those same qualities, and he’s been a nice fit on the third pairing since Boston acquired him at the March 8 trade deadline.

Why Shattenkirk over Wotherspoon? Shattenkirk has been on the first power-play unit the past couple of games. The Bruins ranked 23rd in power-play percentage over the final month of the season. The B’s need to get their power play going, and the Leafs’ 23rd-ranked penalty kill could present some favorable matchups. Shattenkirk has more playmaking skill than Wotherspoon and skates better. He also has more playoff experience, including a Stanley Cup title with the Lightning in 2020.

We might see Wotherspoon at some point in this series, but given the Bruins’ recent power-play struggles, Shattenkirk should get the first crack at being the left-shot defenseman on the third pairing.

Goaltender



Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Will the Bruins stick to the goalie rotation in the playoffs?

Starter: Linus Ullmark

Backup: Jeremy Swayman

The Bruins do have a plan for how they will use their goalie tandem in the playoffs. What is that plan? Nobody knows right now.

“We’re very comfortable with both goaltenders,” Sweeney said. “They know the plan as to what we’re going to do, and our team is very comfortable with both goaltenders. So, performance and results may change what our approach looks like, but we know what the plan is going into the playoffs.”

Ullmark deserves to start Game 1. His .935 save percentage and 1.90 GAA both ranked second-best among all netminders after the March 8 trade deadline. Ullmark played better and looked more relaxed once the trade rumors subsided. In fact, he looked like the Vezina Trophy winner from last season. From a performance perspective, he is most deserving of starting Game 1.

Swayman didn’t play well over the final five weeks of the regular season, ranking 41st in save percentage (.884) and 21st in GAA (2.87) since the trade deadline. However, Swayman was pretty much unbeatable in three starts versus the Leafs this season. He went 3-0-0 with a .959 save percentage (93 saves on 97 shots), including two wins in one week back in early March.

The real question mark is whether the Bruins will use a true rotation or just ride the hot hand. They alternated goalies every game since Feb. 19. Montgomery has seemed open to the idea of a goalie rotation at times this season, but he has yet to definitively commit to it publicly. After going away from the tandem last postseason and seeing it blow up in their face, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bruins keep the rotation going in Round 1. It’s worked extremely well over the last two regular seasons, so why not give it a shot in the playoffs?

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