The Bruins won't have to worry about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, and they have Claude Julien, Carey Price and the archrival Canadiens to thank for it.
The 12th-seeded Habs finished off a stunning upset of fifth-seeded Pittsburgh on Friday, winning Game 4, 2-0, thanks to a late go-ahead goal from Artturi Lehkonen and a 22-save shutout from Price.
That means the Bruins' list of possible opponents in the first round of the playoffs is down to two. If the Bruins win Sunday's round-robin finale against the Capitals, they'll be the No. 3 seed and face the seventh-seeded Islanders. If they lose Sunday, they'll be the No. 4 seed and face the sixth-seeded Hurricanes.
Going into these play-in series, the Penguins were generally seen as the team the top four seeds would least want to face, and for good reason. Even seeing how these series played out, it would still be hard to argue that you'd rather face the Penguins in a seven-game series than the Hurricanes or Islanders.
The lengthy layoff allowed the Penguins to finally get healthy, meaning Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin and the whole rest of the gang were all there. They ran into a hot Price and got knocked out, which was everyone's worst fear when this postseason expanded to 12 teams in the first place, but that Penguins team, with their playoff experience, still isn't a matchup you'd relish.
Beyond allowing the Bruins to avoid the Penguins, though, this also makes Sunday's game a little more meaningful, because even though no one on the Bruins or Capitals would ever say it, you would much rather win and face the Islanders than have to face the Hurricanes, and the Islanders wouldn't have been an option if the Penguins had come back to beat the Habs.
The Hurricanes steamrolled the Rangers in a three-game sweep, and their top line of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen was dominant. If there's a reason to feel a little better about the matchup, it's that one of their top defensemen, Brett Pesce, will likely miss the whole first round (and probably more), and another, Dougie Hamilton, is just getting back on the ice after an injury, so it's unclear when or if he'll be 100 percent. Goaltending has also been a question mark at times, but Petr Mrazek and James Reimer both played really well against the Rangers.
The Bruins, of course, swept the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals last year. That probably wouldn't mean a whole lot now, though, especially after this long break.
The Hurricanes were a strong team in the regular season, too, as they had a plus-29 goal differential and ranked seventh in the NHL with an expected goals-for percentage of 52.37%.
The Islanders, meanwhile, actually gave up one more goal than they scored in the regular season and were 18th in expected goals for at 49.85% (the Bruins, by the way, were fifth at 52.82%). To their credit, though, they're coming off a 3-1 series win over the Panthers that they finished off earlier in the day Friday with a dominant 5-1 win, although Florida looked like a team that was ready to go home.
A Barry Trotz-coached team is always a threat to clamp down defensively and win some low-scoring games, especially if goalie Semyon Varlamov gets hot. But they're not a good possession team nor a particularly dangerous offensive one, so you'd have to like the Bruins' chances to control play and ultimately break through enough to win a series.
Everyone knows there's really no such thing as an easy opponent in the playoffs. Just look at the number of upsets every season, including the ones we've seen already this year. That's doubly true for the Bruins right now given that they haven't found their own game yet. But the Canadiens winning Friday and taking the Penguins out of the Bruins' picture and putting the Islanders in it should be a welcome sight.