After what feels like an eternity, the NHL and NBA are officially back from hiatus. Four and a half months after the NHL and NBA announced their seasons would be suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic, both leagues are officially re-starting in their respective "bubbles" this weekend. Fortunately for Boston fans, both the Bruins and Celtics are well equipped to make strong playoff runs and possibly even win their leagues' respective titles.
Over the past twenty years, the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox have won a combined 10 championships for the city of Boston, while the Bruins and Celtics have each contributed just one apiece. With the Pats and Red both expected to take a step back following the notable departures of Tom Brady and Mookie Betts, the fans of Boston are anxious to see if either their Celtics or Bruins can step up and attain championship glory as their seasons resume. Is the city primed for a...virtual parade this Fall? Maybe over Zoom?
Prior to the start of the 2019-20 NHL season, The Boston Bruins were coming off a devastating loss on home ice to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Despite that, Boston began its season re-energized with Stanley Cup or bust expectations.
Before the season was suspended, the Bruins were sitting comfortably atop the NHL standings with a record of 44-14-12 and exactly 100 points in 70 games; they were only team to reach the 100 point mark prior to the shutdown. Boston also boasted the 7th best offense in the league, scoring 227 goals. Right Wing David Pastrnak led the team with 48 of those goals, tying him with Washington's Alex Ovechkin for first in the NHL.
Boston was also the toughest team in hockey to score against in the regular season, yielding only 174 goals in those 70 games. Goalie Tuukka Rask was enjoying a career year with a 26-8-6 record, 2.12 GAA (1st in the NHL) and 5 shutouts. Brad Marchand was 6th in the league in points with 87 -- Marchand scored 28 goals and his 59 assists put him 5th among his peers.
There had been rumors floating around that, had the NHL not resumed play this season, Boston would have been crowned the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Champions (due to an obscure point in the NHL rule book. However, after the league finalized its 24 team conference based playoff format, Boston was instead awarded the 2019-20 Presidents Trophy for best record.
For those who are unaware, the Presidents Trophy has had a long history of "cursing" teams in the playoffs. Since the 1985-86 season, only 8 teams that won the Presidents Trophy have gone on to win the Stanley Cup (24.2%). The last team to win both the Presidents Trophy and Stanley Cup was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, who of course beat the Bruins to do so.
Now typically, at least in a non-pandemic shortened season, the Presidents Trophy winner automatically receives both the top seed in their conference and home ice throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs; this year, however, the Bruins will have to fight for that top seed.
As part of the NHL's re-start, Boston will be competing in a round robin with the three teams that finished just behind them in the Eastern Conference standings: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. These teams will play three games total, each against the others in the Top 4, for seeding purposes. So the Bruins will have to come out of the gate aggressive and explosive if they want to keep their top seed once the Eastern Conference playoff field gets whittled down from 12 to 8 teams.
What's hurt the Bruins' ability to capture another Stanley Cup in recent years despite multiple deep playoff runs has been their ability to close out games. This season alone, Boston lost 12 overtime games, the second highest total in the NHL behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, who dropped 15 games in OT. Granted, 7 out of those 12 overtime losses were shootouts (0-7), which the team won't have to worry about in this re-start; nonetheless, their ability to win close games is a big question mark as the playoffs now approach.
Bruins fans also need not be reminded of the team's devastating Stanley Cup Final losses to both the Blackhawks and Blues over the past several years. Boston was up 2-1 in Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final at home until the Blackhawks scored 2 goals merely 17 seconds apart late in the 3rd period to capture the Stanley Cup. The Bruins were also favored to win Game 7 at home against the Blues last season, but wound up dropping that game 4-1.
However, if the Bruins pick up where they left off this season as they enter the playoffs, it would not be shocking to any NHL fan to see them win it all in this re-start. Boston proved time and again all season long that it was the best team in the league. With players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara entering the late stages of their careers, the window for the main core to capture another Cup is starting to close. They'll need help from the likes of David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy and others in order to do so.
The Boston Celtics entered the 2019-20 season with a ton of uncertainty. First, All-Star Point Guard Kyrie Irving left the team following a drama riddled 2018-19 campaign to join his "hometown" Brooklyn Nets alongside fellow All-Star Kevin Durant. All-Star Center Al Horford also chose to leave town, joining the rival Philadelphia 76ers. Many around the NBA wondered how the Celtics would bounce back following the rumors that Irving had damaged the team's chemistry, especially with young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Despite all this, Boston went into the first day of free agency with a concrete plan, signing All-Star Point Guard Kemba Walker to fill the void left by Irving's departure. However, even after adding a player of Walker's caliber, many experts still predicted the Celtics to be nothing more than a middling team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Boy, were they wrong.
Boston sprinted out of the gate, beginning the 2019-20 season with a 23-8 record and establishing itself as a top 3 team in the Eastern Conference. As the Celtics entered 2020, however, they experienced some struggles, posting a record of just 9-7 in the month of January. Rising star Jaylen Brown was dealing with the injury bug due to a sprained thumb and Kemba Walker was fighting off both the flu and some knee discomfort.
The month of February, however, became the Jayson Tatum show, as the young forward played at a true MVP level. Tatum averaged 30.5 points per game while shooting 50% from three point land; the last player to accomplish this in the 3 point era was none other than Celtic legend Larry Bird himself. Boston went 9-3 in February and battled for the East's number 2 seed with the defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors. The team continued this battle with Toronto up until the NBA season's suspension on March 11.
Boston finished the abbreviated season with a record of 43-21, good for 3rd in the Eastern Conference and just 3 games behind the Raptors. However, under the upcoming playoff format adopted for the NBA re-start, the Celtics could conceivably move either up or down a spot in the standings. As the 22 teams invited to the Disney bubble (13 from the Western Conference and 9 from the East) begin play, each will play eight "regular season" games that will finalize seeding and create the traditional 16 team, 2 conference playoff field.
While Boston does have a good chance to jump up to the 2 seed, however, the most realistic scenario sees the team staying put exactly where it is now. This means that the Celtics would likely face the 6 seed 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. Philadelphia won 3 out the 4 match-ups against the Celtics this season, with an average margin of victory of 10.6 points. However, playing at a neutral site won't necessarily help out Philadelphia; the Sixers posted a 29-2 home record in the regular season, best in the league, but things were a much different story for them on the road. Philly had an embarrassing 10-24 road record as of March 11.
Honestly, despite what happened between the two teams previously this season, Boston shouldn't have much of a problem in a potential first round series against Philadelphia. On the other hand, a potential second round match-up against the defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors could spell big trouble for the C's Allow me to explain why.
Even though Kawhi Leonard elected to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers last July, teaming up with Paul George in the process, Toronto really didn't lose a step this year. The Raptors were riddled with their own injury issues this season, losing players like Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol for different periods of time. Head Coach Nick Nurse kept finding ways to win despite being without his full starting 5, including a notable 30 point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks without Pascal Siakam or Gasol.
Toronto's championship experience may be hard to overcome for the Celtics in the second round, but the upside to facing Toronto is that Boston wouldn't actually have to travel north of the border for a potential Game 7. Why? Well, the C's have struggled in Toronto the past several years, winning just 2 out their last 10 games in Toronto since the start of 2015.
Even if Boston can get by Toronto in the second round, a potential Eastern Conference Finals match-up with the Milwaukee Bucks would be even more difficult to overcome. Milwaukee is the strong favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and rightfully so; the Bucks are led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has given the Celtics (and everyone else) lots of trouble.
While the road to the NBA Finals will certainly be difficult for the Boston Celtics, they are still one of the biggest sleeper teams to potentially come out of the Eastern Conference. Former NBA Player and current ESPN analyst Jalen Rose even predicted that the Celtics will advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. Jayson Tatum will play a big part in the Celtics' success in these playoffs if he can somehow replicate his play from February.
The injury status of Kemba Walker will also play a key role in the Celtics' hopes for a championship. Walker suffered a scary neck injury against the Denver Nuggets and was stretchered off the floor, but later returned to competition a week later. It wasn't long, however, until he suffered a knee injury and was consistently in and out of the lineup. Walker didn't look the same after his knee flared up and has been using the extra time to heal up.
If Tatum starts off strong, Kemba shows that he's healthy and other players like Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward can step up their collective games, the Celtics can easily make a deep playoff run and possibly even reach the Finals. Playing at a neutral site could help the Celtics tremendously and the play of their young stars could end up surprising many NBA fans.
It's evident that both the Bruins and Celtics are capable of making deep playoff runs and could even wind up reaching their respective championship rounds. However, if I had to pick which of the two has the best chance of bringing a championship back to Boston from their respective bubbles this season, it would have to be the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins were flat out the most consistent and dominant team in the NHL this season and proved that they aren't so easy to get rid of following their disappointing Finals loss last season. While the time off may have slowed down the Bruins' momentum, they have the veteran experience, the young core and a stellar goaltender in Tuukka Rask, who was playing the best hockey of his career prior to the pause, to help pull off a Stanley Cup victory.
Meanwhile, while the Celtics certainly can surprise many fans by ultimately winning an NBA title, it seems more probable than not that one of the L.A. teams or even Milwaukee will wind up as the last NBA team standing. Why? Well, the NBA and NHL have a very different approach when it comes to their products. It's no secret that the NBA prefers the best possible match-up in the NBA Finals each year, while the NHL loves to keep the competition wide open and create a fun, energetic series in which to award the Stanley Cup.
The NBA would love to see the Lakers in the NBA Finals this year, which would allow the league to further market the "legacy" of LeBron James and honor the late, great Kobe Bryant. A championship win for the Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, would usher in a new era of championship basketball in Los Angeles for the NBA, while the Bucks winning it all would help Giannis' path towards becoming the new face of the NBA.
This isn't me saying that the NBA is rigged by any means, but rather that the NBA does keep in mind market viewership and sponsor dollars when it comes to their Finals match-ups. The NBA did whatever it could to keep Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls the face of the NBA for as long as possible, later doing the same with LeBron's Heat and Cavaliers teams and most recently the Golden State Warriors "super team." If the NHL was built like the NBA, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers would face off in the Final constantly to grow the legacy of Sidney Crosby and help Connor McDavid slowly become the league's new face.
Instead, the NHL relies on the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Just last year, the NHL world was shocked when the Presidents Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning were taken out by the Blue Jackets in the first round. The defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues were dead last in the month of January, but made a strong push to make the playoffs and then won it all. The underdog Hurricanes even made the Eastern Conference Finals before being swept by the Bruins. Who could've seen this all coming?
Bottom line? The Bruins are in better shape to win right now in this setting than the Celtics are. The C's aren't too far behind, though, as I'd say another year or two of strong playoff runs could catapult them towards championship contention, especially if Jayson Tatum can continue his current trajectory and blossom into a true NBA superstar.
The cool part of this all is that the Bruins and Celtics have traditionally taken a back seat to the Patriots and Red Sox for years during their many Championship runs. Now, with those teams taking a temporary step back, a new wave of Boston Sports is fully underway with the Bruins and Celtics being the talk of the town. Regardless of what happens over the next few months, the future is certainly bright for the two teams sharing TD Garden.