The home arenas for the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils are located a little more than 200 miles apart. But it took a pandemic-caused realignment to turn the regional foes into division rivals.
The Bruins and Devils are scheduled to begin a regular season unlike any other Thursday night whenNew Jersey hosts Boston in Newark, N.J.
The season opener is the first of eight scheduled meetings between the members of the newly christened Eastern Division. The 56-game NHL regular season will consist entirely of divisional games.
The shortened season introduces an element of unpredictability that could benefit the rebuilding Devils and a sense of urgency not often experienced by the veteran-filled Bruins. Boston, long accustomed to Stanley Cup-or-bust expectations, was the oldest team in the Eastern Conference by average age (29.1 years) last season, when it was eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The trip to the playoffs was the 11th in the last 13 seasons for the Bruins, but it was followed by a tumultuous fall and early winter. Boston, which allowed an NHL-low 174 goals last year, absorbed a pair of key blue-line losses when Torey Krug signed with the St. Louis Blues and longtime captain Zdeno Chara signed with another new division rival, the Washington Capitals.
The exits of Krug and Chara reduced a margin for error that was already going to be slimmer than normal and will leave the Bruins relying on their 30-something mainstays such as new captain Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak.
"You can't afford to go on a real dip and not get out of the gate (strong)," Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said. "There are going to be some challenges thrown our way. I think we have really strong goaltending and I think our foundation will help us get through some of those rough patches (that are) to be expected."
The Devils missed the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons last year. But there were signs the rebuild was finally beginning to bear fruit long before the offseason hiring of the experienced Lindy Ruff as head coach.
The Devils went 6-2-2 in their final 10 games and finished three points behind the Montreal Canadiens, the Eastern Conference's 10th and final playoff team. Each of New Jersey's top six returning scorers is 29 years or younger, but the most promising player is center Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft who finished with 21 points in 61 games as an 18-year-old. In addition, Mackenzie Blackwood, who turned 24 in December, established himself as a franchise-caliber goaltender by going 22-14-8.
The shortened season levels the playing field a bit for the Devils but also makes it imperative they avoid a rough start like the one endured last year, when New Jersey fell out of contention by going 9-17-5 in its first 31 games.
"We have to find a way even if the game doesn't go well," Devils right winger Kyle Palmieri said during training camp. "You're going to get another shot at it a day or two later the way the schedule works, probably against the same team. So being fragile as a group isn't something that we have an option for this year."
--Field Level Media