It’s hard to say which was a bigger surprise in 2015: The Boston Bruins missing out on the playoffs or the Winnipeg Jets reaching them.
These clubs open play Thursday night with the Bruins, hoping to avoid another frustrating season, aiming for a 14th straight home victory against the Jets, who are trying to build on an impressive campaign.
Boston missed the postseason for the first time since 2007 despite a 41-27-14 record. General manager Peter Chiarelli was fired as a result, though Claude Julien remains behind the bench.
This is a new-look Bruins team in some regards after the club traded two of its top five point scorers in Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic. It wasn’t all subtraction in the offseason, however, as Boston also signed Matt Beleskey after he scored a career-high 22 goals in 65 games for Anaheim. The Bruins also acquired Jimmy Hayes, who scored 19 goals with Florida.
Those additions should help a team that ranked 22nd with 2.6 goals per game in 2014-15.
"You hit a bump along the way – it doesn’t mean that everything else explodes," said Julien, whom team president Cam Neely insisted wasn’t on the hot seat. "Moving forward with this team this year, we’ve got a lot of changes, a lot of new faces that are coming into our lineup. And that’s exciting for everybody."
Boston’s top three goal scorers – Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Loui Eriksson – all also return. The Bruins’ 96 points were the most ever by a non-playoff team.
"That’s how tight the NHL is," Beleskey said. "They’ve been winning for a long time and I’m sure that they’re all very hungry to get back to it."
The Bruins excelled on the other end of the ice, ranking eighth with 2.5 goals per game allowed, though they’ll be without defenseman Dennis Seidenberg for eight weeks due to back surgery and won’t have Zdeno Chara for at least the opener. Chara has been out since he sustained an upper-body injury in a Sept. 24 exhibition against the New York Rangers
Another hope is for a backup goaltender to emerge behind Tuukka Rask, who played in a career-high 70 games last season.
"I think our goaltending situation should be better than last year," Neely said. "I think we can reduce the amount of games that Tuukka had to play from last year."
Winnipeg reached the postseason for the second time in franchise history – and first time since relocating from Atlanta in 2011 – after going 43-26-13, but has still never won a playoff game after being outscored 16-9 by Anaheim in a four-game sweep.
Prior to the first round, though, the Jets were playing some of their best hockey, going 10-3-1 over their final 14 games, continuing to benefit from the February deal that sent Evander Kane to Buffalo in exchange for Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers, among other assets.
"When you drop the puck for the start of this season, everybody’s on equal footing," general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "What you’ve done in the past is something you feel good about, but it’s all about re-earning that opportunity in the future."
Winnipeg still has some question marks in its long-term future with stars Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien looming as unrestricted free agents. Ladd’s 62 points led the team, while Byfuglien tallied 45 points.
Goaltending depth should be a strength for the Jets after Ondrej Pavelec posted a career-best 2.28 goals-against average to go with a career-high five shutouts. Michael Hutchinson was sturdy behind him, going 21-10-5 with a 2.39 GAA.
Pavelec has struggled at Boston, however, going 0-6-1 with a 4.00 GAA in eight starts during Winnipeg’s 13-game losing streak there. The Bruins haven’t lost at home in the series since a 3-2 defeat to the Thrashers on March 31, 2007.
Another loss by the Jets would tie their 14-game active drought in Pittsburgh as the longest road losing streak in franchise history.
Rask owns a 1.48 GAA over his last six starts against Winnipeg and has a 1.30 mark in six career starts against them in Boston.