NEWARK — Now comes the teaching.
The Bruins’ bevy of young players have had 65-plus minutes of 2020-21 regular-season film to review, stress over, and digest. More evidence of their development — and their shortcomings — hits their inboxes at some point Saturday evening.
Coach Bruce Cassidy and defensive assistant Kevin Dean spent several minutes after practice on the Devils’ Prudential Center ice in separate conversations with Charlie McAvoy, the newly-minted No. 1 defenseman. In these cases, Cassidy’s one-on-one chats with players typically involve the previous night’s game, big-picture performance, or general well-being check-ins. In this case, he was reviewing McAvoy’s performance in Thursday’s 3-2 shootout win, particularly how the 23-year-old deferred late in the game.
“He was assertive, I thought, for most of the game,” Cassidy said in a video chat after practice. “A couple of situations, on the breakout in the last two minutes where [I was] just asking him, ‘Hey, be the guy in those situations, if you feel that you have a better play than moving it to your partner. You’ve got a young partner [Jeremy Lauzon] and that’s your strength. It always has been. Clearly Lauzy will be able to move the puck better as he gets more experience, but that’s an area you can take control.”
They were also discussing the second-unit power play, how “There’s been a lot of moving parts, but him and Jake [DeBrusk] and Charlie [Coyle], they’ve been on it,” Cassidy said. “A little more taking control, student of the game, in that area.
“Physicality and transporting pucks, and getting involved at the right time, I thought he did a lot of those well, so I was just reminding him: Tomorrow’s a new day, so keep building on that.”
McAvoy, who logged a team-high 25 minutes, 33 seconds on Thursday (22:31 at even strength), knows that Saturday will be another heavy lift. Other teammates are not guaranteed anything.
Jack Studnicka, who debuted with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron on the top line Thursday, might find himself out of the lineup if Craig Smith returns from a lower body injury. Smith, signed for the No. 3 right wing spot, has five times the NHL experience (661 games) of fellow wingers Anders Bjork (109), Trent Frederic (18), or Studnicka (3) combined. Smith, who moved well at Friday’s practice, is guaranteed to play once ready.
That would leave, in Cassidy’s words, “essentially two spots for three guys.” Frederic looked stable as a No. 4 left wing. Bjork, who has bounced around, has experience as the No. 1 right wing. The Bruins practiced Friday with Bjork as the No. 1 RW, and Studnicka as an extra.
Cassidy pulled Studnicka aside.
“Obviously if you’re lights out, you usually stay in the lineup,” he said he told him. “But that’s hard to be for a young guy. Do your job, do it well, give us 100 percent when you get over the boards … and go from there. And if you’re not in, work hard to get back in.”
Studnicka had a few nice plays in the opener, deferring, as asked, to his star linemates. He kept his shifts short. Overall, the results were not favorable.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Marchand-Bergeron-Studnicka trio was outshot, 5-1, in 7:34 of ice time at 5 on 5. With different linemates (Coyle and Bjork), Studnicka was on the ice for the tying goal in the third period. It was an unlucky break, given the way defenseman Ty Smith’s shot pinballed around in front before eluding Tuukka Rask, but Studnicka was caught outside the shooting lane, flailing his stick, as the shot got through.
Cassidy didn’t point to those plays as a reason he might scratch Studnicka. He did, however, allude to the possibility he might sit the rookie if Smith returned.
“I wouldn’t call it a preemptive strike, but I don’t want him to overthink things, get down on himself, or this or that,” Cassidy said, noting that the talk was one-sided. “It’s part of being a pro. You come to work every day, work hard and get better, and hopefully you’re in the lineup the next day.”
He had a similar chat with defenseman Jakub Zboril, the third-pair defenseman trying to keep his spot while John Moore (532 career games to Zboril’s 3) tries to keep warm.
Meanwhile, Bergeron had a sit-down on the bench after practice with Bjork, who opened the (2017-18) season as the third wheel for Marchand and Bergeron.
“They’re great at communicating,” Bjork said. “Which is super helpful.”
Ritchie comfortable at net-front
Nick Ritchie was working the net-front on the first power-play unit at Friday’s practice. The promotion was part reward for quality shifts the burly winger submitted in the opener, part coaching adjustment.
Shortly before Ritchie potted a third-period power-play goal, off an assist from Marchand, the Bruins were playing 4 on 4. Coyle, who started the season on the first unit, was spent after a quad-burning, minute-long shift. Ritchie was fresh, stood his ground at the far post, and stuffed home a backdoor pass. Cassidy felt Ritchie’s (and Coyle’s) bulk in front of the net worked to their advantage.
“New Jersey has their D’s play away from the net a little bit and getting into Bergeron’s shooting lane,” he said. “So, I thought maybe if we played a little closer around the net then maybe we’d get some second chances and it worked out on Ritchie’s goal. The second goal we had talked about that back-post play and it worked out for us.”
Whether Ritchie is a permanent solution there remains to be seen, but he’s feeling a bit of momentum for perhaps the first time in his short Bruins career (February 2020 trade deadline present). He had three shots on goal at 5 on 5.
“Coming in with the shutdown, the bubble, and this season where it’s still a little strange, it’s obviously a little more normal now that we’re traveling and playing in other buildings,” Ritchie said. “Hopefully, every day it gets a little more normal and we’ll need that going forward.”
More finish needed
The Bruins, still looking for their first 5-on-5 goal, need more finish at even strength. “We had some good rebound chances,” Cassidy said, noting follow-up chances from Ritchie (twice) and Matt Grzelcyk. To the coach, the Bruins didn’t generate enough action off odd-man rushes, or enough traffic to make it difficult for netminder MacKenzie Blackwood (35 saves on 37 shots) to make saves … The Bruins wanted to play Jaroslav Halak in one of the three games on this road trip. He will get the call Saturday. Rask is in line to go Monday against the Islanders (5 p.m.), who happen to be Halak’s former team … NESN said the Bruins’ opener Thursday was the team’s highest-rated season debut since 2013, with a 5.98 household rating. It was the highest such mark for any regular-season game since March 29, 2018, against the Lightning. Nielsen said the average audience across New England was 295,000 viewers … Among several schedule changes, most related to Dallas’s multitude of COVID-19 cases, the NHL changed the April 10 Bruins-Capitals game to April 11. Puck drop is 7 p.m. … The Stars, who had 17 players test positive, will open their season Jan. 22 — virus permitting, of course.