By the end of this week, the vast majority of NHL teams, including the Bruins, will have reached the first-quarter mark of the shortened 56-game season.
So if times were normal (please, gallery gods on high, bring back normal), this would be around Thanksgiving on the standard 82-game NHL schedule, and we’d already have a pretty good fix on which 16 teams would be headed to the playoffs.
This season, Valentine’s Day has replaced Thanksgiving as the barometer to gauge who’ll be in and who’ll be out come playoff time. Instead of turkey and gravy, it’s the season of hearts and flowers to help us predict who might have a shot at sipping champagne from the Cup.
Barring a seismic shift in what the Bruins have delivered in the first three weeks, 8-1-2 (.818), they’re postseason shoo-ins. Their one regulation loss, a 1-0 trimming by the Islanders, came on Jan. 18, and they have outscored the opposition, 32-19, in the eight games since, despite coach Bruce Cassidy being forced to juggle his forward lines due to injuries.
If there’s a trouble spot, one that could augur problems in the run-up to mid-May, it’s the Black-and-Gold’s 5-on-5 goal scoring, which on Sunday morning ranked 21st overall in the NHL with 17 goals in 11 games (a lackluster 1.55 per game).
Last season, the Bruins were somewhat better (139 goals, 1.99/game average) in the 5-on-5 department, which convinced GM Don Sweeney, in part, to lay out $9.3 million to right winger Craig Smith as a way to beef up secondary scoring, particularly at even strength.
The Bruins were particularly inept at 5-on-5 vs. Tampa in the playoffs, leading to their second-round knockout by the Bolts, 4 games to 1. The Bruins were outscored, 13-4, in the final three games, scoring but one goal at even-strength across a stretch of 214:10.
Important note on reading today’s numbers, especially with the season not yet a month old: As of Sunday morning, the Canucks had more 5-on-5 goals (35) than anyone in the league, albeit with 15 games played (also a league high). On average, that’s 2.33 goals per game. Yet the Canucks were 6-9-0 in those 15 games, and stood on the outside looking in at the four playoff berths in the North Division.
Numbers in and of themselves never tell the whole story. But even without a pocket calculator or slide rule, Cassidy is sensitive to the need for more even-strength production.
“Absolutely, get a little more consistency in terms of the 5-on-5 stuff,” said Cassidy, reviewing his very short “to do” list over the weekend. “We’d like to nail down that [Charlie] Coyle-[Trent] Frederic-Smith line, see if we can give it a stretch of, you know, 5-10 games, to see how that performs on a nightly basis.”
Cassidy et al view that third line, centered by Coyle, as the potential big difference maker this season. Coyle has the heft and all-around game to drive a scoring line, and brief looks with Frederic and Smith on his flanks have been encouraging. If it can be a stable, efficient trio, that alone could improve 5-on-5 production, be it from their own hands or from the lines centered by the likes of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Sean Kuraly.
Cassidy also would like to play more often, and earlier, with a lead.
“We’re starting on time most nights — we’re just not finishing, to play with the lead,” he noted. “It’s easier on everybody. To stay in the game, you’re probably expending less energy trying to chase the game.”
The Bruins managed a lead in all but four of their first 11 games, and overall led (225:30) more than trailed (163:27). They were also perfect (4-0) when leading after two periods, and posted an impressive 4-1-2 (.714) in games when trailing or tied after the 40:00 mark. For the most part, they’ve been able to play downhill, despite needing the recent firewagon comebacks in Washington, where they twice had to charge back from 3-1 deficits through 40:00.
Back to work Monday morning in Brighton, the Bruins will be rejoined in practice by the recently injured likes of Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk, and Jack Studnicka. DeBrusk and Grzelcyk both are on target to face the Rangers Wednesday night at MSG. Studnicka probably needs a longer runway, likely into next week for his return.
DeBrusk, a top-six winger, is a key factor in whether the 5-on-5 production begins to percolate. If ready, he’s likely slotted to line up on right wing with Krejci and Nick Ritchie (LW). All of which will allow the Frederic-Coyle-Smith combination to reunite and, as Cassidy noted, maybe develop some offensive traction if they can stay together over a stretch of three weeks or more.
Grzelcyk, groomed to take Torey Krug’s spot as the No. 1 power-play QB, will return to that role, and also slot into his No. 2 pairing with Brandon Carlo on his right. Connor Clifton, who has played well in Grzelcyk’s absence, will return to his backup role.
The Bruins face the Rangers again on Friday, then play Game No. 14, the official first-quarter mark, Saturday night in Uniondale. They’ll be home for a scheduled day off Sunday, Valentine’s Day, for candy, cards, kisses and thoughts of a springtime romance with Lord Stanley’s darling.