The Bruins schedule, barely at a simmer at times in the early season, goes to a full boil beginning with Friday’s matinee visit to Causeway Street by the Rangers. For the 10 weeks leading to the Olympic break in February, the Bruins will play nearly every other day — 33 games in 68 days, the pace of a postseason schedule.
It’s not early anymore. It’s crunch time, with fatigue certain, along with the inevitable increased risk of injury.
“Sometimes it is an easy excuse, that we haven’t played as many games and all that,” mused No. 2 center Charlie Coyle following Wednesday night’s 5-1 dismissal of the Sabres in Buffalo. “But you have to come focused to play every time, no matter what the schedule is.”
And with the pace about to speed up, added Coyle, “I think it’s going to help us stay focused and be ready to go even more.”
The Bruins reached Thanksgiving with a 10-6-0 record, their second-best mark in terms of points percentage (.625) in their four Thanksgivings under Bruce Cassidy.
Technically, they did not own a playoff berth as of Thursday morning. However, of the handful of teams jockeying for wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, their .625 points percentage was second only to the Blue Jackets (.647).
Zboril on an upswing
Jakub Zboril looks like he’s getting it. Locked into the no-man’s land of No. 7 defenseman through the first month of the season, the former first-round draft pick has emerged the last two weeks as a solid, reliable contributor on the No. 3 pairing’s right side.
As a left stick, he’s on his off side, but he finally looks to be on his game. The keys: Confidence and assertiveness.
“I think he’s understanding what it takes to play in this league,” said Cassidy after watching Zboril pick up an assist and log a stout 17:34 of ice time in Buffalo. “A lot of guys, it takes a while.
“We went through it with [Matt Grzelcyk] for a while. He’d go down, come back up, and he finally found what he could be good at — transition, have some confidence to make a play. Be hard when you need to.”
Zboril was the fourth defenseman picked in the 2015 draft. The three ahead of him — Noah Hanifin (5), Ivan Provorov (7), and Zach Werenski (8) — all have forged solid careers. Zboril (13) has but a fraction of their NHL experience at 50 games, but at age 24, he looks like he at least might be capable of holding down steady work in a No. 3 pairing.
“I think with Zboril you are seeing a harder brand of hockey,” said Cassidy. “He made a big hit on [Kyle] Okposo; he’s a big man and he kind of bounced. He is willing to put his body in harm’s way when the opportunity is there — and he’s a 200-pound man. So we are seeing a little more of that, which we need from the group as a whole.”
Indeed, more pop from the defensemen would be welcome sandpaper.
“I think he is playing to his strength,” added Cassidy. “He is handling the puck, making good plays moving his feet, shooting a little bit more. All stuff we have asked him to do, and sometimes it takes a while for the player to get confident — and sometimes the player feels like the staff doesn’t trust him. Now I think he feels that. To me, it’s always play that dictates that.”
The yin and yang is Zboril’s ascension led to Connor Clifton ascending, too — from ice surface to press box. Until further notice, the former Quinnipiac standout is left out.
“That’s the next challenge,” said Cassidy. “He’s had pockets of good hockey as well and then it kind of dips a little. So we have to make sure he stays in the moment, understands what he’s doing, and [does] it well.”
He took his shot
Coyle has been reminded his entire playing career, dating back to his mite days on the South Shore, to use his shot more.
“I’ve heard that my whole life,” he said Wednesday, after his sizzler to the top shelf in the first period proved to be the game-winner. “I’ve just got to keep using it, get myself in position to get it off.”
Coyle’s goal was his sixth in 16 games, equaling his 51-game output last season, when he was hindered by a knee injury that required surgical repair over the summer.
Nick Foligno (two-assist night) provided critical help on Coyle’s goal, opening up space on the right wing with some dogged forechecking.
“You see a guy like him forecheck and breathing down your neck, you don’t really want the puck,” said Coyle. “And that’s what happened. It ends up on my stick and I have a lane to go and use my shot.
“It’s pretty huge when you have a guy on the hunt like that on the forecheck.”
It appears Charlie McAvoy escaped what could have been a serious injury late in the third period when he tumbled face-first into the boards upon being hammered by Zemgus Girgensons, who got five for boarding and a game misconduct. According to Cassidy, McAvoy required only stitches to his forehead and should be good to go against the Rangers.