The Bruins, their record frozen at 14-10-2 since Dec. 16, posted a significant W Monday morning: None of their players were added to the COVID protocol list.
A humble victory, for sure, but perhaps a sign that the resurgence in the pandemic is loosening its grip on a club that has seen six games postponed and 11 players recently test positive.
Adding to the win column: Prized left winger Taylor Hall was released from the sick bay list and rejoined his teammates for Monday’s 40-minute workout in Brighton.
Hall lined up on a No. 2 line with Erik Haula in the middle and Craig Smith on the right side, a trio that should be intact when the Bruins finally get back to work (COVID permitting) Saturday with the Sabres in town for a New Year’s matinee.
Hall, Smith, Nick Foligno, and other forwards immediately came to mind last week when team president Cam Neely noted the need for Bruce Cassidy’s charges to take, shall we way, a more direct approach to goal scoring.
After 26 games of mixed results and ofttimes-challenged offense, Neely noted his desire to see more shots taken, fewer passes attempted in lieu of those shots, and an increase in the willingness to battle for pucks around the net.
“Yes, I agree,” Cassidy said following Monday’s workout. “It’s a mentality. It’s a bit of habits. We’re trying to create the habits in practice and we have been for a while; it’s not new.
“But clearly we need to get that message through better, and the players need to buy into it better. Sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone to do it.”
Hall has the size and skill to be a primary producer, but thus far the $6-million-a-year ex-MVP can count only three even-strength goals among his modest haul of five strikes this season. Smith has a pair at even strength but nothing more. Foligno, who frequently has shown his trademark moxie around the net, has nothing to show for it on the scoresheet (0-4—4 in 18 games).
The forward least in need of hearing the message is Brad Marchand, his game built around speed, shot-readiness, and guile down low in prime scoring territory. Marchand has been reading from the “Dirty Goal Guide & Handbook” from days dating back to before his arrival on Causeway Street.
Since becoming a fixture here in the fall of 2010, the Li’l Ball o’Hate has rolled up 741 points, making him the league’s eighth-most productive scorer, and second only to Alex Ovechkin (838) among wingers. Nothing has changed this year. He stands No. 1 in club scoring, 11-16—27 in 21 games.
Not surprisingly, Marchand agrees with Neely’s get-to-the-net assessment.
“It’s a habit, and mentality, and to create that or implement it into your game, it takes time, it takes a lot of effort,” he said. “It starts in practice, something you have to incorporate in every drill, get in there, stopping, and if there’s any loose pucks, putting them in, just something you have to continually work on.”
Today’s goaltenders are too skilled, noted Marchand, for anyone to believe goals are going to be scored consistently from long range. Just as bank robbers target banks to apply their particular set of skills, goal scorers make the most of their deposits when they’re close to the goalie.
“Goalies are too good now,” he mused. “Teams are too good at coming back, and too fast. So you do have to get there and get ugly goals.”
As the league restarts from its holiday break Tuesday night, the Bruins rank 28th in total goals (70) and 23rd in goals per game (2.69). The Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak combo still ranks among the game’s premier trios with 29 of those 70 goals.
There’s more punch needed across the other lines, as well as from the blue liners, who’ve chipped in with 15 goals.
Until it sinks in across the lineup, Cassidy and his coaching crew will keep preaching the message.
“We’ve got to meet halfway,” said Cassidy, noting the need for some players to leave their comfort zone and play more to the coaching staff’s view of things. “Again, we’re trying to build more practice drills that involve that — especially this week when we’re not playing a lot and there’s not a lot of stress. You have more time to recover from battle drills.”
Drills and physical technique are the building blocks to dirty goals, but they’re just a load of bricks. The mind-set is the essential mortar.
“I truly believe it’s more a mind-set that has to be built into the individual, and into the group,” offered Cassidy. “Then they’ve got to want to do it. That’s where we are right now with that. I think getting a few more second chances around the net will obviously lead to more goals.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.