Struggling to score throughout October, November, and December, the Bruins now have knocked home five goals or more in four of their last five games.
While Taylor Hall has but two goals recently, the left winger’s overall game and production (2-6—8 since the holiday break) have been his best this season, and arguably his most effective since arriving on Causeway Street less than a year ago in trade from Buffalo.
Hall, 30, finally looks like the persistent threat, and presence, that landed the former NHL MVP a $24 million guarantee last summer to remain here.
“For me, personally, the 10-day break came at a good time,” Hall noted Monday night, after he chipped in a pair of assists in a 7-3 trouncing of the Capitals in Washington. “My game was OK, but it allowed me to take a breath and maybe just relax a little bit more — maybe not put so much pressure on myself.”
It was during the break — extended a week because of the club’s COVID issues — that coach Bruce Cassidy was led to change the brew of his first two lines, flipping right wingers David Pastrnak and Craig Smith. With the craftier, speedier Pastrnak on his opposite side, and Erik Haula in the middle, Hall and the newly structured Zip Line have combined for 9-10—19 in six games.
Meanwhile, Smith and his new linemates, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, clicked at 8-8—16 over the same six. Cassidy essentially rebalanced his offensive stock with the right wing flip-flop, sparking a 28-15 goal-scoring advantage, and 5-1-0 record, in the new year.
The entire offense, which will take on the woebegone Canadiens Wednesday night at the Garden, looks relaxed, confident, and is operating with, dare we say, some swagger.
“Trying to enjoy it a little bit more,” said Hall. “Throughout the first part of the year, I felt like I was a little tight in games and wasn’t able to show my true ability playing that way. So I’ve tried to just relax a little bit, play with my linemates better, and it’s worked out.”
The key three elements of the Zip Line’s success? Speed. Speed. And … is the pattern clear?
Both Hall and Pastrnak create best with legs moving and sticks creating, breaking into the zone off the rush as Ferraris rather than trying to establish a four-wheel-drive half-court game. Haula looked like a lost soul before this recent pairing. He has proven to have the legs and stick skill to be the abracadabra maker in the middle, chipping in with 2-3—5 after going a moribund 1-4—5 in his previous 25 games.
“I think we play quick,” noted Hall. “If you look at our chances through the neutral zone, it’s a guy that moves it, goes to space, gets open, a lot of one-touch passes. Just a lot of opening up the ice.
“I’m not the best cycle player. But if we can get moving and little give-and-goes all over the ice — and I think Haula’s done a really good job with that, I think he’s a guy who’s proven he can play with really good players. He did that in Vegas and Carolina. I think he’s been really good for us. He brings a lot of speed through the middle and a lot of pace.”
One developing plot line to follow out of Monday’s convincing win will be whether Cassidy keeps Matt Grzelcyk installed as the quarterback on the No. 1 power-play unit.
It was a magical night for Grzelcyk, who factored in a career-high five of the seven goals with his gaudy 1-4—5 production. It was the biggest output by a Boston defenseman since Ray Bourque smacked a high-five across the Capitals 28 years earlier.
Cassidy started the night with Charlie McAvoy working the top of the No. 1 PP, then quickly amended it with Grzelcyk, along with making fellow Terrier Charlie Coyle the net-front guy.
McAvoy was just back in the lineup after a lower-body injury led to a two-game layoff.
“We’ve told all those guys — even Torey [Krug] back in the day — you’ve got to get the puck in the forwards’ hands, and when it’s your turn to shoot, then shoot. But in general, be a facilitator, keep it moving, settle everyone down, be good on the entries. And Gryz has always done that well.”
The smaller, more compact Grzelcyk exceeds McAvoy’s skill at “walking the line,” the ability to skate and wheel with the puck along the blue line. McAvoy is a bigger, more robust skating force in most areas of the ice, but the 5-foot-9-inch Grzelcyk brings more of Krug’s mobility and guile to that spot.
He also has a surprisingly good shot, which, like McAvoy, he too often keeps in reserve.
“His shot … well, he hit the net, right?” said Cassidy, referring to Grzelcyk’s goal early in the second that delivered a 3-2 lead. “He’s been off net with some of his chances, so good for him.”
Overall, Cassidy feels his bunch has been better of late at landing shots on net. Of their 56 attempts in Washington, 31 hit the target, seven of them clearing the goal line.
“As a result, we’re forcing goalies to be perfect,” said Cassidy, “or to make some high-end saves. And it’s been a few games now that they haven’t been able to do it.”
General manager Don Sweeney held out some hope that Nick Foligno might not have suffered a long-term injury Saturday night in Tampa. The veteran winger had an MRI on his leg Tuesday, confirmed Sweeney, who had yet to hear the results. “He was walking around and doing a little stuff this morning, as well,” noted Sweeney, referring to seeing Foligno at the Brighton practice facility. “So hopefully we’re on the shorter side of the injury.” … The Bruins also lost center/wing Trent Frederic after only 10 shifts and 6:57 TOI in Washington, with an upper-body injury … Jake DeBrusk and Tomas Nosek, each in COVID protocol of late, both should be ready to return this week, which would help fill the void if Foligno and Frederic are lost for a while … Anton Blidh is finding some offensive mojo. He picked an assist in Tampa and added two more apples in D.C. “A little more confidence, attacking,” said Cassidy. “He has scored a little bit in Providence over the years. He’s not going to be a high-end scorer, never has, so that’s not the expectation. But he can contribute.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.