The Bruins and Capitals met up at the Garden Thursday night for a second time this season, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the two Eastern heavyweights clashing for a second straight time in the postseason again this spring.
The No. 1 playoff question for the Bruins, perhaps being answered here in January with their reconfigured top two lines, is whether they can dig in and establish inside ice in the offensive zone. Elbowing in and grinding down low, producing in those prime, sandpaper areas, often has proven to be the Black and Gold’s undoing in recent Stanley Cup play.
It was their bugaboo in 2018 vs. Tampa, yet again when faced by the Bolts in ‘20, and once more last spring when opposed by Lou Lamoreillo’s stout Islanders. The Bruins went a collective 12-4 in those three series, boxed out down low and ultimately kicked to the curb.
“I think it’s a personal, individual decision to get in there — and continually go there,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, asked prior to the 4-3 win how his new lines might change the pattern come playoff time. “That’s the mental toughness part of the playoffs. Every team goes through it if you want to advance.”
Over the 10 games heading into the visit by the Caps, the Bruins developed the most prolific two-line scoring punch they’ve had during Cassidy’s tenure of nearly five years. The key was Cassidy flipping his two best right wingers, David Pastrnak and Craig Smith, to new lines, in tandem with making Erik Haula a fixture at No. 2 pivot, ahead of prior No. 2 Charlie Coyle.
Now for their 11 games together, the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Smith line has produced 14 goals and 30 points. The speedy Zip Line, with Haula dishing to Taylor Hall and Pastrnak, has come up even bigger (15 goals/34 points). Other than a slight dip in Bergeron’s production, all the forwards have boosted their point-per-game output compared to the months of October, November, and December.
Which portends exactly what for the playoffs?
That’s remains to be determined — especially after Marchand was lost to an injured right shoulder near the 7:00 mark of the second period after getting crunched by a Garnet Hathaway hit.
If Marchand remains out for a while, Cassidy will have to find a new left winger for that top line, and it could be Jake DeBrusk, who set up Charlie McAvoy’s winner in the final minute. Cassidy said postgame that he did not want to pull apart the Hall-Haula-Pastrnak Zip Line to fill the void.
“The way they are now, I think they’ve done a good job with it, to this 10-game segment point,” said Cassidy, asked if he felt the new lines could solve the post-season’s inside riddle “Let’s see how it goes in a bigger sample size. Hopefully it does go well, so we don’t have to change anything and get the same results.”
The answer is difficult to decipher, in part, because of how play ratchets down in the postseason, clubs typically focused on buttoning up the back end. The offensive zone that was an oversized mural in the regular season turns into a postage stamp in the playoffs.
Lines that work best off the rush, like the Zip Line, often get frustrated in the postseason because their runways get shut down, their entry points closed off at the offensive blue line.
“Whether Pasta plays on the first or second line should not change the way he plays, in my estimation,” noted Cassidy. “You’re trying to get inside and you get limited rush chances in the playoffs. Teams tighten up. They manage pucks better — so it’s just about O-zone play, and if you do get a rush chance, maybe it’s a 2-on-2 with a little bit of [open] ice as opposed to a clean 3-on-2.”
In an attempt to find space, as Cassidy noted, attacking teams can target a weaker defenseman and try to exploit him, be it off the rush or in a corner mismatch. Another tactic would have a forward barreling down the middle in center-lane-drive mode, much like a blocking fullback, allowing the trailing forward to hit the hole and fire.
“Yeah, I hope the lines make it tougher for teams to check us,” added Cassidy, noting that two-line punch forces opponents conjure added backline strategies. “But I still think as players, no matter what line you’re on, if you do get inside you’re going to have success. If you don’t, it’s going to be that much more difficult.”
With only the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio of serious concern, the Lightning and Islanders made relatively easy postseason work of the Bruins. In ‘20, the win over the Bruins was step No. 2 in Tampa winning the Cup. They’ve since won six consecutive series and will be poised to win their third consecutive title this spring.
Of the 12 teams with playoff seeds in hand as of Thursday morning, Tampa and Florida would present the Bruins with the biggest “down low” challenge in the East. Some might think Carolina, too, in part because the Hurricanes have handled the Bruins easily in two games this season. But the view from here is that the Carolina backline and supporting forwards have the better chance of buckling under pressure. They are a good regular-season squad until proven otherwise.
In the West, if the Bruins reach a fourth final in the Bergeron-Marchand era, Colorado looks to be the smartest and most talented of the six current seeds. But then there’s Calgary, still in the wild-card hunt. The Flames, led by Cassidy’s former coach, Darryl Sutter, have trouble generating scoring chances, but they’ve allowed fewer goals (88 as of Thursday) than anyone in the West. All Sutters see beauty and honor in the bruises and stitches inherent in the down-low fight.
For what the regular season offers as guidance, the Bruins stood 5-6-1 Thursday morning against eight of those 12 seeded teams this season, including a win in their prior meeting with the Caps. They were 15-6-1 against clubs out of that Top 12 mix.
Still three-plus months to go in the regular season, not to mention the March 21 trade deadline out there to provide a roster patch, if needed, the Bruins are riding high, offering optimism for what’s to come down low.
“We have to see a few more games to truly say ‘Yup, it’s done,” said Cassidy, “or if we still have to continue to see what works best.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.