LAS VEGAS — The breakthrough for the Bruins — the point when lines clicked and chemistry finally manifested — came in January after the NHL went on hiatus. But the experimentation process — the constant search for which players made the most optimal complements — took months for coach Bruce Cassidy and the front office to sort through.
There were trials and errors. There was the leap that split David Pastrnak from the Perfection Line and moved Jake DeBrusk next to two pillars, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
At the same time, there was discovery. Pastrnak and Taylor Hall had a mutual appreciation that made their connection on the second line easy. Erik Haula had no problem playing the straight man on a line with two dynamic scorers. The quest was to find which players brought out the best in each other.
At the start of the season, with the Bruins tasked with filling the void left by David Krejci, putting Charlie Coyle alongside Hall seemed to make sense. The two never clicked, though. But Coyle had proven chemistry with Craig Smith. Reuniting them on the third line has worked out for both.
The Bruins gambled by breaking up the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line that had been their heartbeat for so long, but in the process, they were able to find combinations throughout the roster that work.
“It’s always kind of in flux,” said Nick Foligno, who has thrived on the fourth line next to Tomas Nosek. “With injuries and everything else, we’ve had our fair share of some craziness that’s going on with COVID and everything else.
“I’m sure [Cassidy] would love to have a lineup that stays the same for 50 games, but I think what we pride ourselves on as a group is that whenever you’re called upon to step up and play, you do the job.”
The Bruins saw how good their reconfigured lines could be when they won eight of nine to start the calendar year. Since February, they’ve gone 8-4-1.
Change brings risk, but seeing it work is gratifying.
“That’s kind of our job, to get people in a position to succeed as well,” said Cassidy. “Sometimes it happens right away, it’s organic, and other times you’ve got to work at it, and sometimes it doesn’t work out at all.”
Coming into the season, the Bruins realized they had work to do. Many of the pieces to the puzzle were relatively new. Hall and Curtis Lazar had been midseason arrivals a year ago. Foligno and Haula signed in the offseason. They were still learning on the fly and Cassidy was learning just as much about them.
“You’re going through some of those things that take time and you’re still trying to win hockey games,” Cassidy said.
At 14-10-2 going into January, the wins weren’t coming as much as the Bruins imagined. Something had to change, but before he could do anything drastic, Cassidy wanted to figure out what would bring out the best in certain players.
“The Bergeron line won us a lot of games over the years,” Cassidy said. “They were leaders for us and high-end guys, so to break them up, you wanted to be pretty sure you had something else going.
“Earlier this year, there were just too many guys that were not on their game yet that needed some different players around them. So that was kind of the thinking behind moving different people.”
Some of the puzzle pieces were staring Cassidy in the face. For instance, DeBrusk’s trade demand went public in November. He was never a disruption, but he wanted more of an opportunity. He got one when he moved to the top line, and he has delivered, scoring five of his 14 goals this season since the promotion, including a hat trick against the Kings on Monday.
Some of the pieces came together on their own. A byproduct of putting Hall and Pastrnak together was Haula finding his footing. Haula went the first 26 games of the season without a goal, but over his past five games, he has posted a 2-5—7 line.
“I think it’s just a sign of a good team,” Haula said. “I feel like we know that we have a lot of good players, a lot of scale and versatility in our lineup. Sometimes it can take time to find those combinations, but I feel like we have found something here right now.”
While Foligno is largely asked to bring physicality on the fourth line, he has been able to add offense recently, notching a goal and an assist against Anaheim Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Coyle-Smith combination paid dividends against the Golden Knights Thursday, with Smith recording his third career hat trick and Coyle assisting on all three goals.
“I definitely think that it’s a little give and take,” Smith said. “I think there’s certain times they throw some guys together and it works right away and that’s great. Other times, it takes a few games to get to know each other a little bit.
“I think everyone’s bought in at this point, especially throughout February. It was a big month for us, growth-wise as a team, and I thought we came out of that well.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.