When Bruce Cassidy pulled Jack Ahcan aside Thursday and talked to Ahcan about undersized defensemen who came before him and carved out their niche, Cassidy found the right button to push. The rookie took Cassidy’s message — as well as some added confidence — into the Bruins win that night over the Blackhawks.
The day before, Cassidy had a conversation with the entire team about the pocket of last-minute goals that had spoiled an otherwise strong run. The point was that there was no need to overreact, but simply to execute in close-out situations.
The team responded by sealing that win against Chicago with a last-minute goal.
Seeing his messages get through to players, particularly as the Bruins are beginning to coalesce with the playoffs on the horizon, was a sign that things are clicking.
“It’s nice if everyone’s on the same page and they’re repeating [it] and they believe what you’re saying,” Cassidy said. “I think it’s tough to lead if they don’t believe what you’re doing and what you’re saying. So that’s so nice to hear the guys say that.
“I don’t know if they would have said that in November, some of them, about what we’re trying to correct. But that’s just a relationship you build with the players and the group.”
The Bruins have won eight of the past 10 games and they’re still the only team in the league to avoid a three-game skid. Their bounce-back win over the Blackhawks after returning from a six-game road trip with a loss to the Kings was another sign of a team staying the course.
“I think we’re typically on the same page,” Cassidy said. “If we’re not we try to correct it.”
As the season goes on, Cassidy said the types of conversations he has with players change.
“I think it’s just a time of year where we’re focusing a lot more on the positive,” Cassidy said. “I think a lot of the teaching is done earlier in the year. You see that with individuals that maybe their ice time may get cut. Early on to me, I’ve always felt OK, this is the expectation, this is what we want, we’ve got to get better here, here, and here. You’re focusing on corrections.
“As the year goes on, I think if you’ve done your job properly as a team and as a staff, then you’ve corrected some of those things and now it’s reinforcing the positives and tweaking the things that aren’t going as well ... We try to talk about, this part of the year, what we’re doing well. Let’s keep building on the foundations we put in place and we will tweak the negatives along the way.”
Whether it’s in a film session or on the ice, Brad Marchand said Cassidy will grab players and give them insight or encouragement.
“He’s a very, very smart coach,” Marchand said. “He’s always trying to filter that knowledge to us, whether it’s throughout the game or during practice, whatever. So he’s always kind of chipping away at it.”
Communication is, of course, a two-way street. Cassidy could remember exchanges with Zdeno Chara: Even if they didn’t see things the same way, they found common ground.
“I’ll be the first to tell you I had some disagreements with Z when he was here about certain things or how to practice. We come to an agreement. His opinion matters.”
The days when coaches simply gave marching orders and players followed them are gone. For Cassidy, listening to players is as important as getting his message across.
“If Charlie McAvoy comes up [in] a key situation, tells me, ‘Hey, I think, can we talk about this?’ I think you have to in this day and age. It’s not just my way or the highway. I don’t think that works.”
Marchand said Cassidy’s ability to connect with players is an essential part of leading a team.
“That’s a huge part of coaching,” Marchand said. “A small part is coaching the systems and all that, but really it’s player management and finding out what makes different players tick and how to get the best out of them.
“And all that’s something you learn with each player, the longer that they’re here and the longer you kind of lean on them or have different conversations with them. So just kind of managing different personalities.”
Brad Marchand toeing the line
Since returning from a six-game suspension in February, Marchand has posted a 2-6—8 line while going plus-6 in eight games. Both of his goals came in a 3-1 win over San Jose on Feb. 26. He’s gone six games since then without finding the net.
Marchand conceded that he’s adjusting to playing with his usual intensity while also being mindful that he’s under increased scrutiny after being disciplined twice this season.
“It’s definitely there at times,” Marchand said. “I’m going to have to be cautious of that until I retire. So, yeah, it definitely kind of weighs on me, especially having two so close together. It can’t happen again. So, definitely weighs on your mind a bit.”
Before the February suspension, Marchand led the Bruins in points and goals. Missing two weeks might have disturbed his rhythm but he didn’t want to use it as an excuse.
“I’ve got to be a good player for this group and still be able to play my game within those parameters.”
Cassidy has noticed Marchand making that effort.
“I would say Brad is working really hard not to let things bother him or get frustrated,” Cassidy said. “That’s a useless emotion, so to speak. He can get angry and then channel that into some energy. So I think maybe he is being a little bit careful in situations that typically wouldn’t get his motor running.
“And I think that’s OK. He’s got to learn to play that way anyway and still get the motor running. So this might be a little bit of the process for him as well.
Matt Grzelcyk resumes skating
Matt Grzelcyk skated Friday and is expected to be available for Saturday’s game against the Coyotes. Cassidy planned on having Grzelcyk on the ice Thursday, but Grzelcyk came down with an ailment that wasn’t related to the upper-body injury. “Obviously feeling better. I said this the other day: I assume he’ll be ready to go.” ... Jeremy Swayman will be in net Saturday against Arizona. Linus Ullmark will start Tuesday in Chicago.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.