John Halligan, consummate New Yorker and for years the head of the Rangers’ public relations department, never had a bad day.
How’s things, John?
“One hundred percent!” Halligan would say, 100 percent of the time, guaranteed, even if his beloved Blueshirts at times couldn’t buy a goal across the city’s five boroughs.
The Bruins, who will visit the late Halligan’s Broadway Blueshirts on Thursday night, improved to an NHL-best 8-1-0 with their win Friday night in Columbus. In a league where these days playing .600 hockey is needed just to make the playoffs, the .889 Bruins are as good as it gets.
Life, though, is never 100 percent in a coach’s world. So it was no surprise, really, when Bruins bench boss Jim Montgomery offered late Friday night that his charges have yet fully to grasp how he wants them to play.
“You know, oddly enough, we don’t,” said Montgomery, who’ll reconvene the troops for a Monday morning practice, a final tuneup prior to stops in Pittsburgh (Tuesday), Manhattan, and Toronto (Saturday). “But the language on the bench is starting to develop.”
In coach speak, “language on the bench,” is the measure of how engaged players are, an indicator of whether they’re picking up everything the coach is putting down.
On opening night, an impressive 5-2 win over the Capitals, Montgomery said his guys would need time to buy in, jell, execute as he desires.
“I said [then] we were probably at about 65 percent,” recalled Montgomery after Friday night’s 4-0 whitewash of the Blue Jackets. “I think we’re about 78 percent now.”
They’re getting there, one vulcanized ounce at a time, thanks in large part to a sizzling David Pastrnak (7-10—17) and a dominating Linus Ullmark (6-0-0, 1.70 goals against average, .945 save percentage).
But what, or where, is that missing 22 percent?
“Just how quickly we move pucks,” noted Montgomery, who began preaching pace, pace, pace from the moment he was announced as Bruce Cassidy’s successor. “I think we are playing fast defensively, but we’re not playing fast enough consistently on offense.”
Whatever the baud rate may be, his Bruins lead the league in goal scoring (38) and goal differential (+17). In fact, as of the completion of Saturday night’s action, Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights led the one major category (fewest goals allowed, with 16) that the Bruins had yet to claim.
Life is never 100 percent in the NHL until a smiling, exhausted team captain places a hand at each end of the Cup and raises it in triumph. Until then, there is always work to do.
David Krejci, a vital piece in perhaps taking the offense to where Montgomery would like it to go, exited Thursday night and took the weekend off after he was clobbered by Detroit’s Michael Rasmussen. The Bruins are expected to update the veteran pivot’s status Monday.
Krejci, 2-6—8 in his eight games, drives the second line — though, is it fair to label a line that includes Pastrnak as something lesser? Krejci also has been one of the four forwards filling Montgomery’s No. 1 power-play unit, which has yet to operate, let’s say, at anything close to 100 percent.
The Bruins connected for eight power-play goals in their first nine games with an acceptable 23.5 percent efficiency. As of Sunday morning, that ranked them No. 11 in the league, a few miles shy of the defending champion Avalanche (39.3) and Connor McDavid’s Oilers (33.3).
Even if Krejci remains out for a while, there is help on the horizon for the top unit. Brad Marchand, who made a stunning season debut Thursday with two goals and an assist against the Red Wings, will fully rejoin the lineup Tuesday night. He’ll be a fixture on the first unit and with Patrice Bergeron and Jake DeBrusk on the top line.
Charlie McAvoy, his No. 1 point duty currently being served by Hampus Lindholm, continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery. But he also will reintegrate soon, ahead of his original Dec. 1 target date. McAvoy and Lindholm likely will toggle back and forth for point duty, spotted by Matt Grzelcyk.
Ultimately, it’s the four centers — Bergeron, Charlie Coyle, Tomas Nosek, and Krejci — who will decide if Montgomery can close that 22 percent shortfall.
Leg speed isn’t everything when it comes to fast play. It’s mostly determined by that first pass from the blue liners, in lockstep with how quickly and efficiently the pivots distribute to wingers. Fast legs off the side like those of DeBrusk, Taylor Hall, Craig Smith, and Pastrnak can tip the balance, but no amount of speed can make up for pucks that never arrive or pucks that are off the mark.
That, the late John Halligan would agree, is 100 percent true.
In his two starts last week, Ullmark turned back 60 of 61 shots in wins over Dallas (3-1) and Columbus (4-0). He should be named one of the NHL Three Stars of the Week announced on Monday. He’ll also likely draw the starts in Pittsburgh and Toronto, spelled by Jeremy Swayman in Thursday’s stop at Madison Square Garden . . . The Penguins Saturday night dropped their fourth straight on the road, 3-1, in Seattle. They were outscored, 18-5, in the losses to the Oilers, Flames, Canucks, and Kraken . . . The Penguins, Rangers, and Maple Leafs stood a Forever .500-like 12-11-4 through games of Saturday night. What a month ago looked like a difficult test for the Bruins now looks like three stops against comme ci comme ca competition . . . Prior to the Leafs game Sunday night in Anaheim, top young forwards Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander had combined for eight goals, one fewer strike than Pastrnak. That trio connected for 129 goals last season, led by 60 from the US-born Matthews.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.