Sports

FLUTO SHINZAWA I SUNDAY HOCKEY NOTES

Top line’s deficiencies don’t result in many goals against

Offense from the line of David Pastrnak (left), Milan Lucic (center), and Ryan Spooner has been a significant factor in the Bruins’ hold on a playoff spot.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Offense from the line of David Pastrnak (left), Milan Lucic (center), and Ryan Spooner has been a significant factor in the Bruins’ hold on a playoff spot.

Your eyes will tell you that the Bruins’ line of Milan Lucic, Ryan Spooner, and David Pastrnak is trouble in the defensive zone.

Since Feb. 22, their first time together, the forwards had been a line for 20 straight games. As sharp as they have been offensively, they’ve been a defensive adventure.

Spooner is scattershot in down-low D-zone coverage. Opponents overwhelm Pastrnak on the walls. Sometimes Pastrnak falls down during a checker’s approach. Lucic, for his size and experience, is not crisp at picking and clearing pucks off the boards. Their deficiencies add up to long stretches of extended zone time for other teams.

Advertisement

“We’ve got to make a good, strong play and get going in transition,” Lucic said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Florida. “That’s the most important thing when you’re in the D-zone and stuck in the D-zone — cutting them off and making a good play to where you can get moving the other way. It seems like we’re not there yet. We’re getting hemmed in a little longer than we’d like.”

Get Sports Headlines in your inbox:
The most recent sports headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

By processing what your eyes absorb, your brain would deduce that the line is guilty of a barrage of goals against off the cycle. Your brain would be wrong.

Between Feb. 22 and Thursday’s 3-2 win over Detroit, the Bruins allowed 31 even-strength goals in 20 games. Only five of those were off the cycle, which I’ve defined as in-zone play lasting 10 or more seconds. Of those five, Spooner’s line was on the ice for just two.

One of those goals, a Bryan Bickell tip of a David Rundblad shot, went in on Feb. 22, the first game Spooner centered Lucic and Pastrnak. Gustav Nyquist scored the other on March 8. The Bruins won both games.

There are four conclusions. First, it’s easy for biases to produce misguided assumptions. These eyes are guilty of judging Spooner’s line as a D-zone liability. Second, the Spooner line does not allow a flood of off-the-cycle goals. Third, the coaching staff has excelled at picking appropriate defensive assignments for Spooner’s line. Pastrnak, for example, had started a team-leading 67.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, according to www.behindthenet.ca. (In comparison, Patrice Bergeron started 45.5 percent of his shifts in the O-zone.) Fourth, it’s really difficult to score off the cycle in today’s league.

Advertisement

During the 20-game segment, the Bruins outscored the opposition at even strength, 39-31. Spooner’s line scored 14 goals. It was on the ice for eight goals against.

The line’s offense has been a significant factor in the Bruins’ hold on a playoff spot. They’ve shrugged off their defensive liabilities and pushed the other way, especially late in games.

Spooner scored in overtime against New Jersey on Feb. 27. Pastrnak hammered home the winner in OT against Carolina last Sunday. Lucic snapped the winner through Roberto Luongo in Tuesday’s third period.

Against Florida, Bruins coach Claude Julien kept Spooner’s line on the bench whenever Florida rolled Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Jaromir Jagr. The other three lines were fair game.

On Thursday, Julien shielded Spooner’s line from Justin Abdelkader, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nyquist. For 40 minutes, none of the Bruins’ units had an answer for any of Detroit’s lines, including Zetterberg’s group. The Wings dominated the Bruins through two periods. The Bruins were parked in their zone for so long that they should have gotten a ticket.

Advertisement

For all their zone time, the Wings scored just one five-on-five goal off the cycle. The Bruins, like most teams, make it difficult for opponents to squeeze results out of the grind game.

Even when teams click on the cycle, defenses have time to set up. They drop five players into the defensive zone. Pucks bonk off shinpads. Defenders know how to fill shooting lanes and turn their heads to avoid dangerous injuries. It’s unusual to see a puck hit a glove or boot in just the right spot to break a finger or foot.

Even when offenses penetrate the defensive perimeter, the equalizer stands tall in net. Goalies such as Tuukka Rask are so good that they almost always stop the first shot. With enough help packed in around the net, there’s usually a defenseman in position to sweep away the rebound or muscle out net-front danger.

The goalie turns an offensive chance into a position of defensive strength. It comes down to numbers: six defenders, including the goalie, against five attackers. No wonder the defense wins most of the time.

The challenge of scoring off the cycle reinforces the reality that this is becoming a rush league. You hear coaches regularly cite the importance of grinding other teams down, wearing them out, and getting repeated looks off the cycle. It’s a myth. Teams score most of their goals when they gain clean, speedy, and outnumbered entries into the offensive zone.

Even the wearing-down aspect of the cycle game might not be true. In theory, the Bruins should have been exhausted after 40 minutes against Detroit. Instead, the Bruins found their legs in the third period and rallied.

Julien will remain wary about deploying Spooner’s threesome against good lines. It’s a smart move. Regularly defending in your zone is playing with fire. The Wings manhandled Pastrnak so much that Julien had to drop the 18-year-old to the fourth line.

But striking matches off the cycle rarely leads to a bonfire. It may be worth sacrificing defensive-zone time for a Pastrnak counterattack.

The end goal, if the Bruins make the playoffs, is a roster shuffle. David Krejci should center Lucic and Brett Connolly. Brad Marchand, Bergeron, and Reilly Smith have played consistent shifts together for two seasons. So have Chris Kelly, Carl Soderberg, and Loui Eriksson.

This leaves Spooner and Pastrnak on the fourth line with Gregory Campbell or Max Talbot. The Bruins should have no concerns about favoring skill on the fourth line over grit. It probably wouldn’t matter if a Campbell-Spooner-Pastrnak line got hemmed in at times. Goals against in such situations simply don’t happen regularly.

At the other end, Spooner and Pastrnak fly through the neutral zone. They’ve scored in important situations. If opponents rolled out grinders on the fourth line, Spooner and Pastrnak would skate right past them. Skill and speed win in today’s NHL.

HANDLE WITH CARE

Goaltenders will soon be pushing the limits

Goalie coaches everywhere believe the position is at its peak. A save percentage of .925, once considered the gold standard, is now required for a goalie to be considered above average. The position is in its renaissance because of goalies’ athleticism, oversized but lightweight equipment, and high-level instruction. Technique once considered cutting edge in the NHL is being employed by youth goalies.

But there is one more level goalies can climb to improve the position. Done right, it could radicalize the sport.

For the most part, goalies are taught to be conservative when handling the puck. The best at doing so (Carey Price, Mike Smith, Ben Bishop) leave the crease smoothly, settle the puck, and get it rapidly to their teammates.

But goalies are not considered a significant component of puck flow. They are there to do their duties when the puck approaches off dump-ins, rebounds, or turnovers. Coaches have not involved goalies in set plays. It’s too risky. Too many things can go wrong.

There will be a time, however, when young, athletic goalies enter the NHL with enough confidence to play the puck with precision. Smart coaches will use them as a third defenseman.

Consider the D-to-D breakout. If one defenseman passes the puck to a goalie, on the hinge or with a parallel pass, his partner can shift up the ice instead of sagging back. This would be a launchpad for the partner to join the forwards and turn a rush into an odd-man situation.

Teams would wise up. They’d send in two hard forecheckers to force the goalie into mistakes. In turn, this would open up soft spots in the neutral zone beyond the initial forechecking wave. The goalie could send a return pass to the partner or a chip up the ice to initiate the rush.

It’s standard practice to involve the goalie in soccer. The goalie can change fields or send a long-distance boomer up the field. It’s harder to do in hockey because of the goalie’s equipment and wariness of fooling around with the puck.

But athletes evolve. They always improve. The top coaches will see this and be able to take advantage.

ETC.

Not a smart move by Jets’ Byfuglien

At times this season, Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien has played like a Hart Trophy candidate. Byfuglien is a monster who can dominate two positions in the same game: power forward and puck-rushing defenseman. San Jose’s Brent Burns can play both roles, but he’s been a defenseman all season. Paul Maurice is the only coach who has the luxury of such roster flexibility. When Byfuglien is on defense, the Jets have one of the best right sides in the league along with Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers.

But Byfuglien could have cost the Jets a playoff spot. On Tuesday against the Rangers, Byfuglien cross-checked J.T. Miller in the neck in front of the Winnipeg net. The puck was gone. Miller was not involved in the play. After the game, New York coach Alain Vigneault said Byfuglien could have broken Miller’s neck.

Two days later, Byfuglien was suspended for four games. In the NHL’s explanatory video, Patrick Burke said Byfuglien delivered an illegal hit to Miller with excessive force to an unprotected and vulnerable part of his body.

There is no questioning Byfuglien’s talent. His brain is another story.

Panthers may again target Blackhawks

Jaromir Jagr, Scottie Upshall, and Tomas Kopecky will become unrestricted free agents after this season. The Panthers would like to re-sign Jagr, who has played well with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. But Upshall and Kopecky will walk. This will leave GM Dale Tallon with some free dough to dip into his favorite well: ex-Blackhawks. Tallon, formerly Chicago’s GM, employs Kopecky, Brian Campbell, Dave Bolland, Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen, and Shawn Thornton, all former Blackhawks. Chicago will have to move money this offseason to account for the raises due to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Brandon Saad. Patrick Sharp or Bryan Bickell could be the next player to ride the Chicago-to-Sunrise shuttle.

Crawford may not be worth it

The Blackhawks know the pain of being in cap trouble. They didn’t want to move Nick Leddy to the Islanders. After their Stanley Cup win in 2010, they had no choice but to dump Andrew Ladd, Byfuglien, and Kris Versteeg. It will be the same story this summer. They will not improve by trading Sharp or Bickell. It’s a different issue with Corey Crawford. The No. 1 goalie carries a $6.5 million annual cap hit. He’s a good goalie. But Crawford doesn’t belong in the elite category with Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, and Cory Schneider. In other words, Crawford isn’t worth nearly $6 million more per year than Scott Darling. In 54 games, Crawford is 32-17-5 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. In 13 appearances, Darling is 9-3-0 with a 1.86 GAA and a .939 save percentage. Darling is under contract for two more seasons at short money. Edmonton needs a goalie. Antti Niemi, San Jose’s current ex-Blackhawk, will be unrestricted after this season.

To a degree, Vesey made right choice

The Predators are disappointed. Jimmy Vesey, their third-round pick in 2012, will return to Harvard for his senior season. Vesey (32-26—58), a North Reading native, won the Walter Brown Award as the best American college hockey player in 2014-15. He is good enough to have joined the Predators for their playoff run. The left wing has some of Jamie Benn in his game — strong, skilled, and gritty. But a Harvard degree is priceless. So is the opportunity to play with best friends for four years. Vesey, a government major, will not regret his decision.

O’Gara a stay-at-homer

Rob O’Gara, the Bruins’ fifth-round pick in 2011, will return to Yale for his senior year and earn his degree in economics. The Bruins drafted O’Gara as a project. He was a rail-thin 185-pound boy in his draft year. O’Gara has since grown into a 6-foot-4-inch, 205-pounder with the ability to be a stay-at-home NHL defenseman. He was named the ECAC’s best defensive defenseman this season. O’Gara can play both sides and has a long reach. He was a freshman on Yale’s NCAA championship team in 2012-13. The Bruins are pleased with his progress under the watch of coach Keith Allain. Like Vesey, O’Gara could become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t sign by August 2016.

Howard sitting down on the job

On Thursday, in an important game against the Bruins, Jimmy Howard was on the Detroit bench. The ex-University of Maine goalie was once considered good enough to be an American Olympian. But with the Red Wings looking for traction before the playoffs, coach Mike Babcock turned to Petr Mrazek against the Bruins. Mrazek was spectacular on Tuesday in Detroit’s 2-1 shootout loss to Ottawa. Howard’s pedigree indicates he should be fine next season given good health. A groin injury knocked Howard off his pace this season. But if the Wings decide they have a long-term keeper in the younger and cheaper Mrazek, Howard could be available. If so, Dallas, and former Detroit executive Jim Nill, would be interested. The Stars would have been in playoff contention if Kari Lehtonen delivered above-average results.

Loose pucks

Even in limited ice time, Thornton produces scoring chances. In 42 games, he was averaging 25.1 shots on goal per 60 minutes of play, according to www.puckalytics.com. That’s a higher rate than Travis Zajac, Sean Couturier, Patrik Elias, and Tyler Ennis, who all have more skill. Thornton has lasted this long because of his off-the-charts hockey sense, which allows him to create chances out of nothing . . . There are more left-shot defensemen than righties. But the number of high-end right-shot D-men is remarkable. P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang, John Carlson, Justin Faulk, Alex Pietrangelo, and Shea Weber are some of the best. If I’m starting a team, it would take weeks to decide which defenseman to take first among the group. I’d say Karlsson because of the singularity of his skill set . . . On Wednesday, Celtic Kelly Olynyk spilled the truth on Dougie Hamilton’s previously undisclosed injury. Rumor is the FBI is very interested in interviewing Olynyk to find out where the Gardner Museum pieces are hiding.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.