FLUTO SHINZAWA | ON HOCKEY
John Tlumacki/Globe staff
The Bruins’ first line is on fire.
It took Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only 15 seconds to connect on Thursday’s opening goal in the Bruins’ 6-1 win over Arizona. Because of Bergeron’s forechecking presence, Jason Demers rushed his clearing attempt off the glass and onto Pastrnak’s stick. Then the three did what they do best: turn a defending situation into a goal.
As Demers tried to scramble back into position, the top line went to work. Before Scott Wedgewood could slide over, Pastrnak slid a cross-ice dish to Marchand, who buried the puck.
Pastrnak has a seven-game scoring streak. Marchand has two goals and five assists in his last four games. Bergeron has four helpers in the last three games.
They are not scoring by coincidence.
There is no better defensive up-front pair than Marchand and Bergeron. They regularly turn shutdown shifts into offensive situations because of their puck-pursuit doggedness.
But they are getting more leash to go on the attack. They have the talent to do so, but they’re also getting support lower in the lineup.
Against Nashville, Bergeron started only two shifts during five-on-five play in the defensive zone. In comparison, he began nine of his shifts in the offensive zone (81.8 percent). Against Philadelphia, he didn’t start any five-on-five shifts in the defensive zone. Against Tampa Bay, it didn’t really matter that the count was flipped: 10 five-on-five starts in his own end compared with three in the Lightning’s zone. Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak were so good that, despite their defense-first deployment, the Bruins piled up 24 shot attempts while they were on the ice while allowing 15.
On Thursday, matchups dictated that the first line started only 40 percent of its shifts in the offensive end.
“Because of the way some of our other lines are made up now and we have some consistency, we’ve used them a lot more in offensive-zone situations,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Whereas in the past, you’d see Bergy go to the boards in defensive-zone situations. We’re trying to give them that luxury.”
Ex-coach Claude Julien did not hesitate to lean on Bergeron for defense. In 2012-13, Bergeron started only 41.6 percent of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone, the lowest of his career. Last year, with Julien calling the shots for two-thirds of the season, Bergeron started 444 five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone (54.7 percent) compared with 368 in his own end.
Cassidy has not been as keen as rolling Bergeron in as many shutdown situations. Through 20 games this year, Bergeron’s offensive start rate had climbed to 61.5 percent, the highest of his career. It does not compare to the league-leading rates of Daniel Sedin (72.1 percent) and Henrik Sedin (71.8 percent). But it shows how the Bruins are trying not to burn as many of Bergeron’s defensive matches.
Cassidy has given Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak more opportunities to think offense first because they are talented chance-generators. Pastrnak leads the team in scoring with 14 goals and 11 assists. Marchand, despite missing eight games, is second (10-12—22). Bergeron is third behind his linemates with five goals and 12 assists.
“It’s going to change every night depending on where we are and who we’re matched up against,” Marchand said. “With a guy like Bergy winning draws the way he does, we can create some goals. I think we got two in Philly off draws. It is good to be able to start in the offensive zone.”
Their usage, however, also reflects Cassidy’s trust in a lineup that is getting healthier. For 11 games in October and November, Cassidy was without David Krejci and Ryan Spooner, once considered their second- and third-line centers. His top six was compromised when Anders Bjork was unavailable for seven games last month. David Backes is a third-line wing, but a dependable one at that, and colon surgery took him out of Cassidy’s toolbox for 12 straight games in November.
Spooner remains out of uniform with an injury related to his groin tear. But Cassidy has had Krejci as his No. 2 center for seven of the last eight games. He’s hit upon a dependable third line with Backes and Danton Heinen flanking Riley Nash. Offense is not high on the collective strengths of Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly, and Noel Acciari. But the fourth-line grinders have gained Cassidy’s trust to the degree where he can roll them out for D-zone starts (36.8 percent in Acciari’s case) and give his lead dogs time to catch their breath.
The results have been in the Bruins’ favor. The first line chewed up Tampa’s top threesome of Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov for one period. It was enough for Tampa coach Jon Cooper to split Stamkos and Kucherov, the league’s most dangerous offensive duo.
One game later, Philadelphia’s first line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek didn’t do anything against Bergeron’s group. In Nashville, a four-goal lead allowed the Predators to lean on their preferred defensive matchups to protect their cushion.
“We trust them,” Cassidy said of his fourth line. “They were really good on the West Coast trip when we needed the offense. We were down a few bodies and that line really did a good job of handling the D-zone starts. That’s the options we have. It worked in Philly. We were able to throw [Bergeron’s line] out there for offensive draws and not worry about the matchup. We were back in our end a minute later, ‘Hey, we’ve got another line that can play against Giroux in that particular situation.’ It’s a product of what else we have, and a product of what they’re doing offensively is allowing them to have more starts. Which I’m sure they enjoy. Patrice, he wins Selkes for a reason. But everyone likes playing with the puck a little more and having more opportunities.”
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