Bruins’ cushion in standings allows Bruce Cassidy to tinker
OTTAWA — In April, if the Bruins are holding a lead, it’s unlikely that Tim Schaller will get the nod for six-on-five duty when the opposing goalie is pulled. On the blue line, Brandon Carlo may cede his end-game shifts to Kevan Miller or Adam McQuaid. Those two musclemen are not high on the list of characters that opponents want to meet in the dark-alley real estate in front of the net.
But current experience will help when the playoffs begin.
The Bruins’ 14-0-4 rampage through their last 18 opponents has assured that 2017-18 will continue past Game No. 82. They pause for Sunday’s All-Star Game in second place in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins are 5 points ahead of third-place Toronto. They are 20 points clear of Detroit, the No. 4 team amid the divisional drecks of Florida, Ottawa, Montreal, and Buffalo.
That cushion has allowed coach Bruce Cassidy to extend his bench, distribute workloads, and try things he would have hesitated to implement if every point were precious.
“You can tinker with some things,” Cassidy said after Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Senators. “We’ve used [David] Krejci’s line, that’s more of an offensive-start line, late in periods in our own end or in the last minute to grow their game and get used to playing against top-end players.
“We’ve done it on the back end. I’ve told Kevin [Dean] to try and do that at times — Carlo the other night ahead of Miller and McQuaid.
“So we want to grow our group. We’ve got a young team. We understand that. It’s not a developmental league per se. But there is a lot of development going on.”
The teams in the Metropolitan Division, which is far more competitive than the Atlantic, cannot follow Cassidy’s lead. They have to lean on their big boys at critical times to chase every point.
The Bruins are hotter than habaneros, even without Charlie McAvoy for the last two games and Brad Marchand for Thursday’s win. They continue to record points regardless of who’s in the lineup: Anders Bjork and Danton Heinen taking Marchand’s shifts, Carlo moving up to play with Zdeno Chara, or Frank Vatrano assuming Noel Acciari’s spot on the fourth line.
So when Ottawa goalie Mike Condon sprinted toward the bench in Thursday’s third period, replaced by another attacker, Cassidy didn’t mind countering with Schaller alongside Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. It was a critical shift for Schaller to take, both for experience and confidence.
“That was awesome,” Schaller said. “It’s all about confidence between you and the coaches. For him to have confidence in me there, that was big. Hopefully I can keep that going.”
The assignment allows worker bees like Schaller to puff out their chests. Every player likes to have his number called for heavy lifting. For a fourth-liner like Schaller, who is used to grabbing the bench in nail-biting segments late in games, it is a matter of pride to be trusted.
Later in the season, when Cassidy taps Schaller on the shoulder for whatever task he deems appropriate, the No. 4 left wing will not hesitate to skate through bricks for the coach who had his back.
The same goes for Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Spooner. DeBrusk is a rookie. Spooner is a natural center playing his weak side. They are offensive-minded players. When the games become more meaningful, they will hand off defensive chores to teammates who consider keeping the puck out of their net among their strengths.
It does not hurt, however, to expose DeBrusk and Spooner to in-zone trench work. Their games can only grow from such repetitions. At the same time, Bergeron, Krejci, David Backes, and Riley Nash can keep some of their powder dry until after the regular season.
The Bruins are on a remarkable run. History dictates that such a performance is not sustainable for stretches longer than this one. Pucks will slip through Tuukka Rask. The No. 1 line will shoot blanks, even when Marchand returns from his five-game timeout. Injuries are sure to flare up.
But the Bruins are like responsible wage earners, tucking away dollars for rainy days. The points they’ve banked will serve them well when they approach turbulence. Even if they go in the tank, they have entered a breakaway pack that is too far up the road for their chasers to bridge up.
Their winning ways are already paying off because of the development that’s taking place during the streak. Schaller, Carlo, DeBrusk, Spooner, and Bjork are taking important shifts. Heinen’s temporary joy ride with Bergeron and David Pastrnak will give the rookie more confidence when he goes back to the third line.
Winning makes everything better. The Bruins have been doing a lot of it.