Here’s how the Bruins will take on one of the NHL’s best players
Charlie McAvoy is a highly skilled, highly mobile, highly intelligent defenseman. Among players his age — 20 — he is one of the best in the world. In his second NHL season, it seems likely he will have All-Star appearances in his future.
Against Connor McDavid, he was in the weeds.
“I recall a couple times he had me dead to rights,” said McAvoy, reflecting on two Bruins-Oilers games from his rookie season last year. “I was backwards pedaling, thinking, ‘There’s no way I can match this kind of speed.’ I remember I had a couple lucky sticks, just fortunate enough to have a good gap at that split second and stopped it.”
If McDavid isn’t the best hockey player in the world, only Sidney Crosby has him beat. He is widely considered the game’s fastest skater, and certainly no one has his combination of speed and skill. It makes him worth the price of admission to Thursday’s game at TD Garden (7 p.m.). The Bruins (2-1-0) hope they can slow him enough to improve on their two-game winning streak.
“He’s going to get his looks because he’s an elite player,” coach Bruce Cassidy said, noting that the goal was to “limit him. I don’t think players like that ever get shut down. It’s rare if it [happens].”
McDavid, 21, has not scored a goal against Boston in four career games. He does have seven assists. Keeping him off the scoresheet entirely, as the Bruins did in the most recent meeting — a 3-2 win last Feb. 20 in Edmonton — is a lofty goal but attainable with the right personnel.
Center Patrice Bergeron will see the most of McDavid, especially with the ability to match lines at home. As a secondary option, Cassidy trusted his fourth line enough last year to use center Sean Kuraly’s frame (6 feet 2 inches, 208 pounds) and foot speed to keep pace. He said he may again do so.
When he picks up a head of steam, McDavid will see a lot of the McAvoy-Zdeno Chara defense pair (Cassidy also expressed confidence that big, smooth-skating John Moore could help). The top pair has been effective. In that February game, according to Natural Stat Trick, Chara was on the ice for 15:46 at even strength against McDavid, slightly more than McAvoy’s 13:16. The Bruins tilted the ice heavily in their favor, producing 11 scoring chances, Chara vs. McDavid, and allowing just four.
McDavid said he tries to beat Chara to the outside, though it doesn’t always work.
“You’ve got to start preparing whatever you’re doing a lot sooner because he’s got that really long stick,” McDavid said. “It doesn’t give you any time. If you get the puck, he’s right on you because he’s got that long reach. Obviously, if he gets you in his mitts, it’s not going to be very good. You try and stay on the outside of him and just try and beat him any way you can. He’s probably seen it all. There’s not much you’re going to trick him with. You’ve got to keep it simple and play around him, not through him.”
“One of the world’s best back there. He’s not slowing down at all. He looks like he could play forever.”
Chara, two decades older, name-checked Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemeiux, Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin when discussing the challenge. He called it a “privilege” to face a player who has 258 points in 210 career games (0-2—2 in the Oilers’ only game this year, Oct. 6 against New Jersey in Gothenburg, Sweden), and has led the league in scoring the last two seasons.
“Not many guys get to play against him,” Chara said. “If you do, it’s a privilege. When I played against Wayne or Mario, Sid or Ovi, it’s excitement. It’s a challenge, but it’s very much exciting because you’re playing against the best in the world. That’s what you want. That’s what you dream of.”
Saturday time change
Since October baseball is more important in this town than October hockey, the start time of Saturday’s game against the Red Wings was moved up four hours. Boston-Detroit at TD Garden will start at 3 p.m., rather than 7. That will avoid conflict with Game 1 of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Astros (first pitch: 8:09 at Fenway).
Nordstrom on deck
Cassidy said “there’s a pretty good chance” Joakim Nordstrom, a healthy scratch Monday against Ottawa, could return to the lineup. The Swedish winger, who signed ostensibly to fill the fourth line/penalty kill role Tim Schaller held last year, was splitting time with Ryan Donato as David Krejci’s right wing in practice, rather than the fourth line.
Nordstrom and fellow free agent signee Chris Wagner have been the odd men out the last two games. Anders Bjork was an opening-night scratch. Cassidy said Donato could be next.
Part of that is sending a message to a rookie that playing time isn’t guaranteed. Part of it is Cassidy liking his fourth line, which created offensive chances against Ottawa.
“Until we get ourselves firmly to where we believe it’s lines 1-4,” Cassidy said, “we’re going to probably move people around and keep it competitive, so to speak. ”
Part of it is Donato. Though he can score (one goal) and has a heavy shot, he could get his hands dirty a little more. The coach would like all his lines to play like the Bergeron trio, but he pointed to net drive as one area the Jake DeBrusk-Krejci-Donato could improve.
This early in the year, Cassidy said, “guys are flying around,” so many transition opportunities are backchecked away. That means a back-to-basics approach can work, even for skilled lines. For the Bergeron line, crashing the net proved successful against Ottawa. On Bergeron’s hat trick goal, for example, Brad Marchand was barrelling toward goalie Mike Condon and near-side defenseman Cody Ceci. Bergeron tossed a backhander off Ceci’s leg and into the net.
“I think they’re turning down too many opportunities to throw stuff at the net and see what happens,” Cassidy said of the Krejci line, which hasn’t scored a goal yet (Donato’s tally against Buffalo was on the power play). “Generating shots to create anxiety. What comes first, the puck to the net or the people? We’re trying to do both, obviously.”
The first line, Cassidy said, is hands-off, for now. “Hands right where they are right now, in my pockets,” he said. “They’re clearly a line that generates every night, so we’re not going to mess with that until, I don’t know when,” he said. Moving David Pastrnak to the second line remains an option down the road.