David Backes connects for goal in return to Bruins’ lineup
David Backes’s winter chill came to an end on Saturday, the veteran forward back in the Bruins’ lineup to face the Sabres after completing his three-game suspension.
Backes, denied the chance to suit up for Tuesday’s Winter Classic at Notre Dame, returned with a promotion — bumped up to right wing on the second line centered by David Krejci.
“I think that [line], fair to say, is still a work in progress,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, who this season has rolled through more combinations on Krejci’s line than a Mega Millions computer vendor. “David’s fresh, coming back, excited to move up the lineup a little bit.”
Backes scored the Bruins’ second goal in a 2-1 victory, his fifth of the season.
Backes finished with the line’s lone point, his fourth goal this season, finishing a 2-on-1 rush with a snap from the left-wing circle. He collected the puck deep in his own end, off a save by Tuukka Rask, then wired in his shot, opting not to dish off to Brad Marchand on the rush.
“It’s a 2-on-1 with March, and he’s going to take a lot of attention” said Backes, detailing the scoring play. “Maybe they were looking at the stat sheet and see three goals [his total through 33 prior games] vs. 15 by Marchy, and they were trying to play the percentages.”
Jake DeBrusk, a fixture most of the season with Krejci, often has ridden on the right wing of the trio, allowing Cassidy to get looks at left wing candidates Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato, and Joakim Nordstrom, among others. Ideally, Backes would seize the role on the right side, allowing DeBrusk to remain fixed at his natural position as a lefthanded shooter on his natural wing.
Krejci, like all righthanded shots, is more inclined, and no doubt more comfortable, to pass to his left wing. That right-left symbiotic partnership has been a key to the success of Patrice Bergeron and Marchand on the No. 1 trio.
To his credit, DeBrusk, now midway through his second NHL season, has embraced whichever wing he has been assigned.
“We’re going to go back to that,” said Cassidy, noting he prefers that DeBrusk line up on the left side with Krejci. “I think Jake’s fine on the other side. Some of his better chances are just footrace . . . so from either side, it’s just a matter of flipping the puck into that area, for Krejci or the defenseman. Sometimes coming in from your off wing it’s a little easier to finish.”
In short, said Cassidy, “it’s just a little easier for [DeBrusk] to play [left] side . . . a little easier for everybody . . . so that’s why we moved him back.”
DeBrusk scored twice, including the winner, in Thursday’s 6-4 victory over Calgary, and is now 13-3—16 through 33 games.
He now has been back for five games after being sidelined by a concussion that he sustained Nov. 26 in Toronto when a Heinen shot nailed him on the back of the helmet.
Cassidy late Saturday morning, following an optional day-of-game skate in Brighton, noted the varying strengths of DeBrusk, Heinen, and Donato at this point in their careers. DeBrusk has been able to hold steady work with Krejci because of his ample foot speed. Speed is the greatest tool in his kit.
“His pace is a little better than some of the other guys,” noted Cassidy.
“And I think the league has gotten faster again. He’s able to create using his foot speed. That’s the advantage he has over, say, the Heinens and Donatos. It’s also where you have seen [Sean] Kuraly come out of the pack a little bit lately. I think Sean had some chances earlier in the year and didn’t finish them, and now they are going in a little bit more.”
Nonetheless, Cassidy prefers to have Kuraly anchor the third or fourth line, even after the ex- Miami Ohio standout potted back-to-back game-winners over the Sabres and Blackhawks (at South Bend).
“The guys with the higher pace do it every night,” said Cassidy.
“It’s hard to score in this league. Teams defend hard and if you have foot speed to separate, I think that is the one that can separate you from one of the younger guys.”
Donato (5-3—8), added Cassidy, differentiates himself on his strength of shot.
“He can literally wire it by the goalie when he has time and space,” said the coach. Finding those opportunities, said Cassidy, is “still a work in progress for him.”
Heinen (4-6—10 in 40 games) can’t match DeBrusk’s speed or Donato’s shot, but he is smart with the puck once over the offensive blue line.
“Danton’s more the IQ part,” said Cassidy.
“Around the net, finding the soft areas. So they all have their own skill set. Jake is able to track down some loose pucks with his speed and maybe gets some easier looks than the other guys.”
Boston’s special teams have been operating at their best all season in the last few weeks.
Consider, heading into Saturday night’s action:
■ The power play, which opened the season a highly ordinary 5 for 22 (22.7 percent) over the first eight games, was a sizzling 11 for 30 (36.7 percent) over the most recent eight games, blanked only once (Dec. 27 vs. New Jersey) in that stretch. The Bruins entered weekend play with the No. 4-ranked power play (27.8 percent) in the league, not far off pace-setting Tampa (30.5 percent). The Bruins were 0 for 2 on the power play against the Sabres.
■ The penalty-killing unit has been near-perfect (28 for 30) over the most recent 11 games, only scorched twice by the Devils. The PK stood 12th in the league (80.5 percent) as of Saturday.
Cassidy kidded that the power play excelled recently because of the club’s maddening propensity to give up shorthanded goals this season.
“Giving up shorties, so we get a little aggravated . . . wanting to right the wrong,” said Cassidy.
The Bruins gave up their league-leading (worst) ninth shorthanded goal in Thursday’s win over Calgary. Atop that list: Vancouver and Dallas had yet to yield a shorthanded goal.
In recent weeks, said Cassidy, the Bruins have made a fundamental approach in the PK philosophy, adding more bodies to the mix and attempting to be “more assertive” on the kill.
“There’s been a certain structure in place here for years — a very good structure,” said Cassidy. “Our shot-suppressors were [Brandon] Carlo for a stretch . . . [Zdeno Chara] and [Kevan] Miller and [Bergeron]. We looked at the personnel and said, ‘Listen, we have maybe [Steve] Kampfer killing more penalties, John Moore, [Matt Grzelcyk], and Torey [Krug] sometimes. And Kuraly’s quick.’ So we decided to go with more pressure and see if it worked out for us.”
In being more assertive, said Cassidy, the PK has created “a little more discomfort” for opponents. “I know for us, when we’re on the power play,” said Cassidy, noting the man-advantage is his charge, while Joe Sacco oversees the PK, “teams like Arizona, when they pressure you, you’re on your heels a little bit.”
All in all, said Cassidy, the uptick has been a product of “less thinking and more reacting.” An emphasis on clearing pucks also has helped.
“Once you do create a loose puck, you’ve got to clear it,” he said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel — the one thing we’ve had to do better over the last 2-3 years on the penalty kill.
We’ve done a better job with that. So you’re not getting second and third chances, you’re getting more people out there and I think that’s had a lot to do with why we’ve been successful.”
With Backes back in the batting order, rookie Colby Cave was a scratch for the first time since he was called up from AHL Providence. Kampfer was the healthy scratch among the defensive corps . . . Chris Wagner led all shooters with six shots on net, but three other Bruins posted five SOGs: Donato, Krug, and Backes . . . The Bruins won two of three faceoffs in the first two periods and finished with a 35-28 edge. Bergeron won 13 of 20 and rookie Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, looking more comfortable in his overall game, won 8 of 11 . . . Marchand, held without a point, led the Bruins with six hits, only one behind Buffalo’s Remi Elie . . . Backes’s goal was initially posted as unassisted, but a late change awarded Rask an assist . . . Rask, with wins over Buffalo and Chicago in his last two starts, collected a third straight win for the first time this season. A year ago at this time, he was in the midst of a torrid 18-0-2 run . . . Krejci, blanked in the first four games following Bergeron’s return from a rib/collarbone injury, picked up a pair of assists Thursday. . . David Pastrnak, with goals in back-to-back games (2-2—4 total) went without a point against Buffalo. Pastrnak clicked for seven goals over four consecutive games in October, and then potted five over a three-game run in early-November . . . Heinen was an anemic 0-2—2 in his last 11 games and had but two goals in his last 25 games . . . The Bruins won’t practice until Monday, prior to Garden visits by Minnesota (Tuesday), Washington (Thursday), and Toronto (Saturday).