Charlie McAvoy’s return shakes up defense corps
TORONTO — Remember September, when the Bruins were said to have eight NHL-caliber defensemen? In Game No. 45, all of them were ready for the first time.
The Bruins were happy to once again slot Charlie McAvoy on the first defense pairing Saturday night in Toronto, reuniting him with Zdeno Chara.
It also made for a tough conversation with John Moore, who became a healthy scratch for the first time as a Bruin.
“Wasn’t easy,” coach Bruce Cassidy said before the Bruins’ 3-2 win. “And it’s one game. We’ll worry about Monday [against Montreal] on Monday.”
Moore has played well of late, picking up a goal and two assists in his last four games. Cassidy considered sitting Matt Grzelcyk, but noted he felt “loyalty” to the 25-year-old, who has been in the Bruins organization since 2012. Plus, Cassidy said, “I think he’s earned it.”
Grzelcyk proved Cassidy prescient, playing a strong transition game and going plus-2 in 15:15. He also saved a goal with a shot block in the first.
Cassidy believed McAvoy’s transition game and puck-moving ability would help Boston’s forwards get easier entries and offensive-zone opportunities. Neither coach nor player believed he would be limited after missing seven games because of a foot infection.
“I can’t wait to get out there,” said McAvoy beforehand. He cut his foot cut Dec. 17 in Montreal and played through Dec. 23 at Carolina before needing further medical attention. McAvoy, who tested his foot in an optional morning skate Saturday, missed 20 games earlier in the season because of a concussion.
“He’s been sidelined a couple times,” Chara said, “but every time he comes back, he’s really well blending in, just because he’s such a smooth skater, sees the ice really well, and makes plays.”
What’s the word?
The pregame comments from both sides were highly complimentary. Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said he wanted a signed stick from Chara if he is retiring after this season. If not, he said, he’ll ask next season.
“He can play as long as he wants,” Babcock said. “Nick Lidstrom left the game [at age 42 in 2012], he was still one of the best players in the league. Chara’s one of the best penalty killers in hockey . . . Knows where to stand on the penalty kill, knows how to cross-check, knows how to put his stick in the right spot.”
Chara praised Babcock for his record in Detroit and for doing “an unbelievable job” in Toronto. “If he wants to have a stick, I would be happy to provide it for him,” Chara said. “My focus is obviously to keep playing and keep doing my job. Like I’ve said many times, I really enjoy playing this game. I have a lot of respect for this game, a lot of passion.”
A short tour through the respect on either side:
Leafs forward Auston Matthews: “Last time we played them, they really brought it to us,” he said of Boston’s 6-3 home win on Dec. 8. The Bruins lost, 4-2, in Toronto on Nov. 26, and won, 5-1, in Boston on Nov. 10.
Babcock on Patrice Bergeron: “Off the charts . . . When other people are slipping, they make you feel guilty, because they don’t.”
Cassidy on 6-foot, 183-pound Leafs assist machine Mitch Marner: “I don’t know how much he weighs, you’d have to tell me, but try getting the puck from the kid.”
Matthews on Boston’s top line: “They’re all elite players. Bergeron, obviously, one of the best, if not the best, 200-foot center in the league. Faceoffs, they have the puck a lot, [Brad Marchand] skilled, [David Pastrnak] skilled . . . When they’re rolling around in the offensive zone, it seems they never let you get the puck back.”
Matthews on Chara: “He’s ginormous.” On McAvoy: “He’s dangerous.”
Even McAvoy wasn’t willing to say boo about Zach Hyman, who drew a two-game suspension for a late hit on McAvoy in the Dec. 8 game: “That was a month ago now.”
Toronto’s No. 1 goalie, Frederik Andersen, contracted the flu while working back from a groin injury, giving ex-Bruins draft pick (2008, third round, 77th overall) Michael Hutchinson his fifth start in a row.
The Leafs, who recalled Kasimir Kaskisuo from the AHL Toronto Marlies on an emergency basis, acquired Hutchinson as insurance last month (they sent a fifth-rounder to Florida).
After a tough go in Sunrise (1-1-2, 4.17 goals-against average, .839 save percentage), Hutchinson, 28, has been better with a better club (entering Saturday: 2-2-0, 2.53, .919, and a 28-save shutout of the Canucks last week). He stopped 26 of 29 shots Saturday night.
Andersen’s regular-season record against Boston was sparkling: 11-2-0, 2.42, .927, with a 7-0-0 record at home. Boston beat him once in three games in Toronto in last year’s first-round series.
Tuukka Rask, the onetime Leafs pick (21st overall, 2005), had lost four of five to that club in the regular season (and struggled in the first round last year). But he improved to 13-8-2, 2.41, .921, after stopping 30 of 32 shots.
Jake DeBrusk may owe David Pastrnak some money.
DeBrusk’s errant saucer pass in warmup hit Pastrnak on the side of the cheek. DeBrusk checked on his angry teammate, who slammed his stick on the ice as he left for the locker room.
“I don’t know what happened, but obviously fortunate everything’s all right,” a smiling Pastrnak said afterward. “We’re going to have a laugh about it. [It] felt good.”
He felt better when he scored the go-ahead goal in the second period, his 26th of the season, putting him six back of Alex Ovechkin for the league lead.
He also tied Barry Pederson for most goals by a Bruin before their 23rd birthday (120). Pastrnak, born May 25, has until the end of the regular season to break the record.
Backes: Rough night
David Backes, struggling and glued to the bench for much of the second period, played a team-low 10:39. Cassidy said he and DeBrusk (12:06) sagged in the second . . . Brad Marchand and Pastrnak combined for 11 shots and 14 attempts . . . David Krejci played after blocking a shot with his right hand late in the third. Cassidy said he believed the center was fine, but noted injuries aren’t always apparent right after games . . . Boston outscored Toronto, 16-10, in the four-game season series.