Wanted: Second-line scoring punch for Bruins
Forever and a day, not to mention an overtime or two, the Canadiens were the litmus test. Their visits to the Garden through the decades provided Bruins fans with reason to get up in the morning, or instead stay buried deep beneath the duvet, cursing the likes of Richard, Beliveau, Lafleur, Dryden, and Roy until winter beat it back over the Berkshires and the Sox announced their Opening Day roster.
Led by the less-than-intimidating Max Domi, Montreal was back at the Garden Monday night, but Les Glorieux are no longer how the Bruins measure success or calculate their postseason chances. In the East, and even the West, it’s all about Tampa Bay.
The seat of power in the NHL these days can be found at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Such is the state of the Original 31.
The Bolts, who shooed the Bruins out of Round 2 of the playoffs last spring, sit No. 1 in the league’s overall standings. They’re as good as it gets halfway through the 82-game regular season. Save for a double order of twisted knees and maybe a wrenched shoulder and broken elbow, the sons of Vinny Lecavalier appear to be on the fast track to the Cup final.
Meanwhile, the Bruins — 3-2 losers to the Habs in OT — still need to solve their lingering bugaboo of last spring. To wit: bona fide, honest-to-Cup-hopes scoring from a second line centered by David Krejci. Because come April and May, when the opposition inevitably pinches the steely ice tongs around top-liners Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, the answer has to be . . . the Krejci line, the Krejci line, and the . . . well . . .
“The obvious statement would be that our fourth line has played well,” said GM Don Sweeney, giving due credit to the energized Sean Kuraly-Noel Acciari-Chris Wagner trio when assessing the state of his forward group. “And also our top line. So, where the middle grouping fits, we’re trying to sift through. Some guys are still in a bit of an audition, but I think coaches would like to say, ‘OK, this is what we have.’ Or, ‘Get me something better.’ That’s my job.”
Sweeney has but 16 more games, prior to the Feb. 25 trade deadline, left to assess whether it’s time to find something better in that middle grouping. It’s nearly the cut-and-copy-and-paste spot he was in a year ago at this time, and in the end his instinct was spot on: His team didn’t have the scoring punch to be a serious postseason contender.
On the morning of the deadline, Sweeney pulled off the day’s boldest deal, acquiring power forward Rick Nash from the Rangers for a package that included a first-round draft pick, Ryan Spooner (now an Oiler), and Matt Beleskey (now in the AHL). The biggest hurt in the deal was surrendering the first-rounder, while the deportations of Spooner and Beleskey were true blessings from hockey heaven.
It was at this time last year, Sweeney confirmed, that Nash had moved to the top of his “want” list. The rest of the lineup was such that the 6-foot-4-inch Nash, with 434 career goals, stood to be the difference maker as Krejci’s righthand/wing man.
“We felt where we were trending,” recalled Sweeney, his club then on way to a 112-point season, “if we were going to stay healthy, our club had earned the opportunity to put some chips in.”
Right deal, wrong result. Only three weeks into his Black-and-Gold employment, Nash suffered a concussion, one that kept him sidelined until the playoffs. He was clearly not the same player in the postseason (12 games: 3-2—5), his net drive absent, hands not in synch, game in a fog, traits of the concussed. Last week, after nearly eight months of reflection, the 34-year-old Nash called it a career, determining no reward (money or Cup) was worth the risk.
“I mean, again, we were looking for what we felt would be a good fit for our hockey club,” said Sweeney, reassessing the move last February. “As I stand here today, I still think he was . . . when he first arrived, people acknowledge he was a good fit . . . but he got hurt. It affected our group. It affected him. And we got hurt as well on the back end [injuries to Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug].”
The good news for the Bruins, with 36 games to go prior to the deadline, is that the back line is healthy. So much so, in fact, that coach Bruce Cassidy for a second game in a row did not suit up John Moore, who has been a reliable, slick contributor back there since signing on as a free agent in July. Carlo and Krug again each logged top four minutes against the Habs. Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller make for an effective No. 3 pairing.
However, none of that makes for a productive Krejci line, does it? The quiet, efficient pivot again lined up to start the night with Jake DeBrusk to his left and David Backes to his right. But not for long.
Not liking the look, Cassidy in the second period flipped out both wingers and put Krejci between Danton Heinen and Ryan Donato. Third-line center Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson inherited DeBrusk and Backes. It’s mid-January and Cassidy is still searching, still auditioning.
Still dissatisfied, Cassidy tried different second- and third-line combos in the third period. The audition continued, and it’s likely to continue right up to the trade deadline. When the night was over, Krejci had a power-play goal (2-2 equalizer), but all the wingers on the second, third and fourth lines came up empty. The long season is suddenly getting short, and the need is still there.
“Messages, mixing it up,” said Cassidy, asked what he was looking for in the changes. “Krejci for an example. I think he’s played really good hockey for us this year whoever he’s been with. So you do don’t want to lose him, if say, his linemates aren’t going.”
A year later, the variables are the same. Sweeney has to be on the hunt for help, though good luck asking him for a name.
“That’s good,” he said with a chuckle, “because you’re not going to get one.”
“We believe in our group,” the GM added. “They’ve played well. They’re trending in the right direction. If we stay healthy, we like to feel we’re in the mix.”