Bruins’ kids have seven games to end their struggles
Danton Heinen and Charlie Mc-Avoy had the kind of February afternoon on Saturday that most Bruins fans figured would fill up their calendar from the first drop of the puck in October.
They each potted a goal. They eached picked up an assist. Two of the brightest, youngest faces in the Black-and-Gold lineup, they were key components in the 5-4 OT win over the Kings at the Garden.
“They are young guys going into their second full year in the NHL,” noted coach Bruce Cassidy, whose patience with both kids this season has rivaled the Big Dig in terms of length and tolerating, shall we say, hiccups. “I think there’s a reason they call it the sophomore slump. Everyone assumes it’s going to go even better than the first year.”
Frankly, and some times painfully, that hasn’t been the case in 2018-19 for Heinen and McAvoy. Ditto for fellow sophomore Jake DeBrusk. Last season they looked like they would be the nucleus of a humongous talent surge, the needed youth movement, only to spend so much of this season fumbling to gain a foothold in their game, their confidence.
“Confidence is a funny thing,” said Heinen, his role enhanced the last two games by joining Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron on the No. 1 line. “But it felt pretty good tonight. I think you automatically get a little bit of confidence when you see them going in. I’m going to try to build off it.”
With two weeks to go before the trade deadline, the play of the likes of Heinen, McAvoy, and perhaps DeBrusk will factor significantly in how GM Don Sweeney approaches the market.
If they can be counted on for offense, and make the Bruins look like a true Cup challenger, then Sweeney can consider being more aggressive in his deals. He can look for another Rick Nash, that one player to make a difference, separate the Bruins from the pack of “also-rans.”
If the kids aren’t adding to the offensive pop, then a realistic Sweeney should be more reserved. He wouldn’t be in position to look for one player — a needed winger or centerman — to put his squad over the top. Teams try to top off the tank at the trade deadline. Thus far, the tank’s been far too many gallons short.
All of which leaves Cassidy and Sweeney with seven more games, including Sunday’s matinee on Causeway with the Avalanche, to decide just how realistic it is to chase a Cup this spring. To this point in the season, it’s a team that will rise or fall around the performance of three forwards — Marchand, Bergeron, David Pastrnak — and Tuukka Rask’s goaltending.
Rask, by the way, is now 9-0-2 over his last 11 decisions and looking more like the goalie who had Sweeney, et al, believing this time last year they had the tender to make a serious run. That’s no small piece of the puzzle.
McAvoy, hindered this year by a concussion and then a foot infection, against the Kings looked far more like the bold, dynamic backliner who often put a charge into the roster last season. His goal, only his second this season, came with him pressing in the offensive zone, and thus rewarded with a velvety feed from Bergeron that left him with an easy top-of-the-crease tap.
“That one was nice,” said a smiling McAvoy. “I’ve been trying to contribute offensively, be a part of it . . . [Cassidy] does a good job of making sure that we know we are included — encouraging us and our creativity. We’ve just got to be a part of it.”
In the third period, McAvoy’s shot on net (one of his four for the day) provided the rebound off Jonathan Quick that Heinen cashed in for the equalizer. If Sweeney were mixing metaphors into his managerial tool kit, there it was, two of his best kids showing the way for the day — and perhaps for the spring.
“I’m trying to get a lot better at that,” said McAvoy, reflecting briefly on Heinen’s goal, “making sure I get pucks to the net. Because good things like that happen. It was nice to get rewarded tonight.”
McAvoy’s only previous goal was Oct. 13. Heinen, now only 8-8—16 for the season through 51 games, for only the third time this season has points in back-to-back games. In 37 games this year (72.5 percent of his games), he has finished the night 0-0—0. A man with that many goose eggs is understandably encouraged by a goal and assist.
Now what for DeBrusk? Cassidy on Wednesday finally pulled him off the No. 2 line, part of the new world order that pushed Heinen to first-line duty and shifted Pastrnak to David Krejci’s right side.
“It’s not happening for him offensively,” noted Cassidy, who has reminded DeBrusk, amid the slump, to keep after all the other parts of his game and “hopefully he’ll get some rewards down the road.”
McAvoy, for one, is sure of it.
“We were talking about this with each other the other day because it feels like it’s been a while since we’ve been able to contribute offensively,” McAvoy said. “That’s when you’ve just got to go back to square one . . . you just have to stay true, play an honest game. For me, it’s being smart, making good reads and good plays, not being on the wrong side of the puck so good things will happen.”
For DeBrusk, said his fellow sophomore in recovery, it will be the same.
“We all know in here that he is a gifted offensive player,” McAvoy said. “He is one of those guys you love to be on the ice with because he is going to make plays happen. We’ll stay on him. We support him. And we’ll feed him that confidence. It’s just a matter of time before he breaks through and hopefully it will be waves.”
Two weeks to go before the trade deadline. A matter of time . . . for Sweeney to decide if these kids are really in, and whether it’s worth his time to add more.