The NHL’s 2018-19 regular season, particularly for the Bruins, is now in freefall. The red-hot Black and Gold (12-0-4 in their last 16) face the confident, resurgent Hurricanes on Tuesday night at TD Garden in what starts a finishing string of 17 games in 33 days.
That’s a torrid five-week run at the standard playoff clip of a game every other night. How they come out of it all ultimately could determine whether they enter the Cup run on April 10 as a fine-tuned machine or a tired, chewed-up lot.
With all that in mind, here are 17 points of interest as the regular-season clock winds down:
1. Tuukka Rask, now with the most regular-season wins (260) in franchise history, picked up his third shutout of the season with Saturday’s 1-0 blanking of the Devils. He is 14-0-3 since his last regulation “L” on Dec. 23 and, at 22-8-5, stands a reasonable chance of reaching the 30-win plateau for a sixth straight season.
Of the seven other NHL goalies to enter this season with 150 wins or more since the start of Rask’s bounty in 2013-14, none began on a run of five seasons with 30 or more W’s. The closest: Braden Holtby, Pekka Rinne, and Devan Dubnyk (all four each). Henrik Lundqvist began his Ranger career with a stretch of seven 30-win seasons, but his string of four more was snapped last year.
With 17 games left and only a pair of back-to-backers, coach Bruce Cassidy likely will go with Rask in upward of a dozen starts, if not more. The main goal down the stretch again will be clinching home ice for what now looks like the inevitable first-round rematch with the Leafs.
The Bruins hold a 3-point lead over the sons of King Clancy. Cassidy is poised to feed Rask a steady diet of starts, perhaps three of every four, until the seeding is settled. That might not be until the final regular-season game here on April 6, a 1 p.m. Saturday faceoff against the Bolts.
2. What of David Pastrnak? The club’s top gunner has been hors de combat for three weeks following surgery to repair a thumb tendon.
The good news: They have gone 8-0-1 without him, outscoring the opposition by a robust 32-16.
Pastrnak won’t be seen in the lineup anytime soon, and the club’s recent run allows Cassidy not to rush the talented right winger. Keep the March 21 (New Jersey) and March 23 (Florida) games in mind as loose target dates for the Pasta redux.
The bet here three weeks ago was that the Bruins would win their share of games with Pastrnak on the sideline. But the equal bet, even before they acquired Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, was that they won’t make it to Round 2 without Pastrnak back in the lineup. No change in that thinking, no matter how they’ve flourished without him. He’s a difference-maker, and he’ll need at least 5-8 games to try to re-establish his groove.
3. Torey Krug is overdue some props. He was held off the scoresheet Saturday night for only the fifth time in the last 19 games (2-15—17).
Time to drop the “yeah, but” qualifier around his overall game. As of Sunday morning, only nine NHL D-men had more than his 46 points. His 40 helpers ranked No. 7 among the league-wide pack.
Yeah, OK, he’s small, and he’s going to lose many of his heavier defensive-zone battles in 5-on-5 situations. But he is also a dynamic force with the puck, a greater and more mobile presence under Cassidy than he was under Claude Julien.
No question, Charlie McAvoy should grow into the resident No. 1 role back there the next 2-4 years. For now though, Krug is the guy who makes the offensive mojo go back there. He is as vital to the back end as Pastrnak is to the front end.
4. Don’t bet on a game off here or there down the stretch for captain Zdeno Chara, at least not with home ice still in question.
The Trencin Tower of Power already has been dialed down to an average 21:00 TOI, third on the club (behind McAvoy and Krug), approaching a 20 percent reduction from the 25:26 he logged in the 2010-11 Cup season.
His standard response: “I want to play.”
Cassidy’s answer: “Get out there.”
Injury factor aside, maybe he gets a day off once the seeding is settled. Maybe.
Related: Zdeno Chara won’t rest easy as season winds down
5. Newcomers Coyle and Johansson have yet to deliver much on the scoresheet, but it’s a process, folks. The same can be said for the higher-profile Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for the Blue Jackets, now 1-2-0 since adding those guys from Ottawa.
Coyle and Johansson are both smart pickups. Once Pastrnak is back, Danton Heinen presumably drops down from the first line, which then will alter the structure around both David Krejci and Coyle on lines 2-3. Let’s wait for that skate to drop before making a full assessment.
6. Jake DeBrusk is finally back playing with the pluck we saw emerge against the Leafs in Round 1 last year. His assist on Brad Marchand’s lone goal bumped his line to 7-6—13 the last nine games. He needed until Dec. 27 this season to reach his first 13 points (including 10 goals). He made a superb play on Marchand’s goal, batting down the puck at waist level to set up Patrice Bergeron’s sick dish across the crease for Marchand to convert for No. 27.
7. Sean Kuraly’s working his way back from a concussion suffered Thursday against Tampa Bay. The fourth line isn’t nearly the same without him on left wing. Cassidy spotted Joakim Nordstrom over there vs. the Devils, but he doesn’t have King Kong Kuraly’s size or strength. The Kuraly-Noel Acciari-Chris Wagner combo is the club’s “value meal” this season.
8. No one is having more fun that the ’Canes right now, led by devilishly slick Sebastian Aho (27-46—73). They’re 8-2-0 their last 10 and sit 5 points out of the top spot in the Metro Division. They’ll be wearing their heritage Whaler unis here on Causeway Street, and not even the Whaler fan club, still keeping candles lit in Hartford, saw this coming.
9. The ’Canes have the NHL’s lowest payroll — approximately $63.3m, per capfriendly.com — and they held on to UFA-to-be Micheal Ferland at the deadline. Lots of clubs, including the Bruins, were poking around to see if they could spring the ex-Flames left winger. He’s strong, durable, and possibly will decide to stick around with things on the upswing in Cane country.
10. Florida (Thursday) and Ottawa (Saturday) are the next guests on Causeway. Both ostensibly have been eliminated from playoff contention, with the gutted Senators all but assured the best odds of holding the No. 1 pick in the June draft . . . except the pick belongs to Colorado, for the prior deal that sent Duchene to the Senators.
Ex-Boston University standout Brady Tkachuk, who left Comm. Ave. after one year to join the Sens, must be wishing he’d remained a Terrier. He could have declared free agency in the summer of 2021 and picked his franchise, or perhaps forced a trade to get to the NHL in the fall of 2020. Now he’s stuck in Ottawa for what looks like a forever rebuild.
11. Cassidy has to win 11 of the final 17 to become only the second Boston coach to post back-to-back 50-win seasons. Tom Johnson did it with his swashbuckling Orr-era bunch, with a total 111 wins (1970-1972). The sons of Butch’s went 50-20-12 last season, his first full year behind the bench.
12. Cassidy, with 87 points (39-17-9), is all but assured a second consecutive 100-point season, something not done here since 2010-12. Claude Julien had four 100-point seasons in his tenure with the Spoked-B.
13. Lots of pearl-clutching and eye-rolling here in May 2016 when general manager Don Sweeney, one year on the job, signed Kevan Miller to his current four-year, $10 million pact. It’s now looking like one of Sweeney’s wisest lockdowns. Miller, currently out with a minor injury, guarantees third-paring stability and back-end toughness. Keep the pearls handy. He’s up for a deal after next season and easily could justify a bump to $4 million a year.
14. Three of Boston’s remaining 17 games will be against the re-engineered Blue Jackets (March 12, 16, and April 2). Note to schedule maker: If you’re looking for a threepeat down the stretch next season, maybe consider an opponent at least in the same division? Not a single matchup vs. the Leafs or Habs in the final 17.
15. Steve Kampfer hasn’t played for the Bruins since their 5-3 loss to the Hurricanes on Dec. 23. He may not play again for the remainder of the regular season. All to be part of the backstory when he pots the OT winner in Game 4 against the Leafs in Round 1. Final line: 1-1—2 and a five-minute fighting major for a rousing scrap with Zach Hyman. Book it.
16. The clocks will have been wheeled an hour ahead next Sunday night when the Bruins face the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Only clinging to a wild-card berth, even with one of the game’s top three talents Sidney Crosby, GM Jim Rutherford (the Whaler boss who once acquired Glen Wesley from the Bruins), did not make his anticipated blockbuster deal at the trade deadline. Which is to say Phil Kessel remains in residence.
17. First guy through the gate Tuesday night sporting an Ulf Samuelsson Whaler sweater (vintage 1984-91) might want to know that B’s president Cam Neely sees all from the ninth floor, six floors above ice level. Your running start might come in handy. The Mass General ER is no more than three blocks to the southwest.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.