David Backes appears to be the Bruins’ odd man out ahead of their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With 13 healthy forwards battling for 12 spots, Backes was not a part of the opening line combinations during Monday morning’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena. Instead, Walpole native Chris Wagner skated on right wing alongside Noel Acciari and Joakim Nordstrom to round out the fourth line.
Coach Bruce Cassidy said the team is still tinkering with its line rushes but suggested Monday’s groupings are, at the very least, an indication of how the Bruins will start Game 1 Thursday night at TD Garden.
“That could change in a hurry from Game 1 to Game 2,” Cassidy told reporters after practice. “Whatever forward is out, I wouldn’t assume that it’s going to stay that way. We’ll see how the series goes.”
Cassidy cited speed as a contributing factor in making the decision, as Backes, at 6 feet 3 inches and 34 years old, is one of the slower players on the ice. Cassidy said he expects the Leafs to try to “outskate” and “outskill” the Bruins with their quickness, making Wagner a more viable option.
In other personnel news, defenseman Kevan Miller remains out after suffering a lower-body injury last Thursday in Minnesota. According to general manager Don Sweeney, Miller underwent tests after experiencing additional swelling and is unlikely to start the series.
Cassidy said “day-to-day” would be an understatement to describe Miller’s status, given that he was not on the ice Monday and has not skated since his injury. But Cassidy also noted it’s possible the 31-year-old could be reintegrated with the team a little bit faster because of the time of year.
“In the playoffs, all bets are off,” he said. “If a guy’s ready, you may roll him in there.”
To fill Miller’s place next to Matt Grzelcyk, 30-year-old Steven Kampfer got the nod over rookie Connor Clifton. If Cassidy sticks to that pairing for Game 1, Kampfer, who was sent to Boston in September as part of a trade for Adam McQuaid, will be making his playoff debut. Kampfer was a member of the team for the 2011 Stanley Cup but did not see any ice time.
“At the end of the day, it’s the coach’s decision for who’s going to play,” Kampfer said. “You’re just making sure you’re practicing hard, you’re ready to go when the time goes. It’s Butchy’s call, and, at the end of the day, you respect his decision, and you stay ready for when the opportunity comes.”
Rounding out the injury updates, defenseman John Moore and forward Sean Kuraly both skated in noncontact jerseys ahead of Monday’s practice. Cassidy said Moore could come back into the mix as early as Tuesday or Wednesday, while Kuraly will probably miss Games 1 and 2.
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Sweeney and Cassidy appear to have full confidence in late-season call-up Karson Kuhlman, who skated in the second line alongside Jake DeBrusk and David Krecji Monday.
“He’s been good for us,” Cassidy said. “He doesn’t seem to be fazed by much.”
Just last year, his senior season at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Kuhlman was named 2018 NCAA Tournament MVP for helping lead the program to its second national title. Though he went undrafted, he inked an entry-level contract with the Bruins in April. He began this season with the Providence Bruins but earned his first NHL opportunity when David Pastrnak injured his thumb in February.
“I think I have a lot of confidence in myself and my game, and that’s been building ever since I’ve been up here, day-by-day,” Kuhlman said. “It’s been a heck of a year, that’s for sure.”
Since making his NHL debut, Kuhlman has scored three goals and notched two assists in 11 games. Cassidy said the coaching staff is “not going to worry” about his lack of playoff experience, instead focusing more on establishing the best lineups.
Kuhlman said he’s doing whatever it takes to help the team win.
“Our leadership group does a great job with communicating that, especially to myself and a lot of the younger guys,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but I’m just here to do my job.”
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Left wing Brad Marchand still thinks about his first NHL playoff game.
In fact, the 30-year-old said he was reminiscing about it Sunday night.
“The first of anything is nerve-wracking and exciting,” he said. “You’re so amped up. The adrenaline rush every game that first year was insane. That’s what your playing each day, your adrenaline. Trying to control your emotions is tough.”
Marchand couldn’t have asked for a better ending to his first postseason: The Bruins topped the Vancouver Canucks in seven games and raised the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Eight years later, he says that there aren’t as many butterflies — and it’s a little easier to sleep — but that the excitement level is still high.
“It’s a good feeling to be in a little more control and know what to expect,” he said.
One aspect of the game he wishes would revert back to his earlier days, however, is the trash talk. Marchand said players are discouraged from getting into it with one another because the league has installed microphones throughout the rink.
“No one really chirps in the league anymore,” he said. “It gets shut down pretty quick by the refs or linesmen. There’s too many microphones around now. I don’t know if they’re putting mics in the seats to get what the guys are saying, but it kind of did the opposite. No one wants to say anything because you get in trouble now.”
The technology clearly hasn’t deterred him too much, however, as Marchand was voted the league’s best trash talker earlier this season.