Bruins may look to David Backes for more net-front presence
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Bruins want to get more shots and traffic in front of Sergei Bobrovsky, the Columbus netminder who is stealing this second-round playoff series. They have a chance to pull even here in Thursday’s Game 4, before the series switches to Boston for Game 5.
Before going home, they may go big.
David Backes, who turned 35 Wednesday, received a birthday present of sorts from coach Bruce Cassidy. He skated the right wing next to David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk during practice at Nationwide Arena.
Cassidy wouldn’t commit to the change afterward, noting that the rookie he replaced, Karson Kuhlman, has brought speed and energy. It does seem, however, that the 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound veteran will be in the lineup for Game 4.
“Good to be on a line and expecting to be playing,” said Backes, who hasn’t played since Game 5 against Toronto, 12 days before Wednesday. “I’ll be the freshest guy on the ice, I know that, for sure. Can I turn that into some extra races and battles won? That’s up to me.”
Looking for answers after producing just six goals in three games, Cassidy would lean on Backes for his net-front presence, either as a screener, shot deflector, or depositor of loose change. All three are ways to bother Bobrovsky.
“It’s what I’ve done my whole career,” Backes said. “Hopefully find myself on top of that paint for extended periods of time with little black pucks flying by me, try to get tips and rebounds and screens. It’s no secret how you score this time of year.”
Backes is used to that, but not used to sitting in the press box. A 13-year veteran who spent five years as captain in St. Louis, his decreasing playing time, stats, and effectiveness have made the five-year, $30 million deal he signed in 2016 seem inflated. He is a proud man, with 35 points in 71 playoff games, and aching to contribute more.
After producing a career-low 7-13—20 line this season, he was scratched for Boston’s playoff opener against Toronto. He returned in Game 2 and contributed an assist in 12:12 of action, but was shelved after logging just 4:36 in Game 5.
Out of the rink, he has taken long walks to gather his thoughts, and keep his “dark space,” as he called it — any negative energy — away from the rink. One thought that refreshes him: He is part of a team chasing a Stanley Cup, a trophy he has not touched.
“That’s been some of the solace,” he said. “Some of the other is being experienced and knowing how many guys it takes to get to the ultimate goal. I figured I’d have an opportunity at some point.”
He pointed to former Blues teammate Steve Ott, who was a positive force at the end of his career in 2015. It made a lasting impression.
“He was looking for ways to help us win,” he said of Ott, now an assistant coach with St. Louis. “I’ll never forget the way he was around the guys.”
Backes wasn’t the only possible lineup change for the Bruins, who have seen their top three forwards — Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron — combine for a lone point against Columbus, a deflected goal off Pastrnak’s skate in Game 2.
The power play, which is 1 for 10 this series after going 7 for 16 against Toronto in the first round, had a different look Tuesday.
Jake DeBrusk was back as the net-front option, replacing Marcus Johansson. DeBrusk has a different set of strengths than Johansson, who moved to the second unit.
Cassidy hoped to take advantage of DeBrusk’s ability to quickly retrieve loose pucks around the net and recover deep chips on entries. He would trade that for Johansson’s ability to make plays from the goal line, and his skill at entering the zone with possession.
“[DeBrusk] will stay there a little more, in front of the goaltender,” Cassidy said. “I think we’re lacking a little bit of that on our power play, the end result of a shot to the net, a screen, and a puck recovery.
“Puck’s got to get there for that net-front presence to be effective, but we like that part of his game.”
The Bruins, who hit iron three times in the 2-1 Game 2 loss, are losing the special-teams battles in a tight series. Perhaps Backes and DeBrusk will spark the necessary change.
“I thought we had some tough puck luck,” said Cassidy, noting that several rebounds in Game 3 handcuffed right or left sticks on their backhand, where a player on his forehand might have forced Bobrovsky to make a tougher save.
“I don’t know if he’s going to crack,” Cassidy said. “I hope he does. It’s our intention to force him to be really good. So far, he has. Give him credit. Tomorrow’s a new day.
“We’ve got some good goal scorers in that room. I don’t think they lack confidence right now. Frustration, at times. But they were ready to go today and they’ll bring it tomorrow.”