Friday morning dawned and the 4-0-0 Edmonton Oilers — sport’s perennial recast crew from “Lost In Space” — occupied the No. 1 overall spot in the NHL standings. They were tied with the low-budget Hurricanes. Oh, and the forever-in-rebuild Sabres were but 1 point off the lead.
Maybe it’s not the same-ol’-same-ol’ NHL, although it’s worth keeping in mind we are in only the second weekend of the grueling six-month song-and-dance regular season.
Meanwhile, the 3-1-0 Bruins return to the Garden Saturday night for their home opener against the Devils. Not much has changed since the Black and Gold played their last meaningful minutes on Causeway Street 122 days ago, the night they showed up in a daze for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against St. Louis and departed with a two-hander embedded in their souls.
The sons of Butch Cassidy, only 2 points off the Oilers pace, have changed little since the night of June 12. The lineup Thursday night in Denver, where they suffered their first loss of the season, was minus only Marcus Johansson (now in Buffalo), Noel Acciari (Florida), and John Moore (injured) from the bunch that lost Game 7 to the Blues.
To fill those roster spots, Cassidy rolled in David Backes, Chris Wagner, and Connor Clifton against the Avalanche. All familiar faces. So while there may be a couple of new names dotting the roster (spare forwards Brett Ritchie and Par Lindholm), the new-look Bruins are a near-mirror image of the lot that rolled up 107 points last season, then dismissed Toronto, Columbus, and Carolina en route to a third trip to the Finals in nine seasons.
General manager Don Sweeney is hoping that familiarity breeds a return, for what would be the franchise’s first back-to-back title appearances in more than 40 years (losses in 1977-78).
Cassidy hopes to get there by inventing some added five-on-five scoring punch, be it by improved grind down low, with more stubborn forwards parked closer to the net, or improved production from the back line, where captain Zdeno Chara wired home a 57-footer for what was the club’s final goal in the 4-2 loss in Denver.
Two ensuing goals by the Bruins were wiped off the board after video review, one for goalie interference and the other for an offside. A new season hasn’t changed the cruel eye of the camera. The league remains intent on governing the game by the millimeter. Pardon me a moment while I sip a little something from my Wally Harris coffee mug.
Chara’s goal, at five on five, was a prime example of what Cassidy wants from the back line. Last season, Boston’s collection of 12 blue liners scored 31 times, with eight of those strikes delivered on the power play.
Cassidy wants quicker action, more shots and more goals from back there, albeit in a league that makes it all but impossible to land a shot on net from outside, say, 35 feet. Chara succeeded in part because his low, heavy blast deflected high in the shooting lane off the stick shaft of Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog. There’s no way to build opposition deflections into the game plan.
Up front, no surprise, the top line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak paced the offense over the first four games. The Primo Trio collected 13 points, a 267-point pace in virtual lockstep with the 260 they delivered last season. They scored five times across the four games. Great. In today’s NHL, teams typically live or die on their first-line production.
However, the other three lines scored only twice (Ritchie and Danton Heinen) across 12 periods. One week is a tiny sample size, to be sure, but the tepid production served as a reminder that secondary scoring, a key to the Cup drive last spring, ultimately will have to be mined.
The departed Johansson went a vital 4-7—11 in the postseason. Fellow deadline pickup Charlie Coyle was an even more important 9-7—16. Coyle, the club’s strongest performer in the preseason, chipped in with but a lone assist on the four-game road trip. Cassidy has David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, and Coyle as his three givens on his second and third lines.
The ongoing test will be to mix in three more forwards and shape those two lines, in hopes of rediscovering the pop that was there in the postseason. If that supplemental scoring doesn’t perk up here in the first month, look for a call to AHL Providence, with Anders Bjork No. 1 on the list, as possible relief.
Meanwhile, the net has been as advertised, with Tuukka Rask and Jaro Halak each providing No. 1-caliber performances on the trip, Rask with a .937 save percentage and Halak, the loser in Colorado, with a .957.
Rask was a ho-hum 4-4 over his first eight games last season, leading to a weekend leave of absence in November in order to “make things right” with his family. Since arriving at camp in September, he has seemed relaxed and ready, the only wrinkle in his performance a leg cramp (possible dehydration) at the very end of his win Tuesday night in Vegas.
The stage is set at the new Garden, its $100 million makeover nearing completion (the new seats a tighter fit than Chris Christie’s hot yoga pants). There’s a new pro shop. A sparkling Star Market. The ebullient Todd Angilly, the newly crowned anthem crooner of Causeway Street, is ready to rip. The puck goes down shortly after 7 p.m.
Other than the season itself, not much is new with these new Bruins, and the hometown faithful now begin to find out for themselves if that’s good or bad.