Charlie McAvoy had himself a fine night at TD Garden on Saturday. All the finer, of course, if his two assists and his astute, heavy and gritty work on defense had been bundled into a victory.
Instead, the Bruins were losers yet again, for a fifth time in six games (1-2-3) on a night when they again never trailed on the scoreboard until the lights were being dimmed, the ice chips swept up, and the PA announcer was wishing the sellout crowd a safe trip home.
“He was terrific tonight,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, praising McAvoy after the 3-2 shootout loss to the Capitals. “Level of competition tends to bring out the best in Charlie — we certainly saw that tonight. We needed it against a heavier group. He took the challenge head on. It’s a tougher game for the [likes of Matt Grzelcyks and Connor Cliftons] of the world. Charlie was good at both ends of the ice. I thought he was excellent.”
McAvoy, the Black-and-Gold franchise defenseman in waiting, is still filling in his game. A quarter of the way into the new season, he still doesn’t have a goal. There have been nights recently when his game, to be kind, has been spotty. Cassidy just last week was saying he needed to see more, both offensively and defensively, from the ex-Boston University blue liner.
Such is the state of today’s NHL. Over the summer, the Bruins committed nearly $15 million over the next three years to McAvoy, GM Don Sweeney eager to tie up the kid who’ll likely be the best blue liner left standing here when (if?) Zdeno Chara finally catches the last train home to Trencin. That’s a big dollar outlay, particularly for a kid (age 22 next month), who is still piecing together his complete game as if working the knobs of an Etch A Sketch.
Some nights all the lines are there in bold, connecting together perfectly, leading to a picture to behold. Other nights, it’s a geometry class gone bad. Nothing adds up. Shake it out, try again.
The Caps’ No. 1 offensive line, which McAvoy faced all night (for a beefy 23:23 in ice time), is perhaps the most forceful and talented top trio in the game: LW Alex Ovechkin, pivot Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson (right winger and improvised explosive device).
McAvoy, at right D, had Ovechkin as his No. 1 check. Ovie is the game’s most feared and prolific scorer, pucks leaving a vapor trail off his stick, and at 6 feet 3 inches, 235 pounds, he hits to punish (witness: Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin, who became road kill in Ovie’s tracks Friday night in Montreal.
“He’s just dangerous . . . everywhere,” McAvoy said, offering only the slightest smile amid the disappointment of another loss. “So you try to keep him to the outside, make his life tough and try to frustrate him.”
Mission accomplished. Through 40 minutes, Ovie had attempted but one shot on net, something akin to the world champion hot dog eater showing up for lunch and dining on celery and carrot sticks.
By the end of the night, Ovie, with 672 career goals and 1,235 points, finished with a line of 0-0—0 and five shot attempts, three making their way to Bruins netminder Jaroslav Halak.
Meanwhile, McAvoy finished with three shots attempts (all off the mark), but a pair of assists. His name was on both goals, a secondary help on the Charlie Coyle strike that provided a 1-0 lead, and then the primary on David Pastrnak’s 17th of the year that broke a 1-1 deadlock.
What felt better, his two assists, or the fact that the amazing Ovechkin left town with a pocketful of zeros?
“I think him ending up with zero is pretty nice,” said McAvoy, who was nonetheless subdued because the Caps prevailed in the shootout (Ovechkin didn’t sore there either). “I can be happy with that. But I’m just pretty pissed off that we kind of pissed away 2 points.”
These are not happy times for the Bruins, in part because they are missing vital performers up front, a point they acknowledge but refuse to use as an excuse. Among the missing bodies against the Caps were Patrice Bergeron (new to the hors de combat list), Jake DeBrusk, and Torey Krug (placed on the IR on Saturday). Those three, by the way, make up 60 percent of the club’s No. 1 PP unit.
The Caps had their full complement of shooters. The Bruins were attacking in waves down the street at Mass. General Hospital.
If nothing else, the Bruins added a point in the standings, and McAvoy added a growth ring. Silencing Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Wilson is only slightly harder than a preschool teacher maintaining classroom order at noon on Friday.
Is it the challenge alone that brings out the best in McAvoy?
“A good question, because he gets top lines every night,” said Cassidy. “So . . . we’ll go back 24 hours [in Toronto], he’s got [John] Tavares or he’s got [Auston] Matthews — one or the other all night. But tonight, maybe with a heavier opponent . . . I can’t really say why because he is tasked with defending against excellent forwards every night. I can’t say they are old, because it is a young league but definitely high-end players.
“But tonight, he just had it.”
“Play hard,” added McAvoy. “I take that very seriously — play hard on those guys. And a big part of that is physicality.”
There will be more of these nights. Some framed in victory rather than defeat, when McAvoy is smiling and all the pieces fall into place. For now, he remains an evolving product, intriguing to watch, promise being fulfilled.