Finally getting back on the ice for a Thursday morning workout, following their midseason siesta/bye, the Bruins (29-10-12) will return to work still atop the Atlantic Division.
Job 1 over their final 31 games, beginning with Friday’s matchup in Winnipeg, will be to maintain that top spot, and pressure the Capitals for No. 1 in the East and perhaps the Presidents’ Trophy. The sweet seduction of home ice for the playoffs is unremitting.
All that sounds fine, maybe even comforting for the Black-and-Gold faithful, but it doesn’t mask the fact that the Bruins have teetered and tottered along the last two months at an uninspired 9-7-7, unable to string together more than three wins.
There is also pressure from underneath, first and foremost from the Lightning, who’ve gone a blistering 12-2-1 since Dec. 23. The Bolts stand as Boston’s biggest threat in the division (7 points back with two games in hand), which will make for an interesting first week of March when the teams clash twice over the course of five days.
Here’s a look at the Bruins’ general state of things as the Sons of Bruce Cassidy get ready to tug on their blades for the final push, with a gruesome load of seven back-to-back dates packaged into the schedule leading to the playoffs.
We’re talking offense here, people, and the Bruins have barely held their own the last eight weeks, outscoring the opposition by one goal (68-67) over that 9-7-7 stretch.
In the early going, when they piled up a 20-3-5 mark by Dec. 3, they typically scored first, rarely trailed, and seven times scored five goals or more.
That score-early-and-bury-’em formula has all but disappeared. The Bruins reached the five-goal plateau only four times in the 23 games leading to the break.
Two points of emphasis here:
1. Brad Marchand connected for a mere three goals during the 9-7-7 run. “He’s fighting it,” Cassidy said before the break. The Little Ball o’ Hate also noted he has been dealing with injury.
Linemates Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can put pucks in the net even with Marchand delivering at Ray Oyler numbers, but the Primo Trio is what enables the Bruins to be a legit Stanley Cup contender. If Marchand remains colder than the corner of Portage and Main, the legit contender status goes in the can.
2. Cassidy has yet to find a bona fide answer on David Krejci’s right wing. Stop reading right now if your eardrums just exploded.
In the last iteration (last Tuesday’s win over Vegas), Anders Bjork filled the spot. He has the requisite speed, his touch on the rise. Karson Kuhlman, with more grit and more of a puck hound, might be the best option come the postseason.
As of Friday in Winnipeg, general manager Don Sweeney will have 24 days before the trade deadline to figure out if this remains a need. Guess: He makes a move.
Torey Krug, the power-play quarterback, and Zdeno Chara, still a shutdown Svengali, remain the back end’s raison d’etre. That’s another way of saying Charlie McAvoy, still without a goal at 0-17—17, looks about 3 inches short of filling out the sleeves in that fine-tailored suit of franchise defenseman.
Yep, time for McAvoy to caffeinate his game, beginning with shooting more pucks and knocking more bodies. “Contact” should be the word he keeps front of mind for the stretch run.
Meanwhile, the D corps desperately needs Kevan Miller’s moxie back there. Hobbled by a pair of knee fractures dating to last spring, he has yet to play this season. He was skating again before the break.
Do they ever need his size and toughness. The ex-UVM standout also is desperate to return; his contract is about to expire and he needs time on ice to burnish his UFA résumé prior to July 1.
Also, hobbled since Dec. 29, Connor Clifton should return within the next two weeks. Cliffy can be a bit of a Route 2 rotary at rush hour (look out!), but his overall spunk and skill make for an interesting No. 2 pairing, particularly with the emerging offensive gifts of Matt Grzelcyk.
We’ll find out first thing at Wednesday’s workout if Tuukka Rask (concussed Jan. 14 in Columbus) is good to go. About to turn 33 on March 10, the winningest goaltender in franchise history appeared increasingly clear-headed, per Cassidy, within a week of his injury. Good sign for the Finnish Thin Man.
If there’s a Cup to be had in June, it will be cradled to Causeway Street by Rask’s stick, glove, and blocker. Jaro Halak went 2-2-0 upon taking over for the injured Rask and looked adequate for a backup. Dandy. But he’s not the guy for an April-May-June run.
Provided Rask is good to go, and good to last, he should make some 20 starts over the final 31 games. The seven back-to-backs virtually guarantee he won’t start more than 24. Once back from a California road trip that ends March 21 in San Jose, Cassidy can determine how much rest his No. 1 needs over the six games that remain the last two weeks of the regular season.
Ranked 1-2 overall much of the season, the man-up slipped of late, stymied (0 for 15) in four games (worst stretch of the season) into the break.
It’s not broken. As of Tuesday morning, it still ranked No. 3 overall in the league at 25.4 percent, behind the Oilers and Lightning (there they are again). But it needs some pep.
Most of all, it needs Marchand to get his mojo back in tow. Marchand has but one PPG since Nov. 21.
A positive note can be found in the oft-overlooked category of power-play opportunities. The Bruins have been awarded 165 chances this season. That’s good. Through Monday night, only the Canucks (184), Avalanche (177), and Devils (170) had more.
Teams rich in PP opps generally have been rewarded for their skating, their speed, and net aggressiveness, forcing other teams to commit a foul. This was long a troubling category for the Bruins. Example: Five years ago (2014-15), they were next to last in the league with only 213 PP chances. Even when they won the Stanley Cup in ’11, they were 27th among 30 with only 265 opportunities.
All good here. Efficient legs and equal work ethic make for an effective kill. As of Tuesday morning, the Bruins ranked No. 5 with an 83.1 percent rub-out rate. The top three in the league: San Jose (87.3), Washington (84.5), and Tampa Bay (83.5). Yep, the Bolts. There they are again.