All NHL coaches enter game night on equal footing. They have 20 jobs to fill, 60 minutes (sometimes a tad more) to burn off the clock, and a work force defined by skill, payroll, injury, and human nature.
Which is to say, once beyond the 20-60 of that equation, it can be a crazy, unpredictable workplace.
With three weeks to go before the NHL trade deadline, Bruce Cassidy has charge of a 31-10-12 team that is all but guaranteed a playoff berth. The Bruins won for a third straight time Saturday night, an efficient 6-1 thumping of the Wild, and Cassidy’s focus for the final 29 games of the season has to be on keeping core players tuned up, healthy, and battle-ready for another demanding playoff run that could last until the middle of June.
All good. Albeit with a significant wrinkle Cassidy and GM Don Sweeney intentionally worked into the equation over the last month, starting with the reassigning of forwards Brett Ritchie (now in Providence) and David Backes (now in a career holding pattern).
Message: No one should feel too comfortable. Oh, and there is that trade deadline to help underscore the obvious, lest anyone forget.
The message continued Saturday in St. Paul, where Cassidy yanked Sean Kuraly out of the lineup and replaced him with Par Lindholm, who helped set up Torey Krug for the first goal of the night. Kuraly became too comfortable of late, by Cassidy’s eye, and the big center’s night off was a not-so-subtle reminder that there are no job guarantees.
Danton Heinen also was sidelined, and replaced by Anton Blidh, but that was mainly because Heinen sustained a minor injury the night before in Winnipeg. Heinen likely will be fit for duty Tuesday night with the Canucks on Causeway Street, but Blidh’s high-energy game vs. the Wild now might make it difficult for Heinen to get back in there.
Exactly what Cassidy wanted.
“Make guys wanting to play, it’s that simple,” said Cassidy, asked late Saturday night how recent roster changes impacted his team’s play in the first two games back from the bye break. “You could see it with Blidh. He’s throwing himself in front of shots with a three- or four-goal lead.”
Actually, it was a 4-0 lead early in the third period, the game essentially over, when the 24-year-old Blidh transformed himself into an Aztec sacrificial offering on the penalty-killing squad. One block. Two blocks. Three blocks. All shots intended for the Boston net. All diverted by a kid intent on making an impression in his 23rd career NHL game.
“I used to block a lot of shots,” said the smiling Swede, who was drafted by the Bruins with the 180th pick in the 2013 draft. “That’s like kinda the guy I am.”
By the time Blidh registered his second block, a few of his appreciative teammates on the bench were standing up and tapping sticks on the board. By the third block, they were all up and hollering.
Four–goal lead. Game in hand. Nothing to prove.
Unless you’re a guy drafted seven years ago looking to take the Wanna out of your WannaB status. Then it becomes a 30- or 40-second audition for a chance to live life beyond the 401 area code.
“Say you don’t block it . . . all of a sudden it’s a 4-1 game,” explained Blidh. “Now the lead’s three goals, and maybe they get energy, right? So you never know.”
No, you don’t. That’s 100 percent true.
But there was a larger truth at play, one that didn’t escape Blidh, didn’t escape Cassidy, and no doubt was made clear to everyone who did or didn’t pull on a Black-and-Gold sweater Saturday night.
“I’m trying to make a spot on the roster every night,” said Blidh. “So . . . I want to be in there.”
And we have . . . Bingo. Just what Cassidy and Sweeney hoped for when they began churning the roster with the Ritchie and Backes moves.
“We lost a bit of that in the middle of the year,” said Cassidy, again reflecting on Blidh’s shot-blocking. “Understandably, you’re not as committed sometimes. So we’re trying to get that back, slowly, have it come around. If it requires moving a different person in to do it, then that’s what we’ll do, and have done.”
Cassidy on Friday and Saturday also made a point of saying other candidates in Providence may get a look in the coming days. More message sending. Ritchie, he noted, has shown improvement since entering his AHL refresher course. Top prospect Jack Studnicka, pegged as a top-six forward, went 2-2-4 Saturday night in a win at Syracuse. Trent Frederic, 7-19—26, looks as if he’s adding edge to his game.
“The guys we put in, they did what we asked them to do, they got rewarded,” said Cassidy, making a point to praise Lindholm’s efforts vs. the Wild. “So hats off to them. Again, it’s internal competition. It’s what you want. When guys go in, you want them to want to stay in — so when they respond like that, it makes you feel good about the character of those guys that they want to do it and be involved.”
Blidh said he wasn’t aware “during the action” that his pals on the Boston bench were hootin’ and hollerin’ as the Wild shots were pinging off him. He appreciated the reception when he raced back to take a seat at the end of the shift.
“Listen, everyone can’t be [David Pastrnak],” said Blidh, pondering his few seconds of recognition around one of the nastier parts of the game. “Everyone can’t be as skilled as him. We’re different guys . . . and that’s the type of guy I am.”
The three shots, where did they get him?
“Good spots,” said Blidh, breaking into a grin as if he had scored a hat trick. “I was fine.”
“For me,” he added. “I’m not like a full-time NHLer right now. I try to work my way there. Once I get my chance, I’m just excited to make a difference and show them I am capable of being a full NHL guy.”
Tuesday night, 7:08 p.m. vs. the Canucks. Another 60, and maybe Blidh’s name among the 20.