Their lead in the Atlantic Division approaching Barcalounger comfort levels, the Bruins enjoyed a Sunday of slippers and naps after their proficient 4-0 dismissal of the Islanders the day before at Nassau Coliseum.
Backed by Tuukka Rask’s fourth shutout of the season, they awoke Sunday with 16 games remaining in the regular season and a 7-point bulge over the Bolts, who learned over the weekend that they will be without star forward Steven Stamkos (surgery to repair abdominal/core injury) until at least the start of the postseason next month.
The Bolts, with a game in hand, might not be fully focused in the Bruins rearview mirror, but they also aren’t that object closer than the sideview mirror indicates. The Bruins own the league’s best record (41-13-12) and appear poised to wrap their sweaty leather mitts around their first Presidents’ Trophy since 2014.
Coach Bruce Cassidy, his charges a sizzling 10-3-0 since returning from the bye break, now is enjoying the possible luxury of backing off the playing time of some of his leading TOI horses. He noted on Saturday that defenseman Charlie McAvoy could be among those in the stable he backs off a few shifts as the postseason approaches.
“The Bergys, the Zs,” said Cassidy, identifying the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara as a couple of other guys who might be backed off slightly down stretch. “And McAvoy’s played a lot of minutes, so maybe he needs a day off down the road.”
Cassidy also added core performers David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak (league-leading 47 goals) as others who potentially could see a slightly TOI slimdown, all in the spirit of managing their fatigue levels, both mental and physical, as the prospect of potentially playing into mid-June again approaches.
Cassidy’s comments came before puck drop on Long Island, where, coincidentally, McAvoy went out and posted his best offensive line (1-2—3) of the season. Without a goal in the first half, he now has four strikes since the club returned from what it might soon be referring to as its January “Bye-bye!” break.
“I mean, I feel good,” said McAvoy, whose 21:30 in ice time Saturday ranked third on the club, behind Brandon Carlo (22:59) and Chara (21:49). “I am sure that is something that we’d have a conversation about. Whatever he does, we trust him. He always has the best interests of his players in mind — so whatever minutes it is, I try to do the best I can for the team.”
For the season, McAvoy leads all Bruins in average ice time with 22:59, followed by his backline partner, Chara (20:59). Marchand (19:36), Pastrnak (19:03) and Bergeron (18:51) have punched the most time among the forwards.
“Whatever minutes you get, you just want to go out there and play to the best of your ability when you’re called upon,” added McAvoy. “I try to take a lot of pride in that.”
■ Sean Kuraly, center of the fourth line much of the season, lined up again as the L4 left wing on Saturday and logged a dependable 13:30, nearly a quarter of that on the PK. He also fired three shots, none landing on net, on a line that had Par Lindholm at center and Joakim Nordstrom at right wing.
“Right now [Kuraly] will stay there,” said Cassidy. “I think he’s played a little bit better there. As long as Lindholm can handle it on a regular basis, we may stick with it going forward. We may look at another option in the middle there down the road, but right now that’s kind of how it’s worked out for us.”
Who could be the other option? Possibly Jack Studnicka, among the club’s most prized prospects, who leads the AHL Providence WannaB’s in points (21-23—44). The first-year pro, the 53rd pick in the 2017 draft, has had a strong second half and turned 21 last month.
■ McAvoy’s 1-2—3 afternoon accounted for the lion’s share of the 2-5—7 line submitted by the backline crew.
It was the biggest aggregate accumulated by Boston defensemen this season, and the first time the six pack outscored Boston’s 12 forwards.
Asked post-game if that meant the forwards were buying dinner on the way home, a beaming McAvoy said, “They should, right? I think that’s the first time all year that we outnumbered them. That’s what need sometimes . . . you win by committee.”
Cassidy, who was a puck-moving, shooting defenseman in his prior life, was encouraged to see that kind of pop from the back end. Defense is their first job, but he wants all of his blueliners also to remain in attack mode.
“I want them to be part of it — I do,” said Cassidy. “I think that’s encouraged. Some days, Bergy’s line, they’re going to be checked hard so the D’s got to be involved. We certainly encourage it. But not at the cost of let’s trade chances all night, up and down the ice. But if there’s an opportunity to get up there, keep it alive, or join the rush . . . pick your spots.”
■ Following Monday morning’s workout in Brighton, the Bruins will fly to Tampa for Tuesday night’s matchup with the Stamkos-less Bolts. They’ll then face the Panthers on Thursday in Sunrise before a return match with the Bolts on Saturday (7:08 pm.) at the Garden.
■ Cassidy said he figured Chris Wagner, who sat out Saturday, should be able to participate in Monday’s workout. Wagner exited the lineup in the third period vs. the Stars on Thursday, after banging head and neck and shoulder (hat trick!) in a fall.
■ With the defensemen playing so well as a unit, it has been hard for Cassidy to work in either of his extras, be it John Moore or Connor Clifton. Moore last suited up Feb. 12. Clifton is healthy, but had not logged a shift since being injured Dec 29 vs. Buffalo. He is back with the varsity after a brief conditioning stint with Providence.