Winners of seven of nine contests heading into Saturday’s tilt with New Jersey, the Boston Bruins have been rejuvenated under Bruce Cassidy. With Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron leading the way, Boston has the inside track on locking down their first playoff berth in three years.
As I finish this plate of crow, I have a confession to make. The Boston Bruins made the right call in firing Claude Julien. At least as it pertains to salvaging this season.
Moving on from Claude Julien has resulted in the Boston Bruins playing their finest hockey of the season. Though I still believe the handling of the situation was poor, it’s hard to argue with the results. The team has been born anew under interim (for now) head coach Bruce Cassidy. The B’s have won seven of their last nine and were ultra-competitive in both losses. They’re outscoring their opponents by nearly a two-to-one margin over that span, and are averaging just under four goals per game. Defensemen are scoring goals nightly. Four Bruins are averaging a point-per-game during this stretch, with two more just one point off the pace. Anton Khudobin has won both of his start heading into Saturday’s tilt versus New Jersey.
Attacking With Purpose
Prior to Claude’s ousting, the Bruins were the NHL’s Corsi/Fenwick darlings. They’d lead the league in both categories nearly wire-to-wire but had little to show for it in terms of pucks actually going into the net. Though the advanced metrics debate will rage on long after a champion is crowned this season, this year’s Bruins squad served as the perfect argument mitigating the importance of possession and shot metrics.
Under Cassidy, it’s a whole new ballgame.
Boston is averaging fewer shots per game, and yet nearly twice as many goals. Pucks are being taken to the net with purpose. Players are working themselves and the puck into more opportunistic shooting areas. Skill guys frequently maligned or restricted under Claude Julien (Spooner, Vatrano, even Krejci) have been encouraged to attack in one-on-one situations, forcing defenders to make the stop. All three of the aforementioned Bruins have seen a not-so-subtle uptick in the points column as a result.
The Bruins have been outshot in four of their nine games under Cassidy, and have managed to win all four. After being a near .500 club despite winning the SOG battle nearly every game, this statistic tells you everything you need to know about the renewed purpose and effectiveness in Boston’s offensive mentality.
Stars Playing Like Stars
For the first time all season, Boston’s star players are all humming simultaneously. Brad Marchand’s torrid pace continues, with six goals and twelve points in his last nine games. Patrice Bergeron has three goals and eleven points. David Krejci has nine points over this stretch, as does David Pastrnak. David Backes has eight points. Having these guys all hit their stride at the same time has resulted in Boston playing its best hockey of the season.
Further down the lineup, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner have elevated their play as well. The two made waves this past week by commenting on their strained relationships with Claude Julien. Right or wrong, uncouth or not, the two look reinvigorated by the coaching change. Spooner appears to feel like the leash has been removed, allowing him to utilize his speed and creativity without fear of winding up in the doghouse after a bad turnover; he has six points in nine games under Cassidy.
Frank Vatrano has provided the depth scoring Boston has desperately needed all season long on Spooner’s left wing. His four goals rank tied for second on the team in the Cassidy era, and he has three helpers to go along with them.
Saturday marks the debut of Drew Stafford in Black & Gold, and he will start his tenure playing alongside Spooner and Vatrano. Fully healthy, Stafford could represent a massive upgrade over poor Jimmy Hayes. Should Stafford regain the scoring touch and spirit that have eluded him this season, Boston would be rolling out three legitimate scoring lines nightly. And at just the right time.
Defense Is Offensive
Arguably the most notable change under Cassidy has been the engagement of Boston’s defense in joining the attack. With eight goals and twenty-two points in nine games under Cassidy, they appear to be a completely different unit. Five defenders have scored during this stretch. The one starter who hasn’t scored (Torey Krug) has eight assists. Even stay-at-home guys like Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller (four and three points, respectively) are getting in on the fun. With scoring depth remaining a work in progress amongst Boston’s Bottom 6, this recent development has been hugely instrumental during Boston’s recent run of success.
In killing off 24 of their last 28 penalties (85.7%), the Bruins PK has ascended to first place league wide. The team has long since taken pride in its penalty killing prowess, and to a man, the unit has been extremely successful all year long.
Conversely, the team’s power play has cooled a bit of late. Ascending to as high as 12th place in the league, the Bruins have cashed in just three times on their last 20 opportunities with the man advantage. The puck movement and chances have been there, but the team’s puck-luck appears to have ever so slightly changed for the worse.
The effects of a lethal power play extend beyond the immediate reward of additional goal scoring. It keeps opponents honest and on their heels at five-on-five. During their long stretches of ineptitude with the man advantage, teams have not shied away from tightly and physically contesting Boston players; the lack of repercussions from an impotent Boston power play enabled them to do so. Not unlike the “Hack-A-Shaq” days in the NBA, it has been an effective way of keeping Boston in check. The team would be well-served in more ways than one if their power play could cash in slightly more frequently.
The Days Ahead
The team’s hot streak lent itself to a playoff-like atmosphere at the Garden Thursday night. It’s abundantly clear that the fans, as well as the players, have bought into this seemingly-new Bruins squad. Ultimately, the B’s were stymied by phenomenal goaltending from Henrik Lundquist in a 2-1 loss. Though ending the evening with zero points is a tough pill to swallow, it hopefully ensures the recently-surging Bruins maintain their focus in the days ahead.
The road gets slightly easier in the coming days. The B’s play three of their next four at home. They play four of their next five games against teams currently outside the playoff picture. The one exception happens to be a road affair versus the Ottawa Senators, whose heels are currently being nipped at by the resurgent Bruins. It will be the first of three remaining contests between the two, with the Atlantic’s second-seed up for grabs. There will certainly be a playoff-like atmosphere in Ottawa Monday night.
In three of their next five, Boston plays teams who sold heavily at the Trade Deadline (Devils, Red Wings, Canucks). The opportunities to cash in in the standings will be present throughout the next ten days. Should Boston falter during this stretch, we will no doubt look back on this part of the schedule with regret, knowing golden opportunities were missed.
The Atlantic Division is wide open. Boston has a long way to go before clinching a playoff spot. But if they can get over the hump and into the postseason, this Bruins team once thought to be dead in the water could actually make waves.
The season will most likely not end with duck boats, plain and simple. However, winning a round (or two) in the playoffs would be a massive step back to relevance for this organization. But first, they must beat New Jersey. One game at a time, boys.