The Boston Bruins just finished a successful homestand, going 5-2-0 and collecting 10 out of a possible 14 points. The Bruins are now eight points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings for the second and final Eastern Conference wild card berth.
There was a lot more good than bad that came from the homestand for coach Bruce Cassidy’s crew. As they hit the road for a three-game trip against a trio of Western Conference opponents, here are seven takeaways from the Bruins’ seven-game homestand.
1. DeBrusk Raising Trade Value
In late November, Jake DeBrusk requested a trade from the Bruins through his agent. General manager Don Sweeney will most likely look to trade the 23-year-old and help to address a need that his team currently has. Over the last two and a half weeks, DeBrusk has played his best hockey of the season.
DeBrusk has one goal and three assists in his last seven games, but the 14th overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft has played better in all aspects of his game. His skating game has been strong, he is driving on the rush towards the net, his forechecking game has been better and he has been winning puck battles and causing turnovers, something he was not doing earlier in the season. He recently has been a key part of the penalty kill as well.
His recent play has benefitted the Bruins, but the thinking is that eventually, Sweeney will move DeBrusk, but his recent play can only help his value ahead of the March trade deadline.
2. Rask Shows Rust, Splits Four Games
Prior to signing a contract with Boston on Jan. 11, the plan was for Tuukka Rask to get some game action with the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL). Unfortunately, the plan did not go as planned as the P-Bruins games were postponed because of COVID-19. Rask ended up going right from practice to game action after his recovery from offseason hip surgery was complete.
Against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 13, Rask made 24 saves in a 3-2 Bruins victory. Five nights later against the Carolina Hurricanes, Rask allowed five goals on 12 shots in the first period of a 7-1 loss. The Bruins goalie was a victim of a lack of support from his teammates in front of him, but a couple of stops early in the game could have made a difference.
On Saturday in the Black and Gold’s 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets, Rask gave up a shaky goal just under three minutes into the game, but the 34-year-old bounced back to make a season-high 27 saves to backbone the win. The only other goal to get by him was a pass that deflected off of the skate of Boston defensemen Urho Vaakanainen.
Monday night against the Anaheim Ducks, he did not have a good outing giving up five goals on 27 shots in a 5-3 loss. Following the game, Cassidy said he believes Rask needs seven or eight starts to get himself into game shape. In the second period and the Black and Gold on the power play, Anaheim’s Isac Lundestrom scored a shorthanded goal when the puck slid off his stick and between Rask’s pads for a 2-0 lead. It’s safe to say the Bruins needed a stop there. It’s January and he needs more time to get into game shape.
3. Ullmark Stands Tall in Net
While Rask is working his way into game shape, Linus Ullmark was good, winning three of his four starts. He allowed one goal to the Montreal Canadiens, three to the Nashville Predators, two in relief of Rask against the Hurricanes, and three to the Washington Capitals.
Against the Capitals, the Bruins held a 2-1 lead late in the second period when Washington’s Lars Eller fired a harmless wrist shot from the left circle that was going over the net. Ullmark dropped to his knees and the puck hit off his glove and went into the net, but it’s a save that the former Buffalo Sabres goalie needs to make. He made just 14 saves in the game, but like earlier this season, he gave up a goal that the Bruins need him to make a save on. Overall, Ullmark has been very good in the net for Boston.
4. Bruins Survive Injury Scares
As has been the norm in games against the Capitals, it is a physical war for 60 minutes. Last season, Tom Wilson received a seven-game suspension in March of 2021 for a hit to the head of Brandon Carlo. On Jan. 20, Wilson once again handed out a heavy check to a member of the Bruins.
Anton Blidh was carrying the puck into Washington’s zone on the penalty kill and Wilson lined up the Bruins fourth-line forward and delivered a clean open-ice hit that knocked Blidh out of the remainder of the game. Blidh has missed the last three games. In the second period, the Capitals’ Garnet Hathaway hit Brad Marchand from behind into the boards. Marchand tried to play on the ensuing power play and one more shift in the second period, but he could not go.
He missed the third period and was looking at a long time before he would be on the ice again. Fortunately, he participated in the pregame skate two days later ahead of the Jets game and deemed himself good to play. Marchand is as tough of a player as there is, so it should not be surprising to see him play sooner than originally thought.
Matt Grzelcyk was hit into the boards in the first period against the Jets and appeared to have suffered a serious injury. He was down on the ice for a short time before skating to the bench holding his right arm. Like Marchand, the Bruins avoided a serious setback as Grzelcyk returned for the second period and finished the game. It was a good thing he did as he had the primary assist on David Pastrnak’s game-winning third-period power-play goal. He ended up missing the final game of the homestand against the Ducks Monday night.
5. Bruins Special Teams Key to Homestand
The Bruins pride themselves on the play of their special teams. That was the case on the homestand.
The Bruins penalty kill successfully killed off 24 of the opponent’s 28 chances, including some key kills. The biggest of their kills occurred in Saturday’s win against Winnipeg. Boston was shorthanded three times in the third period, including the final 1:27 of the game, but managed to kill each of the Jets’ chances. Not only has Patrice Bergeron, Marchand and DeBrusk been a huge part of the kill, but Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle, Curtis Lazar, and Tomas Nosek played key shifts as forwards down a man. Defensively, each blue liner contributed to a team effort.
As for the power play, it was the difference in wins over the Capitals and Jets. Charlie McAvoy buried a wrist shot from the slot with 45 seconds left against Washington for a 4-3 win, while Pastrnak’s goal against the Jets was the difference in the victory. The power play went 8-for-22 on the homestand.
6. Bruins Lacking Toughness
When the Bruins had toughness on their roster, they had Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller on defense. Upfront, they had Milan Lucic and Shawn Thornton. Those days are gone. Last season, the Bruins lacked toughness and this year is more of the same.
Carolina came in and pushed the Bruins around in their rout, Wilson and Hathaway knocked two Bruins out of the game and the Jets knocked Grzelcyk down before he returned. McAvoy responded with a heavy check on Washington’s Trevor van Riemsdyk, while Connor Clifton and Carlo both dropped the gloves against the Jets following Grzelcyk’s hit, but in the big picture, Boston simply gets pushed around on a nightly basis. It is something that Sweeney needs to address. If the Black and Gold get into the playoffs, their current roster is not good enough to withstand the physicality of the postseason.
7. Bruins Defensive Prospects Fill in Holes
At the beginning of the homestand, Forbort was still in Tampa Bay and Clifton was stuck in Washington following positive COVID-19 tests. A depleted defense is not something that Cassidy was looking forward to, especially when Mike Reilly entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols during the homestand, but three prospects filled the holes in the lineup until Forbort and Clifton were able to return to Boston and be cleared to play.
Vaakanainen, Tyler Lewington, and Jack Ahcan played the early part of the homestand and held down the fort until the two veterans returned. Vaakanainen played in all seven games and played at least 20 minutes a night in each game. His highest total was against Philadelphia when he played 23:17. Against Winnipeg, he was second to McAvoy with 23:09 in time-on-ice.
Lewington filled in for two games and Ahcan played one. The common theme in all of the games that Lewington and Ahcan played in? The Bruins won both games against the Flyers and Predators.
Overall, it was a successful homestand for the Bruins, who separated themselves for the time being from the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the final wild card spot. Things are going to get tough with the upcoming road trip and a home game against the Seattle Kraken before the All-Star break beginning Feb. 4.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.