It’s Nov. 15, 2017. The Bruins have just lost 4-2 to the Anaheim Ducks on the road at the Honda Center. The team has dropped four in a row, and five of their last six games. David Krejci, David Backes, Brad Marchand, Anders Bjork and Ryan Spooner are all injured, and their void is not being filled well enough by their replacements.
Less than one month later, it seems like the Bruins have turned it around. They’ve won six out of their last eight, with the most recent win being a convincing 3-0 shutout on the road in Philadelphia. They’ve beaten the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Cup-contending Tampa Bay Lightning, among others. It a matter of roughly three weeks, they’ve gone from a lost cause to, at the least, a glimmer of hope.
But what’s changed? Nobody’s been fired, nobody’s been waived, and no major prospects have signed or been called up. Rather, it’s been a few internal changes, combined with some good fortune, that has helped the Bruins steady the ship.
As I wrote early this month, Boston had a number of items on their holiday wish list that needed to be granted if they were to have a shot at the playoffs. Now that some of them have come to fruition, let’s look at why the Bruins have been so successful as of late.
McAvoy Stepping up on Defense
One of the major questions haunting the club for the past few seasons has been who will replace Zdeno Chara as the primary minutes-eater on defense. Through a few playoff games and 25 regular season games, it appears that Charlie McAvoy is primed and ready to be that guy.
His 15 points are tops among B’s defensemen. McAvoy’s also averaging 23:36 of ice-time per game, which is the most for all rookie defensemen in the NHL by almost four full minutes. He’s playing in all situations, anchoring the second power-play unit and a penalty kill that ranks third in the NHL at 84.8%.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that McAvoy has slowly been taking the pressure off of Chara, Torey Krug, and Brandon Carlo. Now 40 years old, and turning 41 in March, Chara’s body simply can’t handle 20-plus minutes a night like he used to. Carlo, while very talented, has not shown that he’s ready to be a top-pairing defenseman. Krug, meanwhile, thrives on a second-pairing with sheltered minutes, playing a great deal of time on the power play and against other teams’ bottom lines.
McAvoy has allowed Bruce Cassidy to put the rest of his defensemen in positions that will allow them to succeed and has made their defense core much better as a whole.
The Return of the Regulars
From the drop of the puck on opening night against Nashville, the Bruins have been battling the injury bug. David Backes began the year on the shelf with diverticulitis. He played just five games earlier in the season before going under the knife to remove part of his colon. He returned to the lineup on Nov. 29th and has played in the last three games for the Bruins.
Brad Marchand has missed eight games so far this season. This includes a stretch of six straight in November, while he battled an undisclosed injury. He returned on the 29th as well, as has picked up right where he left off. He’s racked up five points in three games since returning to action.
David Krejci, the Bruins oft-injured center, has missed 12 games this year with various ailments. He has also, however, gotten off to a solid start from a points perspective, scoring 10 in 13 games. If he stays healthy the rest of the year, he’s on pace to finish the season with 53 points. Despite playing 22 fewer games, that’s just one point less than he scored last season.
As of Dec. 5th, Jake DeBrusk and Adam McQuaid are the only Bruins regulars still on the shelf. Though he didn’t play against the Predators on Monday, head coach Bruce Cassidy said that he believes DeBrusk will be ready to go for Thursday’s game at home against the Arizona Coyotes.
McQuaid, meanwhile, returned to practice last week, skating for the first time since breaking his right fibula. There’s no need to rush McQuaid’s recovery, however, as Matt Grzelcyk has filled in admirably. He provides the Bruins with an extra offensive weapon on defense, as his game resembles that of Torey Krug.
Two U’s, Two K’s, Two Seasons
He was the best of goalies, he was the worst of goalies. That butchered iteration of a classic quote perfectly sums up Tuukka Rask in the eyes of Bruins fans. It also, however, describes Rask’s erratic play so far this season.
In his first twelve games, Rask had won just three, with a save percentage of .897. He ceded control of the starting job to Anton Khudobin, who bailed the Bruins out for a number of games. This gave Rask a chance to regroup and regain confidence.
After the aforementioned loss to the Ducks, Rask went 11 days before seeing action again. Since that short hiatus, the Finnish netminder has righted the ship and re-established himself as the starter, as Brandon Share-Cohen wrote about. In four games, three of which were starts, he’s posted a 2.22 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
Though he didn’t start last night in Nashville, he was the reason why the Bruins nearly tied the game up. Anton Khudobin struggled, surrendering four goals on 14 shots before being pulled 4:10 into the second period. Rask stepped into the cage and turned the tides for the Bruins. He stopped 10 of 11 shots in 32:40, with the only blemish being a Filip Forsberg breakaway goal.
Considering that the Bruins owe him $7 million for another three seasons after this one, Tuukka Rask needs to be the starter. He should be playing two out of every three days and playing well if the Bruins want to contend.
The Bottom Line
They’re not perfect. In fact, they’re still far from perfect. The bottom two lines still need to find consistency. As players like Danton Heinen, Noel Acciari, and Sean Kuraly continue to develop, Bruce Cassidy should be able to put lines together that will have the chance to build chemistry.
They’re still 29th in the league in goals for, which is a definite cause for concern. The health of Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, and DeBrusk will have a large impact on whether that number increases or not. Marchand is averaging over a point per game, and Pastrnak is just one point under.
There’s work to do, but it seems like the team has figured it out. As a result, they have themselves right around a playoff spot.