The Boston Bruins caught a break.
When Charlie McAvoy hit Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson in the head in Game 6 of their second-round matchup and only received a two-minute penalty, the Bruins got lucky. When McAvoy was suspended for one game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the punishment fit the crime given that it was his first offense and that the playoffs typically dictate a different supplemental punishment scale.
Still, the Bruins caught a break heading into their series against the Carolina Hurricanes with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
McAvoy certainly deserved the suspension for his actions, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept for the Bruins given his importance to the team. To really contextualize how important McAvoy has been throughout this playoff run, the best place to start would be looking at the where McAvoy ranks Bruins’ roster as far as average time on ice each game goes.
McAvoy’s Breakout Playoff Performance
McAvoy averaged 24:46 of ice time through 13 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. To put that in context, the next closest player, Brandon Carlo, averaged 22:47 of ice time, nearly two full minutes less. This is a testament to how good McAvoy has been, but also how essential he’s been to the team’s success as well.
This is nothing new for the Bruins’ cornerstone defender, though.
The 21-year-old McAvoy made his debut for the Bruins in the 2016 postseason and very quickly looked the part. His introductory series against the Ottawa Senators filled Bruins fans with optimism as he looked confident, his shots looked accurate, his passes looked sharp and he continuously rose to the occasion game after game.
Related: Charlie McAvoy Suspended
From the get-go, McAvoy was crucial alongside Zdeno Chara and averaged a jaw-dropping 26:12 minutes of ice time in his first six games, over two minutes less than Zdeno Chara but still a full minute more than Kevan Miller who ranked first and third on the team in average ice-time respectively.
Fast forward a year and McAvoy led the team in average ice time for the first time in his career with 24:00, good for 24 seconds more than Chara in just McAvoy’s second-career postseason.
In general, McAvoy has had success in the postseason and has done everything necessary to help the Bruins win. This season, though, McAvoy has drawn attention from those outside of Boston and many have called this a coming out party of sorts for him. It may seem strange to say this given the fact that McAvoy did so well in his previous two playoff performances but it feels entirely accurate all the same.
While McAvoy may have always stepped up in the playoffs, he never looked like the team’s No. 1 option on defense. That’s to be expected given he was 19 and 20 years old in those two playoff runs coupled with the fact that Zdeno Chara is still on the team. This season, though, McAvoy has taken the reigns and is undeniably the Bruins’ best and most consistent defender on both ends of the ice.
Whether the Bruins are leading or trailing at any point in the game, McAvoy can and has been deployed with confidence to spectacular results.
This is why the suspension hurts the Bruins so much.
Connor Clifton Trusted With Major Playoff Opportunity
In place of McAvoy, the Bruins are deploying Connor Clifton on the team’s top pairing, at least to start, and Steven Kampfer in Clifton’s spot on the bottom pairing.
Clifton has looked very good in his rookie campaign, but using him in such a crucial role is worrisome given that McAvoy has helped alleviate much of the pressure that Chara would usually have to endure.
“We like Krug and Carlo, but depending on how they set their lines, Z and Carlo could be a good matchup on certain lines,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said after the team’s practice. “Z and [Grzelcyk] have played together; that would leave two righties at the bottom. So it might be Clifton getting some shifts with Z. I think you’re going to see some different combinations depending on the circumstances.”
When talking about the opportunity, Clifton was very excited about getting this chance.
“I guess that was the line today. Really exciting, obviously he’s a great guy to play with. He’s a really vocal guy, so I think that will help me a tremendous amount, especially when the Garden gets going [Thursday night].”
Heading into this series, the 24-year-old Clifton has averaged 11:37 of ice time, good for 20th on the team ahead of only Kampfer, Karson Kuhlman and David Backes. He should see an uptick in ice time this series but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see more of Carlo who has broken out in a huge way himself in his first career playoff run.
Bruins Depth Being Tested
Another byproduct of McAvoy’s suspension, as mentioned, is the fact that the Bruins also have to turn to Kampfer in their lineup due to Miller’s persistent injury keeping him out. While Kampfer has been reliable at times in Boston, his presence in the lineup is often a last-resort type situation that the Bruins would rather avoid at all costs.
Still, he was added as a depth piece in the Adam McQuaid trade for a reason and this is exactly why his addition matters. The Bruins could have also turned to John Moore as he’s cleared to play, but the Bruins felt more comfortable having the right-shot Kampfer in the lineup instead despite Moore’s ability to play both sides on defense.
The Bruins are a good team and they’ve proven they can be resourceful regardless of who’s in their lineup and who’s out due to injury, suspension or otherwise. This is just another test for a team that’s overcome these obstacles all season long.
In the end, the comical amount of injuries the Bruins have dealt with over the last two seasons have prepared them for this exact situation.
Fortunately, the suspension will last only one game. When McAvoy does return for Game 2, the Bruins will be substantially better equipped to take on the Hurricanes.