Bruins Season Opener: What To Watch For

It’s finally here. The Boston Bruins 2017-18 season is upon us.

By the time the puck drops Thursday at the TD Garden 165 days will have transpired since Boston’s last meaningful game. In the interim, through the David Pastrnak contract drama, laying-low during free agency and numerous roster battles one thing above all else is evident: The future is now on Causeway Street.

The Bruins figure to be in the thick of contention in a wide-open Atlantic Division. Having ended their two-year playoff drought a season ago, the onus to take the next step will be evenly distributed amongst shoulders young and old alike.

A stiff-test awaits the B’s in their opener, with the defending Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators in town. Here are a few subplots to keep an eye on throughout the contest:

Measuring Stick(s)

Needless to say, hosting a Stanley Cup finalist in the season opener presents a golden (albeit challenging) opportunity for Boston. Nashville will be eager to put last season’s crushing defeat in the finals behind them with an early road win. The Bruins will be eager to make a statement at home before the schedule difficulty tapers off significantly.

Nashville Predators and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl trophy (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

The outcome of the contest, however it shakes out, will not define the season. However, with several key components making their regular season NHL debuts a strong effort and two points would be an excellent confidence-boost for the players in question. Moreover, it would at least temporarily stabilize a roster that was in flux as recently as Monday.

Fresh Faces

As mentioned above, the Bruins figure to feature three players making their NHL regular season debuts.

Despite playing (and shining) in the playoffs last season, Charlie McAvoy officially begins his quest to assume the role of foundational-defenseman and heir apparent to Zdeno Chara on Thursday. The “Drew Doughty” comparisons provide McAvoy with a lot to live up to. Moving forward, they figure to place a microscope over his play on a nightly basis. In a market like Boston that can prove taxing, especially on a younger player.

Charlie McAvoy (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

The fan/media scrutiny and the league’s 82-game schedule will provide challenges down the line for the 20-year-old. On Thursday, the only challenges present will be how he handles top four duties against a lineup featuring Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Victor Arvidsson, among others.

At forward, Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk will be debuting for the Black & Gold. Furthermore, both are likely to debut in top six roles as the Bruins look for compliments alongside their foundational forwards.

Both Bjork and DeBrusk spent the preseason showcasing their abilities alongside premier talents in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci. Bjork’s Hockey IQ and playmaking ability looked tailor-made to the former, while DeBrusk’s tenacity, fearlessness and net-drive is well-suited for the latter.

Anders Bjork Bruins
Anders Bjork (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

How each fares against an excellent blue line headlined by Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm will provide a glimpse into their respective readiness for top six duties. Can both (or either) be impactful against some of the league’s best?

Familiar Faces/Bad Blood

From new faces in Boston to familiar ones in Nashville.

Half of Nashville’s blue line is comprised of former Montreal Canadiens. P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber have been joined by the recently-acquired Alexei Emelin, turning Nashville into “South Montreal.” A fourth member of the blue line, Matt Irwin, is best remembered around these parts for his short-lived, two-game stint with Boston two seasons ago.

Subban and Emelin, in particular, prove the old adage that “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Each was embroiled in multiple seasons worth of run-ins and bad blood with various Bruins. Though the jerseys have changed the relationships figure to largely (at least for the time being) remain the same. I could probably fill this page with links and videos involving the two; for sake of brevity I’ll leave you with just this.

Alexei Emelin (slidingsideways/Flickr)

Joining them on the list of thorns in Boston’s side is veteran Scott Hartnell. Hartnell and Zdeno Chara have a longstanding history of chippy battles and coming to blows which spans several teams. With Hartnell back in Nashville and eager to prove his mettle, don’t be surprised to see his usual antics. He will be trying to get under the Boston captain’s skin any chance he gets.

Despite playing one another just twice per season, things regularly get testy between the two clubs. The last time they faced one another Kevan Miller and Cody McLeod treated fans to a heavyweight tilt in Boston. Two months prior Adam McQuaid was kind enough to provide Derek Grant with some free dental work.

The focus for both clubs will be on walking away from the contest with two points. But with many familiar faces and a longstanding history of fisticuffs in play don’t be surprised to see some fireworks Thursday night, with both clubs looking to start their season with a bang.

Depth vs Depth

Though defensive stalwart Ryan Ellis will be on the shelf to begin the season, Nashville’s aforementioned blue line remains tremendous. Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are certifiably elite. Mattias Ekholm is an all-situations talent who was tremendous throughout last season’s playoffs; he’s no longer one of the league’s best-kept secrets. Alexei Emelin is a solid, if unspectacular rearguard, capable of playing second-pairing minutes.

That leaves either Nashville’s bottom pairing from a year ago (Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber) or rookie Samuel Girard as the soft underbelly of the beast.

Matt Irwin (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

All three defensemen play well in transition, moving the puck up ice to their forwards with aplomb. However, Irwin and Weber are susceptible to being hemmed into their own zone via strong forechecking and a functioning cycle down low. The same goes for the diminutive Girard.

Despite possessing the “last change” as the home team, Boston’s top six figures to get a steady diet of Nashville’s top four. This leaves Boston’s bottom six forwards with regular matchups against what appears to be Nashville’s lone weak spot.

For large swaths of last season, the Bruins were reduced to being a one or two-line team. In order to build upon last season’s moderate success, the team needs more consistent, reliable production from its bottom six. Thursday’s season opener provides Boston’s depth forwards with the first of many tests to prove their mettle; how well Ryan Spooner, David Backes, Matt Beleskey and company fare versus Nashville’s depth could likely decide the outcome of this and future contests.

Slashing the Penalties

The league’s intent to crack down on slashing penalties and turn the sport into a special teams showcase has been on full display throughout the preseason. While the calls figure to subside somewhat, Boston’s preseason propensity for taking penalties must diminish with it.

Penalty Killer Extraordinaire Riley Nash(Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bruins were whistled for 31 (THIRTY-ONE!) minor penalties over their last five preseason games. Though some of that can be attributed to the general sloppiness of the preseason as well as the league’s new mandate, the fact remains that 31 penalties in five contests is inexcusable.

The league’s top-ranked penalty kill from a season ago figures to once again be a team strength. Though Dominic Moore bolted north to Toronto, the club was able to successfully kill 26 of the aforementioned infractions. Regardless, being forced to constantly kill and regroup from penalties is one of the most surefire ways stunt momentum.

Furthermore, two mainstays of the penalty kill units (Bergeron and Marchand) will be heavily leaned on to produce offense. Needing both to spend half their shifts killing penalties will drastically reduce their ability to do so.

Keys to the Contest

To summarize, Boston season opener figures to be a challenge, but not one the Bruins cannot overcome. In order to leave the building with two points they will need their young blood (McAvoy, Bjork and DeBrusk) to play like bona fide blue chips. It’s time to shed the “prospect” label and become productive mainstays in the Boston lineup.

Jake DeBrusk Boston Bruins
Jake DeBrusk (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Beyond the kids, it’s imperative that the Bruins win the depth battle. With elite talent on both benches, there’s an excellent chance that this game will be decided further down the pine.

In what figures to be another physical contest between the two squads, the Bruins must make sure that if they’re going to the box they’re taking a Nashville player with them; continuing to test fate by taking copious amounts of minor penalties against a team that features P.S. Subban, Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Victor Arvidsson will almost surely bury the B’s.

Hockey season is back in The Hub. Let’s get it on.