On March 10, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask celebrated his 33rd birthday by leading the team to a 2-0 shutout of the upstart Philadelphia Flyers. The victory also gave the NHL-leading Bruins 100 points on the season.
Two days later, the league paused play in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, that game marked the end of the Bruins’ 2019-20 campaign, after the regular season was declared officially over in late May.
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On Friday, the league announced that the NHL Players Association had ratified changes to the collective bargaining agreement and the return-to-play format proposed by the league. As a result, the Bruins’ next game, the team’s first in the round-robin playoff seeding tournament, will also pit them against the Flyers. That game is scheduled for Aug. 2.
Although the Bruins finished in the top spot in the NHL, they still have unfinished business, especially for a team hungry to avenge a Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Now, it looks like the Bruins will get that chance, although they will need to prevail in the round-robin to keep their position as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has a few decisions to make during the training camp period that begins on Monday. Forwards Karson Kuhlman and Zach Senyshyn earned playing time near what turned out to be the end of the regular season after Cassidy adopted a zero-tolerance approach.
Best Foot Forward
A few forwards saw reduced playing time a result of coaching decisions, which Cassidy said were largely based on effort level. The severity of these wake-up calls ranged from players watching a game or two from the press box as a healthy scratch to line demotions to, in Anders Bjork’s case, being used sparingly, if at all.
One player who responded well to a one-game scratch was perennial clutch performer Kuraly, who most often has centered the Bruins’ fourth line. However, a trend was developing when play was halted in mid-March that had Kuraly being used on the third and fourth lines on the left-wing.
The results were promising to say the least, as Kuraly was beginning to produce in the first couple of weeks of March. The speedy, energetic forward is no stranger to playing on the wing. In fact, he was moved while recovering from a broken nose suffered in a fight in Dec. 2018. It isn’t a stretch to think the Bruins brass might want to go with what works if he continues to perform better at wing than at center.
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As part of Cassidy’s efforts to get production from forwards not named David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, personnel changes were made in January and February. As a result, prospect Karson Kuhlman was seeing regular playing time and David Backes and Brett Ritchie were placed on waivers.
In addition, Danton Heinen and Backes were traded to the Anaheim Ducks in February in exchange for Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie. Since the latter two forwards did not get much of a chance to show the coaches what they can do before the season abruptly ended, they will need to continue to be evaluated in the early stages of the return-to-play process.
If the full complement of forwards comes into camp healthy, the Bruins’ coaching staff will have to quickly decide which combination gives the team a chance to make another Cup run. It’s a good problem to have but could prove tricky with so much uncertainty and limited time.
The personnel decisions to be made among the defensive corps will likely be fewer, although no less complicated. When the regular season ended, the Bruins were without the services of injured defensive standouts Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo. Both players are expected to be healthy when camp begins on Monday.
Perhaps the biggest issue on defense for Cassidy and his crew is the fact that prospect Jeremy Lauzon seems to have earned a permanent spot in the lineup after being called up from Providence in January. Much like they did at the latter part of the regular season, the Bruins have more quality options on defense than slots available.
The top two defensive pairings are likely set in stone, with Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Krug and Carlo good to go. Matt Grzelcyk can be expected to take up his familiar third-pairing spot. That leaves the question of who will be next to him in the position Lauzon occupied in most of February and March.
Connor Clifton, who was on the shelf for several weeks with an injury suffered in late December, was unable to crack the lineup on his return because of Lauzon’s stellar play. Similarly, veteran John Moore only suited up in relief of an injured colleague. With workhorse veteran Steven Kampfer and highly touted prospect Urho Vaakanainen waiting in the wings in the AHL, the Bruins should not have a problem on the blue line.
It should be noted that defenseman Kevan Miller, who has not played since the 2018-19 season, will not return for the playoffs. He revealed in May that he had undergone another surgery on his knee.
In addition to the team’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning effort, a few Bruins have earned or are expected to be among the frontrunners for individual awards. Specifically, Pastrnak earned a share of the Rocket Richard Trophy after finishing the regular season tied with Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals with 48 goals.
Pastrnak is also in the conversation for the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player, and Rask put up numbers that have him among the favorites to win the Vezina Trophy.
Something to Prove
The Bruins and their fans were not satisfied with the way the 2018-19 season ended. The good news is, the team dominated regular-season play, even as they struggled to find secondary scoring and pull out wins in overtime and the shootout.
No team knows heading into the postseason how play will be affected by the sudden, unprecedented four-month pause. However, if the Bruins can hit their stride early, they absolutely will be a favorite to win it all.