Overall, the Boston Bruins have not played up to their usual standard through the opening stretch of the NHL’s return to play. The reward for relinquishing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference was a Round 1 rematch with a very talented Carolina Hurricanes team. Despite some obvious rink rust, there have been some signs that the Bruins were starting to turn a corner as they entered their first-round clash with the ‘Canes.
These positives, however, have been outweighed by the overwhelming number of turnovers and defensive lapses resulting in a disappointing 1-5-0 record to date. Although they are currently deadlocked at a game apiece, some fans may be beginning to wonder, is it time for the Bruins to worry?
Health, Depth & the Fourth Line
This is the part where I calm everyone down, and we sing “Kumbaya” by the fireside. Whether the Bruins went 4-0 or 0-4 through the exhibition and round-robin, they were still guaranteed a playoff spot. While the club would have preferred to solidify the top seed, the most important aspects of these games were health, line chemistry, and shaking off the rush heading into the playoffs.
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One of the biggest positives heading into the round of 16 was the health of the Bruins’ lineup. As Nick Ritchie, Tuukka Rask and Ondrej Kase recently rejoined the club, the B’s are at nearly 100%. With only Kevan Miller remaining sidelined due to injury, Boston entered the playoffs with an uncharacteristically healthy lineup. When the club inevitably encounters further injury trouble throughout the playoffs, rookie Jake Studnicka has shown he is ready to step in and take on top nine responsibility.
Injuries and unexpected quarantines have forced the Bruins to shuffle their line combinations throughout training camp and into the first round of the playoffs. Along the way, head coach Bruce Cassidy has experimented with different combos in his middle six and has seen mixed results. The top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron has looked more comfortable with each game, and the rest of the lineup has shown chemistry in short spurts.
The fourth line, in particular, has looked solid through the first four return to play matchups, pressuring opposing defencemen on the forecheck, creating turnovers, and scoring a pair of blue-collar tallies. Looks can be deceiving, however.
The final positive takeaway from the Bruins’ return to play has been the incremental improvement we’ve seen with each passing game. The exhibition game against Columbus was a struggle for the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, and it was clear this was their first game action in nearly five months. The B’s started to look a little more comfortable against Philadelphia, but they really started to clean things up against Tampa Bay and Washington.
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As their touch and timing have slowly returned, the intensity has been taken to another level. Torey Krug responded with a fight after a questionable blindside hit to Brandon Carlo, and Marchand has been up to his usual agitation.
On the surface, the biggest negative coming from the Bruins return to playoff action has been the injury to Pastrnak. As players can only be designated as “Unfit to Play”, the true nature of Pasta’s absence from Game 2 will not be revealed, leaving fans and media to speculate on the mystery ailment. While it is a major blow to lose the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner for any duration, more concerning has been the bulk of the Bruins’ play through the first six games of their return to play schedule.
Although the Bruins’ play has slowly improved with each game, they have yet to return to the Presidents’ Trophy caliber we have become accustomed to for the majority of the season. They have struggled to find consistent chemistry in the top nine and several key blueliners have looked a step behind. Their team defense has also looked porous at times, getting burned by outside drives, allowing far too many cross-ice passes, and struggling to identify their defensive zone responsibilities.
Star Players & a Silent Power Play
Compounding their defensive struggles, The Bruins have clearly had difficulty shaking off the rust from the nearly five-month layoff. Through their first six games, they have gifted their opposition a staggering 93 giveaways, leading to some ugly possession numbers for a chunk of the team. While the “Perfection Line” of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak has averaged 63.5% Corsi For, nine Bruins find themselves below the 50% mark, including key defenders Zdeno Chara (44%) and Brandon Carlo (49%).
If the Bruins hope to make any noise this postseason, they’re going to need their depth players to get their possession game going and commit to better puck management as overall.
Potentially the ugliest part of the Bruins’ game so far has been their power play. Although their puck movement has looked crisp at times, they have yet to find any form of consistency on the man advantage. Through six games, they have only capitalized on two of their 18 opportunities, resulting in a dismal 11.1 power play%. Had they been operating at their usual 25.2% clip, the B’s would have scored an extra 4.53 goals, potentially resulting in a higher seed, or more importantly, a possible 2-0 lead in their series with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Time to Panic?
Ultimately, the incremental improvements in the Bruins’ game should give fans a sense of cautious optimism. Although they fell short of expectations through the round-robin, two close games with the Hurricanes have shown that the B’s are ready for the playoff grind. If Pastrnak is able to return, and the club continues to improve as a whole, Boston should be able to put their slow start behind them in short order. Should they continue to stumble, however, that cautious optimism will quickly turn to panic in Beantown.