The 2018-19 season was one that had Boston Bruins fans on an emotional roller coaster. They made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and then fell short. By the end of the final 60 minutes, the players were gassed, battered, bruised and disappointed. Coming into this season, how are they going to be able to bounce back from being so close? What could they do to make their way back to that spot with a different outcome — one that has them coming out on top?
Strengthen Neutral Zone Coverage
First and foremost, the Bruins need to be better with their puck coverage in the neutral zone. When you think back to that final game of the season and really look at where the team began to crumble, it was during Brad Marchand’s mental lapse that had Alex Pietrangelo scoring with eight seconds left in the first period. There may be a plethora of excuses we could provide him, but theystruggled with neutral zone coverage throughout the duration of the season; it wasn’t just an isolated incident.
In order for them to have a shot at making it to the Finals again this season, they are going to have to take a look at how they handle the puck through the neutral zone offensively and defensively.
They aren’t going to be able to rely on dumping the puck in and chasing it down as they have in the past. There are too many strong teams, especially in the Eastern Conference that will be able to shut them down. Bruce Cassidy has mentioned that he would like to keep possession throughout the transition from the defensive to the offensive zone. Last season we saw a quarter of their offense coming from transition plays. A transition play is one that generates a shot with one of the last three passes coming from the defensive or neutral zone. With clean and continuous passes (more than three), they are able to create scoring opportunities and become a offensive force to be reckoned with.
Defensively they could adopt a 1-2-2 forecheck (as seen with the Tampa Bay Lightning). The forwards divide up with the fastest typically being on the puck, attacking the player entering the zone. This player’s goal is to take away space and force a pass to be made.
The other two forwards spread out across the neutral zone creating wide coverage. Their goal is to take up the passing lanes and shut down any players trying to break out and receive the long pass. The defensemen hold up the blue line to intercept any passes or players closing in. Running this type of defense would help them generate quick transition plays and create more offensive opportunities.
Strong Second Line
It has been no secret — since Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic left the wings of David Krejci, he has struggled finding an offensive rhythm. At the end of last season, Charlie Coyle was placed alongside him and the second line developed chemistry. During the postseason, the line combined for 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) and a positive rating. At the beginning of camp, Cassidy stated that he wants to keep Coyle as the third-line center to provide solid depth down the middle.
“Generally speaking the match-up is the D-pair and the centerman down low. The wingers obviously matter, but are less of a factor. At least that’s what I think when I think of match-ups. So to have Charlie [Coyle] in there [at center] now, and my intention is to keep him there unless the team would be better served with him on the wing.”NBC Sports Boston
He will likely see some ample time on the second line since Krejci left the ice after colliding with Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere in the first period Monday evening and is listed with a lower-body injury. With Coyle at the center, it is plausible to see a player like Peter Cehlarik step in beside him and Sean Kuraly bump up to third-line center.
Once Krejci is back to full health (which should be relatively soon), the Bruins will need a strong player beside him to have a successful season. As we have mentioned before, he excels with players who are strong on the puck and can break out through the neutral zone. Fortunately, they have a lot of developing players that they can try out until they find the right fit.
Keeping Chara and Rask Rested
The other strong key to them being on the road to contention is to make sure that key players get enough rest throughout the season, specifically Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.
It goes without saying that the Boston Bruins are strengthening their defensive squad with the re-signing of Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. Thus, giving Chara some time to rest and minimizing his ice time shouldn’t be an issue. The 6-foot-9 defenseman is 42 years old and starting to show his age on the ice as the game becomes increasingly faster. Over the course of the past few seasons, they have managed to cut his ice time a few minutes each game and it’s expected we see a little bit more chopped off this season.
The other key piece to the puzzle is providing Tuukka Rask with ample time to rest. We have seen in years past when his workload begins to be too much, he begins to crumble. The more stress he puts himself under, the deeper he falls and the more things begin to escalate. With a solid relief, the goalie will be able to take a breather and recuperate himself to prevent getting to the breaking point.
As with last season, this task will fall on the shoulders of Jaroslav Halak. He was solid in the 2018-19 campaign posting a 22-11-4 record in 40 games, a .922 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average. He provided Rask with the necessary breaks to rest him up for the postseason that inevitably took them to the Cup Final. Bruce Cassidy shared the same sentiments following the loss to the St. Louis Blues stating;
“I think the fact Jaro had such a great year and we were able to rely on him, and even (Anton Khudobin) had a great year the year before, that really allows us to maybe reduce Tukka’s starts a little bit. We could keep him a little fresher this year and I think it made a really big difference in the playoffs.”NESN
There really isn’t any reason that we shouldn’t see the Bruins back in the playoffs for this season. They are one of the Eastern Conference’s top contenders and possess some of the best players in the NHL. By strengthening their neutral zone play, solidifying their second line and resting some of their key defensive players, they should be on the road to a (hopefully) successful playoff run.