As the Boston Bruins returned to exhibition action Thursday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, many questions lingered. How would the club deal with the absence of Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase? How would the players perform following the extended layoff? After an ugly 60 minutes resulted in a 4-1 loss, some questions have been answered, while others remain.
Studnicka Solidifies a Spot
The lone bright spot in the contest for the Bruins was rookie Jack Studnicka. The absence of Nick Ritchie and Andrej Kase allowed him the opportunity to fight for a spot in the lineup throughout camp, and his play in the exhibition contest all but guaranteed it. The flexibility to play Anders Bjork on either wing allows the B’s to bump him down to the third line, while Studnicka continues to skate with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
Studnicka was engaged throughout the contest, with an excellent active stick and solid positioning. The kid was heavily involved on nearly every shift, leading to multiple quality scoring opportunities and an outstanding 74.26 percent expected goals for.
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He also looked comfortable on the second power-play unit, expanding his utility for the club. The only knock on the rookie’s game Thursday night would be his hesitation to shoot. As he gains confidence at the NHL level, however, this will likely resolve itself. Look for him to suit up in the top nine throughout the round-robin.
A Goaltending Controversy?
While Tuukka Rask looked a tad rusty in his exhibition debut, particularly his rebound control, there will be no goaltending controversy in Boston this postseason. Although backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak had an excellent season (18 wins, 2.39 goals-against average, .919 save percentage), and played well against the Jackets on Thursday, Rask is still the man. He will undoubtedly be between the pipes when the Bruins start the round-robin against the Flyers, but should he continue to struggle, Halak is one of the best insurance policies in the league.
Marchand Leaves Mid-Game
Following a nearly five-month layoff, Brad Marchand was almost his usual self. Clearly shaking off some rust, Marchand looked like the Diet Coke of agitators through the first two frames. Just one calorie not pesky enough. Midway through the third period, Marchand left the game with an undisclosed injury. He appeared to grimace after a collision with Zach Werenski and did not return to the game.
Speculation is that Marchand may have simply left the game as a precaution, but all we know for sure is that he will be reevaluated by Bruins’ medical staff on Friday. Any extended absence would be a major blow to the Bruins’ lineup, as his elite two-way game would be impossible to replace, not to mention his contributions on the power play and penalty kill. While it is unlikely Marchand misses any time, Bruins fans will collectively hold their breath until he is cleared for round-robin action.
Rusted From the Rain
If in fact Marchand is ready to play on Saturday, the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s exhibition against Columbus is the obvious rust from the extended layoff. The Bruins looked disjointed through much of the 4-1 loss, struggling to match the Jackets’ intensity. Particularly in the first period, the B’s seemed to generate more giveaways than clean outlet passes, often turning the puck over to the relentless Columbus forecheck. The most corroded of the bunch, or at least the most notable, was clearly David Pastrnak.
Despite scoring the Bruins’ lone goal, Pasta’s touch and timing were noticeably off after missing nearly two weeks of the Bruins’ Phase 3 training camp due to league-mandated quarantine. While the Rocket Richard winner fumbled with the puck early, his elite skating carried him through, and he looked more like himself as the game wore on. The Bruins have to hope that their lone exhibition matchup was enough to shake off the rust ahead of their upcoming round-robin games.
Despite looking rustier than the horse Seinfeld’s Kramer fed Beef-o-Reeno to, the Bruins should rest easy. As one of only four Eastern Conference teams guaranteed a playoff spot, their round-robin games are not nearly as critical as the upcoming qualification games. While it would be ideal to maintain the top seed, history has shown us that once the playoffs begin, it truly is anyone’s game.
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The encouraging performance of rookie Jack Studnicka may solve the Ondrej Kase dilemma, but the question of Brad Marchand’s availability remains a mystery. Embarking on what will undoubtedly be the most unusual playoff run in history, the Bruins will need these questions answered sooner rather than later.