Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney sent a clear message in late January. Despite a stellar start fueled mostly by other-worldly scoring clinics put on by David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand in the early months of the season, things needed to be, and were, shaken up.
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As a result, the team that was struggling to break into the win column with any consistency in December and January was suddenly seeing some fresh new faces among the ranks, namely forwards Anders Bjork, Karson Kuhlman and Zach Senyshyn, along with defenseman Jeremy Lauzon. That group was brought in from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, RI. Meanwhile, veterans David Backes, Brett Ritchie and Steven Kampfer were placed on waivers.
The results were obvious and nearly immediate. The Bruins resumed their winning ways, with much more secondary support for their superstars, and were on top of the National Hockey League standings when the regular season was paused in mid-March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, fast forward five months, and the Bruins find themselves in the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. They somewhat easily dispatched of the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round, despite the fact that No. 1 goaltender Tuukka Rask abruptly opted out and returned home to deal with a reported family health issue part of the way through that series.
After winning Game 1 against the Lightning, the Bruins lost on back-to-back nights, meaning they will head into Game 4 down 2-1. After a somewhat lackluster performance in Game 2, Cassidy renewed his call for more energy from younger and “middle-of-the-lineup” players in support of the efforts of the team’s veteran core.
“What we do need is better from the middle of our group. That second layer of our group that have been in the league and who could be the future of the Boston Bruins.”Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy
Several changes were made to the lineup for Wednesday night’s Game 3, as well. Cassidy opted to roll out seven defensemen and 11 forwards, and, in an effort to shore up the net-front presence against a very physical Lightning team, defenseman Connor Clifton sat in favor of larger D-man Jeremy Lauzon. Forward Anders Bjork was also a healthy scratch.
Somewhat out of necessity with game-time-decision Sean Kuraly ultimately unable to play, Par Lindholm slotted back in at fourth-line center, flanked by Joakim Nordstrom and seventh defenseman John Moore. Regular fourth-line right wing Chris Wagner moved up to the third line to take Bjork’s spot.
Best Laid Plans
In the aftermath of a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Lightning, Cassidy admitted during a media availability on Thursday that the shuffling of the lineup did not go according to plan. In addition, the game saw prospect Dan Vladar, who had previously never appeared in a National Hockey League game, called upon to relieve Jaroslav Halak in goal after Tampa potted its fourth of the night.
After the ugly defeat, Cassidy again said he is looking for more from the middle of the lineup. The message has been sent, especially with the scratch of Bjork, who has been in and out of the lineup because of Cassidy’s desire to see more effort from him. The “no passengers” mantra has become a trend, and Bjork may well be running out of chances to respond.
Although the Bruins are only down one game midway through the potential seven-game series, there is no question that the coaches have to figure out a way to motivate the players not named Pastrnak, Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle to give their all, and they need to do it fast. A loss Friday would put the team in a very serious hole, and if anything can be learned from Wednesday’s loss, it may be that desperation moves seldom help.
On paper, these Bruins have the talent to beat the Lightning. Even leaving the first line, which has been much more of a scoring presence in the 2020 playoffs than in the 2019 postseason run, out of the equation, on a good night, Boston rolls out a second and third line that could rival a lot of teams’ top trios and a hard-hitting, energetic, no-nonsense fourth line that gives opponents fits.
What Did I Tell You?
A great example of how well the Bruins can play when Cassidy gets a full-team effort came in Game 4 of the series against the Hurricanes. Faced with a 2-0 deficit, Cassidy made the on-the-fly decision to take Bjork off the first line, where he was filling in for the then-injured Pastrnak and moved him to the third line, sending Coyle up to play on Bergeron’s wing.
With just that one move, a completely rejuvenated version of the Bruins dominated the play and stormed back, scoring four goals and taking the win. Something clicked, and that momentum helped Boston end the series in the next game.
Although Bjork could be dubbed the player most likely to find himself in Cassidy’s doghouse, he is certainly not the only one under the coach’s scrutiny. DeBrusk has had a very good playoff run, but can be inconsistent. Ondrej Kase is working as hard as anyone on the ice, but can’t seem to find the back of the net. Also, Kuraly is making a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes that often result in turnovers.
The bottom line is, Cassidy is right. Wednesday night’s game may have been a dud, but just about every other time the bench boss has implored his younger contingent to pull their weight, the strategy has paid substantial dividends.
It’s too soon to tell whether the Bruins can muster up that same never-say-die fight when the puck drops on Game 4. However, there is a good chance they will. And, if not, you can bet the coach will be right back in the ear of his budding stars.