Following the end of the 2019-20 season at the Toronto playoff bubble when the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Boston Bruins in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, there were a lot of questions surrounding the Bruins and their upcoming free agents. General manager Don Sweeney and the rest of the front office had some decisions to make on some big-name free agents to be.
Two of those decisions were on defense. Torey Krug, who was the quarterback of the NHL’s second-ranked power play in 2019-20, was the biggest free-agent name for the Black and Gold. In the end, Krug left the Bruins and signed with the St. Louis Blues at the beginning of free agency in October for seven years and $45.5 million, leaving Boston after nine seasons. On New Year’s Eve, Zdeno Chara agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract with the Washington Capitals, ending his 14-year run as a Bruin.
When both players decided to leave for other teams, it was clear that Sweeney and the Bruins front office was ready to go with a youth movement on the blueline. There were a lot of questions if the younger players were ready for a bigger role and while they made it through the regular season. They proved they were ready when the lights were shining bright in their first Stanley Cup playoff series against the Capitals.
Two Defensemen Stepped up for Injured Teammates
During the regular season, things did not go smoothly for the Bruins defense in the 56-game sprint in the MassMutual East Division health-wise. They had to overcome injuries to their top blueliners, some for a lengthy amount of time, and it got so tough early in the season that Sweeney had to claim journeyman Jarred Tinordi off of waivers from the Nashville Predators. The injury trend continued in the first round of the playoffs against the Capitals, but once again, as they did in the regular season, the Bruins defense did not make excuses and stepped up when they had to.
Jeremy Lauzon, who is one of the top penalty-killing defensemen, took a shot off of his hand in Game 1 and missed the rest of the series. In stepped Connor Clifton and the 26-year-old played some of the best hockey of his young career in the final four games. Clifton several times sacrificed the body on the penalty kill, including two times on the same shift in Game 4 at the TD Garden. After having his stick break while shorthanded, Clifton twice slid in front of two Alex Ovechkin slap shots to block them to kill the penalty. In 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time-on-ice for Clifton in the series, the Bruins outscored the Capitals, 3-0, with him mostly going against Washington’s top-six forwards.
In the same game Friday night, defensemen Kevan Miller was entering the Capitals zone on the rush when he was hit up high by Washington defensemen Dmitry Orlov. Miller was down on the ice for a few minutes and was eventually helped to the locker room. He was transported to a Boston hospital for an evaluation. In his place, Tinordi was inserted into the lineup for Game 5 and he played a big part in the win that clinched the series.
Tinordi was third in time-on-ice for Boston defenseman in Game 5 at 19:02, while blocking four shots. He was also third on the defensive unit with 3:02 of time-on-ice shorthanded. With the conditions of Lauzon and Miller still up in the air heading into the Bruins second-round series, the importance of Clifton and Tinordi on defense could play a role again against either the Pittsburgh Penguins or the New York Islanders.
Veterans Stepped up
While Clifton and Tinordi got some of the headlines for their play, the Bruins got their usual efforts from their more veteran defensemen in the series. Charlie McAvoy, who is looked on as the leader of the defense since Krug and Chara left, had five assists in the series with a plus/minus of plus-4. He averaged a team-high 27:15 of time-on-ice a night and had 15 shots on the net. He also did not back down from the physical Washington forwards and registered 12 hits.
Brandon Carlo, who was paired with Mike Reilly, had his up and down moments in the series, but when it mattered, he was there for his teammates. He averaged 22:49 a night, up nearly four minutes from the regular season, and handed out 15 hits. Like Clifton, he sacrificed the body with 13 blocked shots, with a lot of them coming on the penalty kill. Reilly had 10 shots on the net and he assisted on the first two Bruins goals in Game 5 that sealed a 3-1 series-clinching win.
Matt Grzelcyk averaged just over 20 minutes in the series and had one goal and two assists. His goal was on the power play in Game 4 and gave the Bruins a 4-1 third-period lead on their way to a 3-1 series lead. The defense also did a good job of clearing the front of the net and allowing goalie Tuukka Rask to see most of the shots fired at him.
The Bruins ended Chara’s season in five games, but the bigger question is, did they also end his career with their victory Sunday night? Time will tell. Earlier Sunday afternoon, Krug and the Blues were swept by the Colorado Avalanche in the Honda West Division playoffs. Boston’s front office had to make tough decisions that were not going to be easy, but for one round in the playoffs, those decisions were proven to be the right ones. Now we see if the defense can do it again against either the Penguins or the Islanders in the next round.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.