Bruins’ 5 Forward Power Play Succeeding Following Injury Returns

Following the best start to a season in franchise history, the Bruins continue to pace the Atlantic Division with 22 points through 13 games. They’ve survived the preseason injury bug, seeing Matt Grzelcyk and Brad Marchand already return to the lineup well ahead of schedule, with Charlie McAvoy expected any day now. The offense is leading the league in scoring, and the defense is top five in goals against per game. Every button head coach Jim Montgomery’s pushed has seemed to work.

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Among those buttons is a tweak to the power play. During training camp, the Bruins were spotted experimenting with a 5-forward unit. This original version did not include the injured Marchand and left some speculation as to the validity of it. Now that we’ve seen this plan rolled out in game action, including No. 63 alongside his normal running mates, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Now that we have game footage to pull from, let’s revisit the original plan and see how well it has translated from Warrior Ice Arena to NHL rinks.

Bruins’ 5-Man Unit

This new power-play unit consists of the three players mentioned above: Marchand, Pastrnak, and Bergeron, alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. Each of these five players brings a unique skill set to the unit. Pastrnak operates the left-wing circle ripping one-timers, while Bergeron operates his familiar role in the bumper, working as both distributor and shooter. DeBrusk handles the front of the net, pouncing on loose pucks and cleaning up rebounds around the net. And Marchand operates the opposite circle from Pastrnak and is afforded the freedom to shuffle positions as play dictates while creating opportunities down his side. Finally, the biggest difference sees Krejci running the point, the role normally occupied by a defenseman. From up top, he is responsible for finding the open lanes and starting the process toward finding a shot.

David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At the beginning of the season, the Bruins suffered from a severe lack of defensive depth, especially among qualified offensive-leaning defensemen. Hampus Lindholm appeared to be the only Bruin regular who could handle the offensive responsibility as a defenseman on the power play. At the same time, he was the most trusted defensive defenseman as well, meaning he would more than likely be held in reserve until the opponent rolled their top offensive line following the conclusion of the penalty.

Ten games in, Lindholm has shown he can certainly handle the offensive responsibility, tallying a point per game through the start of the season while also shouldering the defensive load as the team’s top defenseman. While the emergence of Connor Clifton as a top-four stand-in defenseman, the Bruins have a pair that can roll against opponents’ top lines. However, this does not solve the issue of offense assistance. Grzelcyk has slid right back into his normal role on the second power-play unit, but he should not be split up from his regular unit.

Hampus Lindholm Boston Bruins
Hampus Lindholm, Boston Bruins (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

These five forwards have a level of offensive dynamism that is hard to match. Their familiarity, movement, success, and creativity together make this a group that should continue to be sent over the boards by Montgomery. Add in the lack of defensive depth that can be bolstered by saving Lindholm or Grzelcyk for even-strength play, and it becomes even easier to see what makes this such an appealing option.

Why the Bruins Should Use a 5-Forward Power Play

Why would the Bruins try this? In short, it’s an obvious opportunity to exploit an inefficiency. The best way to create offensive opportunities is to connect with the man advantage. The best way to connect? By playing your greatest offensive weapons for the most amount of time.

Related: Bruins Testing a 5-Forward Power Play in Preseason

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Even with teams across the league turning to a more aggressive penalty kill, the advantage lies with the team with the extra skater. With a fifth forward in place of a single defender, the Bruins can add an extra weapon to force the defense to account for. Similarly, by having all forwards, the power play can be less predictable. When a defenseman runs the point, it is safe to assume he will stay there. In that case, Pastrnak will stick to his spot, Bergeron will remain in the middle, Marchand will stay on the off-wing circle, and DeBrusk is left as the only option to roam, moving from the front of the net to behind the net as play dictates.

Jake DeBrusk Boston Bruins
Jake DeBrusk, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With five forwards, the group has greater flexibility. Krejci has experience operating out of Pastrnak’s position, so the two could switch. Marchand could move up top as needed. This Bruins’ group is also uniquely positioned to manage the defensive task should a shorthanded chance occur. Between Bergeron and Marchand, two of the best two-way forwards in the league would be on the ice.

Krejci is no slouch in the defensive zone, either. Even DeBrusk has experience as a penalty killer, meaning the entire unit could activate to shut down the opponent’s chance, then turn and break the other way with five different scoring options, an overload for any goalie to face.

How Has This System Worked for the Bruins?

This strategy has been used occasionally throughout the league over the last few years. Most of the time, it’s used as a last resort to jumpstart offense when a team is trailing in the third period, but the Bruins version differs from this. Throughout the year, Montgomery has used this unit across any period at any point in the game. Last game, Monday against the St. Louis Blues, this five forward unit was 2-2 on the power play, with DeBrusk and Bergeron scoring on the advantage.

This was not the only time this unit has found the ice either. In overtime against the Minnesota Wild, an abbreviated version of the group ran out, with four forwards running the advantage against the three Wild defenders. In that game, Taylor Hall scored the game-winning goal from this deployment. The decision to use all forwards here, when a point was already assured, and conventional wisdom would say play it safe for a shootout, shows Montgomery trusts the group to remain aware of their defensive responsibility should a breakdown occur.

Bruins’ Power Play Moving Forward

With these examples, it shows the Bruins have a willingness to use five forwards, but how long will this experiment last? With McAvoy expected to make his return to the lineup as soon as Thursday night against the Calgary Flames, will this unit be broken up in favor of the standard four-forward, one-defenseman model?

Charlie McAvoy Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I say no. Even with McAvoy’s return, it would be smart to ease him back in. He will be needed on the penalty kill, so do not add extra minutes to his workload on the power play. This group has shown the ability to perform and that the five forward unit is more than just a pipe dream. It can be successful in the NHL. As has been mentioned before, it was not that long ago that most power plays had two defensemen and three forwards, so why not be at the cutting edge of the next revolution? (from ‘The evolution of NHL power plays: Mobile defense, the Ovechkin effect and the rise of the flank as a PP launchpad,’ The Athletic, Oct. 24, 2022) Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. Since the Bruins have found success with this method, keep rolling with it until the success slows down.

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