The 2021-22 regular season has been one with a lot of ups and downs for the Boston Bruins. After a slow start in the first three months of the season, they have been one of the better teams in the league since the New Year. Since Jan. 1, the Bruins have been a team that has been three lines deep, and even in some games, the case could be made that they have been four lines deep.
On defense, they acquired Hampus Lindholm from the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline to solidify the left side, but he had been out of action since suffering an injury on April 4 against the Detroit Red Wings, before he returned last Saturday against the New York Rangers. It has been a rotating door on the blue line this season for coach Bruce Cassidy with guys shuffling in and out of the lineup as he tries to find the right combinations before the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, the Bruins secured their berth on April 16 with a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the TD Garden. As they inch closer to the postseason and they prepare to play out their final three regular-season games this week, here are three players that could be considered flying under the radar as the playoffs approach next week.
Spending most of his time on the fourth line, it’s safe to say that he has been the best player on the line for the Bruins. Acquired last season as a part of the trade with the Buffalo Sabres that also landed the bigger name in the deal, Taylor Hall, Lazar was thought of as just another piece in the trade, but that has not been the case this season.
Lazar, who is a free agent following the season, has a career-high eight goals to go along with his eight assists. He is one of many Bruins who have had a career season and his value goes beyond the bottom line. He is an effective penalty-killer and is two shots away from setting a career-high, which was 92 in his rookie season of 2014-15 with the Ottawa Senators.
On a two-game road trip on April 19 and 21 against the St. Louis Blues and Penguins, Lazar was elevated to the second line with Hall and Erik Haula and combined for five shots on the net in both games, before he was dropped back down the lineup. His production, physical game, value as a penalty killer, and overall energy have been big for the Bruins this season.
Last offseason, general manager Don Sweeney signed a trio of bottom-six forwards to give the two bottom lines a different look. One of the signees was Nosek who has settled in on the fourth line this season as a center and the veteran is quietly doing some of the little things in different areas of the game to help the Bruins.
When injuries were piling up in the top six this season up the middle, Cassidy moved Nosek up into the top six (to the right-wing in Sunday night’s 5-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens), and the 29-year-old fit in well. Not only has Nosek been valuable moving around the lineup, but he has become one of the top penalty killers this season, while also setting some career highs.
He has a career-high 14 assists in a career-high 72 games played. He is averaging a career-high 13:23 a night, 23 seconds more than the previous career-high he set last season with the Vegas Golden Knights. He has won 53.7-percent (%) of his face-offs and set a career-high with 345 wins. There have been times this season late in the game with the Bruins clinging to a late lead where Nosek has split time with Charlie Coyle being on the ice as a backup option if Patrice Bergeron is kicked out of the face-off.
Nosek has supplied the Bruins with fourth-line stability while also being flexible moving up and down the lineup, which is not bad for a $1.75 million cap hit the Bruins are paying him.
You might be saying, what? Yes, Clifton has had his issues this season, like just about everyone else on the roster. When he is in the lineup, he has given the Bruins some good shifts, and some good games and he is never going to back down from anyone.
He has two goals and nine points and can play on both the left and right sides, which gives Cassidy some flexibility. He has played a career-high 55 games and his possession metrics have been the best of his career in any season where he has played over 31 games in a season. His Corsi for (CF%) is 51.0, and his Fenwick for (FF%) is at 52.2. Of his two goals, the biggest one was scored on March 21 when he tied the game late in the third period on the road against the Montreal Canadiens before Brad Marchand won the game in overtime.
Will Clifton find himself in the lineup on a nightly basis in the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but when he has been in the lineup, he has become more of an offensive defenseman in joining the rush, killing penalties, and bringing a physical presence on the back end.
While there are other candidates for under the radar Bruins this season, the case could be made that the contributions from these three players have been important this season for the Black and Gold. If they find their way into the lineup in the playoffs, expect them to play key shifts at key times.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma. 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.