Bruins have evolved into one of NHL’s best under Cassidy

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On Feb. 4, 2017, the Boston Bruins were an organization that seemed to be stuck in mediocrity. They had narrowly missed the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, had won just 26 of their first 55 games that year, and were preparing to fire Claude Julien, a Stanley Cup winning coach and one of the most successful coaches the team had ever had.

While there were some signs that the 2016-17 team had performed better than its overall record under Julien (they were a good possession team but were getting sunk by sub-par goaltending) the team had just seemed to hit a wall where there was no way forward. It was not a particularly deep roster, the defense was full of question marks, and it just had the look of an organization that was teetering on the edge of needing a rebuild.

It was at that point that Bruce Cassidy took over behind the bench for his first head coaching opportunity in the NHL since a mostly disappointing one-and-a-half year run with the Washington Capitals more than a decade earlier. All the Bruins have done since then is evolve into one of the NHL’s most dominant teams under Cassidy and enter Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday just one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It has been a pretty sensational run under Cassidy’s watch.

Since he was hired the Bruins are second in the NHL in points percentage (.670), goal-differential (plus-130), Corsi percentage (53.2 percent) and scoring chance percentage (53.4), and 10th in high-danger scoring chance percentage (52.2). They have made the playoffs every year he has been behind the bench and gone increasingly further each time. They are now just five wins away from a championship.

Obviously there is a lot of talent on this Boston team, especially at the top of the lineup where they have a collection of some the game’s best players, including the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

That will help any coach.

But what is perhaps most impressive about the Bruins’ success over the past two seasons is how many games Cassidy has been without some of those key players, and how often his team has just kept on winning.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season the group of Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, and Brandon Carlo has combined to miss 203 man-games. That is an average of more than 20 games *per player* over the two-year stretch.

That is not only a lot of games to miss due to injury (or, in some cases, suspension), it is a lot of games for pretty much all of the team’s best players. That does not even take into account the time starting goalie Tuukka Rask missed earlier this season.

The quick response to that sustained success, obviously, is “depth,” and how a lot of credit should be given to the front office for constructing a deep roster that can overcome that many significant injuries.

After all, McAvoy has been a game-changer on defense, Pastrnak has blossomed into a star, and while the Bruins may not have maximized the return on their three consecutive first-round picks in 2015 (they passed on Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor, just to name a few) they still have had a nice collection of young forwards emerge through the system, especially Jake DeBrusk.

While all of that is certainly true to a point, this is also a team whose depth was probably its biggest weakness and question mark until about two months ago.

Everyone knew their top line was the best in the NHL. Everyone knew their defense with McAvoy blossoming into a star and Krug producing the way he did was starting to turn around. But they were still a remarkably top-heavy team that did not get much in the way of offense outside of their top five or six players. And they spent a lot of time over the past two years, in the league’s toughest division at the top, and still managed to win a ton of hockey games.

[MORE: Bruins head to Stanley Cup Final after sweeping Hurricanes]

Maybe the depth was better than it was originally given credit for, and maybe the goaltending duo of Rask and Jaroslav Halak has helped to mask some flaws. But you also can not ignore the job Cassidy has done behind the bench and the success the team has had since he took over. In the two-and-a-half years prior to him (including during that very season) the Bruins’ points percentage was only 18th in the NHL, and while their possession and scoring chance numbers were still good, they were not as downright dominant as they have been under Cassidy.

It doesn’t matter who he has had in the lineup, who he has been without, or what run of injuries have been thrown his way his team has just simply gotten results. Even more important than the results is the way they are getting the results. They control the puck, they get the better of the scoring chances, and they just simply play like a championship level team.

It is a far jump from where they were just a little more than two years ago, and the turnaround started the day they made the switch behind the bench.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.