Stanley Cup Final: Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options for Game 5

4 Comments

Monday’s Game 4 loss to the St. Louis Blues was already the second time in the Stanley Cup Final that the Boston Bruins have had to finish a game with only five healthy defenders.

And for the second time they were on the losing end of the decision thanks in part to their shorthanded lineup.

In Game 2, it was Matt Grzelcyk that was sidelined after he was on the receiving end of an illegal check that kept him out of Games 3 and 4 of the series, while also resulting in a one-game suspension for Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.

In Game 4 it was veteran Zdeno Chara exiting the game after he was hit in the face by a Brayden Schenn shot that deflected off of Chara’s own stick. Even though he returned to the bench wearing a full face-shield for the entire third period, he never took another shift and was unavailable the entire time.

The status of both players remains very much in doubt for Game 5 of the series on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC) when it shifts back to Boston. That could be a huge problem for the Bruins.

It is still possible that one — or both — could be available, but that is still a huge unknown at this point and there is still the possibility that neither could be in the lineup. That is the potential doomsday scenario for the Bruins.

If there is one thing that can be said about this Bruins team it’s that they have done a remarkable job overcoming injuries all season, and it might be one of the most impressive aspects of their regular season record and run to the Stanley Cup Final. They have spent a significant portion of the season playing without some of their best players (often at the same time) and still managed to finish with one of the league’s best records. When everyone (or at least most of their lineup) is healthy they have looked like a powerhouse team that can be nearly impossible to beat.

They just haven’t always had that luxury, and when they haven’t they have at times looked vulnerable.

Especially when the injuries come on their blue line.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If Chara and Grzelcyk are unable to go that would mean the Bruins would be without two of their top-five defenders from the regular season in terms of ice-time.

That is a situation they found themselves in for 26 games during the regular season where at least two of Chara, Grzcelcyk, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, or Brandon Carlo (their top-five defenders in ice-time) were out of the lineup. For one seven-game stretch in late November they were actually without three of them. While they remained competitive throughout all of that, they were pretty close to a .500 team in those 26 games with a 13-10-3 record.

Pretty good considering the circumstances, but obviously not anywhere near as dominant as they were when everyone was healthy.

When all five are in the lineup, including playoffs, the Bruins are 25-10-4.

Here’s the good news, such as it is, for the Bruins if Chara and/or Grzelcyk miss any additional team: They still have their best and most important defenders in the lineup in McAvoy and Krug. Those are the players that really drive the Bruins’ defense at this point and can make the biggest impact. They are the best skaters, the best puck-movers, the best ones at jumping into the play and joining the rush, and the ones that can most impact the team’s transition game. Carlo, for whatever shortcomings he might have with the puck, is also still one of their better defensive players.

We already looked at the depth issues associated with Grzelyck’s absence before Game 3, and taking Chara out of the mix only adds to them even if he is no longer one of their most impactful players.

Chara is one of the best defenders of his generation, but at age 42 he is a shell of his former dominant self. He can still be useful, he can he still be strong on the penalty kill, and he is still a huge presence (quite literally) on and off the ice. But he is no longer one of the players driving the bus for this team. The fact the Bruins will still have the players that are doing that is going to help as Bruce Cassidy can still lean on them.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be issues.

For one, none of the potential options are better than Chara and Grzelcyk. If they were, they would already be playing, and anytime you get down to the seventh or eighth defenders on your depth chart you are starting to get into a tough spot.

One option that Cassidy talked about on Tuesday is potentially using seven defenders in Game 5.

“Well, the back end could have a domino effect,” said Cassidy when asked about potential lineup decisions. “Again, speculation, I hate doing this, but if we are out two D, [Grzelcyk and Chara], we might have to play seven defensemen. Putting guys in that haven’t played a ton. Maybe you’ve got to look at how does this best work out to use a guy situationally, take Z’s PK minutes, if the other guys match up, which of course would be reaching into an area that a young kid hasn’t played in the Playoffs at all. You have to be careful there. Forwards, I think we can manage. We’ve used different guys, double-shifted throughout the year. So that part doesn’t worry me as much as how is it going to affect the young kid coming out of the lineup. We’ve plugged a D in, it’s worked well for us so far. That’s the other option. I don’t think we’ll go any other route. We’ve gone this far. Those are our options right now. That’s dictated by health right now.”

With veteran John Moore playing Games 3 and 4 he would obviously be a candidate to remain in the lineup if one of Grzlecyk or Chara can not go. If they are both out, and the Bruins opt to go with seven defenders, their remaining options would include veteran Steve Kampfer and rookies Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril. None of the rookies have ever played in a single playoff game and have just 20 regular season games between them.

Throwing one of them right into a Stanley Cup Final game would be a massive jump, especially since none of them have played an NHL game of any kind anytime recently.

The idea of seven defenders is a tough one because it can create a lot of problems.

On one hand when you are already deep into your depth chart and short on players it doesn’t seem to make a ton sense to play MORE of your defenders that aren’t good enough to crack your regular lineup. It also shortens your forward lineup and takes out a player that is probably better and more useful than the extra defender you are putting in the lineup (which forward do you want to scratch if you are the Bruins? Nobody deserves it).

But doing so could give Cassidy and his coaching staff the option to limit who plays in what situations, putting them into positions where they can succeed and don’t risk having their flaws as exposed (like penalty kill situations, for example, or defensive zone starts against the Blues’ top line).

In the end it is a potentially difficult situation for the Bruins to navigate, and one that could significantly impact the outcome of the series.

If neither one can go none of their options are particularly good ones. Their best hope is that both are, somehow, healthy enough to play.

Game 5 of Blues-Bruins is Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC from TD Garden in Boston

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
Bruins confident they can overcome injuries 
Chara’s status for Game 5 unknown
Chara bloodied after taking puck to face

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.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

Leave a comment

Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

3 Comments

An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.