Seeking consistency, Bruins scratch struggling Backes

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David Backes’ time on ice with the Boston Bruins and his production has dwindled this season, and as head coach Bruce Cassidy seeks a better option next to David Krejci, the 34-year-old veteran will be in the press box for Wednesday’s game against the Flyers. (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

Halfway through a five-year, $30M contract he signed in 2016, Backes’ production has been decreasing since his final seasons in St. Louis; and through some tough injuries, his game hasn’t been able to recover. This season he has four goals and 12 points through 38 games, and his average ice time (13:45) is the lowest its been since his rookie season (13:25) way back in 2006-07.

“You’ve got a couple options on how you react,” Backes said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “Either you cry and moan and go into a shell or your work your butt off and try to find your spot back in the lineup. The latter obviously has a lot more appealing outcomes than the former.”

Peter Cehlarik, who has 10 goals and 29 points in 37 AHL games this season, has been summoned from Providence and will play alongside Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. The Bruins’ other three lines have been performingly swimmingly, so Cassidy doesn’t want to mess with a good thing. Re-jiggering his second line with some new blood and a player deserving of a chance is what’s needed at the moment for full balance up front.

Backes, who hasn’t been a healthy scratch in 12 years, has never been very fleet of foot, something that was pointed out by Cassidy following Monday’s overtime defeat to the Montreal Canadiens.

“I just think the pace is fast for him right now,” Cassidy said. “He’s got to find what plays can he make and find his awareness around him. ‘What can I do to make a play, and when do I have to put it in an area because I don’t have time?’ I think that’s the challenge for him right now, especially with these teams that buzz around.”

An option could have been to drop Backes to the third line, but with Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari playing well, the forward will have to work toward getting an opportunity to be re-inserted into the lineup. But even then, can he adjust his game to deal with his lack of pace?

“That’s part of the adaptation to the new NHL,” Backes said. “The younger, faster, more speed emphasis type of league rather than the station-to-station, we’re going to tell you what we’re gonna go and we’re just going to do it harder than you and good luck stopping us, the way that maybe it was in years past or on other teams with maybe a little different methodology about going about it. … At 34 am I going to all of a sudden turn into Jake DeBrusk’s type speed? I think that’s a fallacy if you’re hoping for that.”

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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.

Price bewilders Bruins as Habs win in OT

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The Bruins and Canadiens don’t play quite like they used to. For one thing, Monday’s game was a white-knuckle race of speed. There was a lot of skill on display in this one, even though there weren’t a ton of goals in Montreal’s 3-2 OT win against Boston.

(Granted, there was some of that old-school nastiness, such as in this fight.)

That speed was on display when Paul Byron scored a tremendous 2-1 shorthanded goal, and for a long time, Carey Price was able to hold down the fort. The Bruins eventually broke through, however, when David Krejci scored a power-play goal with Boston’s net empty. Montreal was 38 seconds short of locking that down.

The Habs didn’t take long to end things during the 3-on-3 OT, however.

Defenseman Jeff Petry emphatically showed off forward-like hand-eye coordination to bat in a rebound with his backhand just 15 seconds into OT to give Montreal an impressive win.

Price ended up stopping 41 out of 43 shots, as the Bruins almost doubled up the Canadiens to the tune of a 43-22 SOG advantage. Boston enjoyed nice efforts from Krejci, along with the even-more-usual suspects (such as Brad Marchand, who generated a goal and an assist along with six SOG).

With this result, the Canadiens climb (at least briefly) to the top wild-card spot with 55 points and 35 games remaining. The Bruins moved up to 57 points with 36 games left in 2018-19, yet they lost some ground ahead of Montreal for the third seed in the Atlantic. Both Montreal and Boston gained on the Maple Leafs (58 points, 37 games remaining) for the second seed, as Toronto lost a sloppy game to Colorado on Monday.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins host Canadiens on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This will be the 746th regular season game between the Canadiens and Bruins. Montreal has won 361 times to Boston’s 281, while there have been 103 ties. These two teams have played more than any other teams in the NHL.

Both teams enter Monday’s matchup playing well. The Bruins have won six of their last seven games, including a 3-2 win at Toronto on Saturday night. Trailing 2-1, Boston scored two straight goals near the end of the secnd period and held off the Maple Leafs in the third to secure the win. The Canadiens kicked off a run of three games in four days on Saturday night with a 3-0 win vs the Avalanche. Carey Price stopped 28 shots to earn his third shutout of the season. It was just the secnd time Colorado has been shut out all season (first time since Oct.).

One of the biggest reasons for the Bruins’ recent success has been the play of goalie Tuukka Rask, who has emerged as the clear top choice between the pipes. Rask is 5-0-0, with a 1.38 goals against average, .955 save percentage and a shutout in his last five starts. His next win will tie him with Tiny Thompson for most wins by a goalie in franchise history.

The Canadiens power play continued to struggle in the 3-0 win vs. the Avalanche. Montreal went 0-for-3 with the man advantage to bring their total to 1-for-20 in the last seven games. They rank last in the NHL in power play percentage, converting on just 12.5 percent of their chances. Head coach Claude Julien also switched up the power-play units hoping to find a solution for the team’s struggles.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Montreal Canadiens at Boston Bruins
Where: TD Garden
When: Monday, Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Jonathan DrouinPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJoel Armia
Tomas TatarJesperi KotkaniemiPaul Byron
Kenny AgostinoMichael ChaputNicolas Deslauriers

Victor MeteShea Weber
Mike ReillyJeff Petry
Brett KulakJordie Benn

Starting goalie: Carey Price

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciDavid Backes
Sean KuralyNoel AcciariChris Wagner
Danton HeinenJakob Forsbacka KarlssonRyan Donato

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

John Forslund (play-by-play), AJ Mleczko (analyst) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

WATCH LIVE: 2019 Winter Classic – Blackhawks vs. Bruins

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the 2019 Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET from Notre Dame Stadium. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Both teams enter with momentum having each won 3-2 in OT on Saturday. The Bruins snapped a two-game losing streak with a come-from-behind win against the Buffalo Sabres, while the Blackhawks surrendered a 2-0 lead vs. the Colorado Avalanche before rebounding to win on Patrick Kane’s OT goal – his 50th point of the season.

The Blackhawks are one of five teams that have already fired their head coach this season, after the 2017-18 season saw zero coaches fired during the regular season. Jeremy Colliton has the worst record among the newly appointed coaches, though the team’s play has improved of late

It has been hard for Patrick Kane to replicate the chemistry he had with Artemi Panarin – a combination that led to the two most productive seasons of Kane’s career. Hawks fans are hoping he could be headed towards similar success with Dylan Strome, who was acquired from Arizona in late-November and has settled in on Kane’s line along with Artem Anisimov.

Kane enters this game coming off back-to-back three-point games (hat trick on Thursday, 2G-1A on Saturday), and he’s averaging 1.25 points/game this season. That’s the secnd-most productive rate of his career, behind his MVP-winning season in 2015-16 (1.29 ppg). Strome has 13 points in 17 games with Chicago, including three straight multi-point games entering the Winter Classic.

The Bruins have kept themselves afloat in the first half of the season despite a rash of injuries to top players. It appeared that the team would have a fully healthy lineup for the first time all year coming out of the Christmas break, but Charlie McAvoy suffered a lower-body injury in the final game before the break, and has missed both games since. Brad Marchand also missed Saturday’s game, but he will play Tuesday afternoon. McAvoy will not.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 1 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Boston Bruins at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Bruins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad Marchand – Patrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid Krejci – Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson
Danton HeinenSean KuralyChris Wagner
Joakim NordstromColby CaveNoel Acciari / Ryan Donato

Zdeno CharaBrandon Carlo
Torey KrugJohn Moore
Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem Anisimov – Dylan Strome – Patrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfDylan Sikura
John HaydenMarcus KrugerBrendan Perlini

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

Mike Tirico will host the network’s Winter Classic pre-game coverage alongside the NHL Live studio team of host Kathryn Tappen, and analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. Six-time Emmy Award-winner and La Fontaine, Ind., native Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from Notre Dame Stadium.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most dominant performances so far

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the players, lines, and positions that have put together the most dominant performances through the first two-and-a-half months of the NHL season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects in here, from the top line of the Colorado Avalanche, the ridiculous depth of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to the unstoppable force that is the Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom duo.

There are also a few pairings that have maybe been overlooked so far this season.

1. Colorado’s top line. There should be no debate as to which team boasts the NHL’s best line and it is the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. Their performance so far this season has been nothing short of dominant and has been the driving force behind what is looking to be a second consecutive playoff appearance for the Avalanche. Individually, they are each among the league’s top-15 scorers while Rantanen and MacKinnon are first and second in the league having both already exceeded the 50-point mark. They are on track to be one of the best duos the league has seen in recent history, and when you combine them with Landeskog they make the NHL’s most complete line. When that trio has been on the ice together during 5-on-5 play this season the Avalanche are outscoring teams by a 31-16 margin and controlling more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts. When that line is not on the ice the Avalanche are a negative team in both areas.

[Related: Avalanche duo chasing rare feat]

2. The duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom. Individually they have been sensational. The perpetually underrated Backstrom is off to one of the best starts of his career, while Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is unprecedented in this era even for him. When they have been on the ice together the Capitals have been an unstoppable force. They’ve only spent about 200 minutes together at even-strength but the Capitals have a 15-4 goal different during those minutes and their work on the power play is as great as it has ever been. They won a Stanley Cup, partied all summer, and came back even stronger.

3. Connor McDavid. He is trying to almost single-handedly carry the Edmonton Oilers to a playoff spot. He is playing more than 23 minutes per night, is on pace for more than 120 points, and has had a hand in literally 50 percent of his team’s goals. When he is not on the ice the Oilers are still playing at a lottery team level, just as they have throughout most of his career.

4. The Lightning. The whole team. Everything about them. Entering play on Monday the Lightning have a six-point lead over the second-best team in the NHL. No team has had that large of a lead in the standings on Dec. 17 since the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks, and the Lightning have done that despite not having their top defender, Victor Hedman, for seven games earlier this season and not having their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, for more than a month. Both players were awards finalists a year ago, with Hedman actually winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender. If that is not enough, they are still averaging four goals per game while their 138 goals are the fourth most through a team’s first 34 games over the past 25 years. Only the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, 1995-96 Avalanche, and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators had more goals after their first 34 games during that stretch. Truly dominant team across the board.

5. Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Buffalo Sabres fans have reason to believe again, and this duo is the biggest reason why. Not only are they wildly productive together, but they have been a highlight reel almost every night. Skinner is second in the league in goals as of Monday while Eichel is in the top-six in total points. The Sabres are a plus-18 (32 goals for, 14 goals against) when they are on the ice together at even-strength. This is everything the team could have possibly hoped for when they acquired Skinner before the season to play alongside their franchise player.

6. Calgary’s top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. This might be the best defense pairing in hockey this season, and I’m not sure anyone else is really close. Giordano is having a career year and should be a mid-season contender for the Norris, while he and Brodie have been outstanding as a pairing. How good have they been? In 470 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time with them on the ice the Flames have allowed just nine goals (that is only 1.15 goals per 60 minutes) and only 45 total shot attempts per 60 minutes. For some perspective on that the Vegas Golden Knights are the best team in the league when it comes to suppressing shot attempts … they give up 51.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes. The Boston Bruins are the best team when it comes to 5-on-5 goal prevention … they are giving up 1.84 goals per 60 minutes. Just total defensive dominance from these two, while Giordano is also having a spectacular year offensively.

7. John Gibson and Ryan Miller. No potential playoff team bleeds shots and scoring chances against quite like the Anaheim Ducks do. With anything less than outstanding goaltending they would probably near the bottom of the Western Conference standings instead of in contention for the Pacific Division crown. But they are not only getting outstanding goaltending, they are getting the best goaltending in the NHL. Together the Gibson-Miller duo has combined for a league-best .920 save percentage this season, .004 points better than any other team in the league and .012 points better than the league average.

8. Auston Matthews. He would probably higher on the list had he played in more games, but 16 goals and 19 games is a ridiculous scoring pace, as is the fact he already has six two-goal games this season. Only Ovechkin (with seven) has more. Matthews, again, has only played in 19 games while Ovechkin has played in 32 for the Capitals.

9. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. It does not matter if their center is Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, this duo is the engine that drives the Bruins’ offense, and by extension, the entire team. The Bruins aren’t really getting any scoring outside of this line so they are going to need them to continue carrying the load if they are going to be a playoff team. They have been great with Krejci, but they are even better with Bergeron, and he seems to be getting closer to a return to the lineup.

10. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The Pittsburgh Penguins do not have a particularly good defense, and they are not a great defensive team by any stretch, but they do have one of the NHL’s absolute best defensive pairs in Letang and Dumoulin. Together they’ve doubled up their opponents in the goals department (28-14) and have controlled nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts and scoring chances when they are on the ice together. Letang is the dominant player in this group due to his offensive ability (nearly a point per game), but Dumoulin is a perfect complement to him and they have been exceptional together from the start.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.