David Krejci

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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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Rask keeps dominating, Hurricanes special teams keep struggling

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  • Tuukka Rask is the difference in the Eastern Conference Final.
  • The Carolina Hurricanes’ special teams is also a factor … a negative one for them.
  • David Krejci reaches a personal postseason milestone for the Bruins.

Boston Bruins 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1 (BOS leads series 3-0)

There are two very big factors for the Boston Bruins’ commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Final.

The obvious one is the play of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask because he has been, in a word, dominant, and he was at his best in the Bruins’ 2-1 Game 3 win on Tuesday night.

The other factor is the fact that Boston’s special teams has completely taken over the series. Carolina had struggled on both the power play and penalty kill in the first two rounds and entered the series near the bottom of the league in both categories in the playoffs. Things have not gotten much better against the Bruins.

After Tuesday’s 0-for-5 night on the power play (including a first period two-man advantage where they did not score), the Hurricanes are just 1-for-12 in the series and have already given up five power play goals to the Bruins on 12 attempts. That is not going to get the job done at this point in the playoffs. Or at any point, really.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. Simply the best player on the ice. He stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced and is now up to a .939 save percentage in the playoffs. He kept the Bruins in the game early in the first period when they were getting outshot by a 20-6 margin, holding off the Hurricanes’ initial surge just long enough for the Bruins to finally strike first early in the second period. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said after the game this is some of the best hockey he has ever seen Rask play. You will not see goaltending much better than this from anyone.

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. He struck again for the Bruins to record his sixth goal and 16th point of the playoffs. His power play goal in the second period goes in the books as the game-winner, which is now his second of the playoffs. Dislike him all you want, he is one of the absolute best players in the NHL and a constant force on the ice.

3. Chris Wagner, Boston Bruins. The Bruins’ fourth line started the scoring early in the second period when Wagner scored his second goal of the series. The unit was strong all night long for the Bruins and continued what has been a solid showing all postseason. The only downside of the night for Wagner and the Bruins is that he exited the game in the third period after blocking a shot and the immediate response from Cassidy after the game did not sound optimistic.

Highlights of the Night

Wagner’s goal came off of a pretty passing play by the Bruins’ fourth line. When you are getting play like this from your bottom line you are going to be in a pretty good position.

Marchand got a little bit of a lucky break on his goal in the second period, but sometimes you need that in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to get the win.

Here is a brief collection of some of Rask’s best saves on the night.

Factoids

  • The Bruins’ Game 3 win was their sixth in a row, tied for the third-longest postseason winning streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • David Krejci recorded his 100th career postseason point for the Bruins, tying him for third on the franchise’s all-time playoff scoring leaderboard. [NHL PR]
  • Rask became the first goalie since Tim Thomas in 2011 to stop at least 20 shots in a postseason period. [NHL PR]
  • This was the Bruins’ 60th win of the season, including regular season and playoffs, the eighth time in franchise history they have accomplished such a feat. [NHL PR]
  • The Bruins are one win away from what would be their 20th appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. [NHL PR]

Wednesday’s schedule

Game 3: San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream) (Series Tied 1-1)

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.

Lack of mega-money players an anomaly this postseason

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Every postseason a new storyline emerges as to how NHL teams should construct their rosters, and it usually revolves around the teams playing the deepest in the playoffs and how they managed to get there.

After all, everyone wants to copy off the teams that win and not the teams sitting at home.

The new trend could be anything, really. Sometimes it revolves around defensive structure, or size and grit. Sometimes it is about speed and skill. We are always looking for the next “thing” that is going to take over the NHL. To be fair, there can be some merit to these storylines and trends.

The one thing that stands out about the four teams playing in the Conference Finals this season is that none of them have a really huge salary on their roster. This is a fact that was pointed out in an article by the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on Monday when talking about the upcoming crop of restricted free agents and how teams might try to approach them given the salary structures of the remaining playoff teams.

There is not a single player in the top-20 of NHL salary cap hits still playing in the playoffs, while San Jose’s Brent Burns ($8 million) is the only one in the top-25.

St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O'Reilly ($7.5 million each) and Boston’s David Krejci ($7.25 million) are the only other ones in the top-40.

Carolina’s highest paid player is Jordan Staal who counts $6 million against the cap, the 89th largest salary cap hit in the league. The Hurricanes also have one of the lowest total payrolls.

In the article LeBrun quotes an unnamed NHL executive who points out of the favorite talking points of executives in the salary cap era: “You need depth to win and can’t allocate too much cap space to any individual players.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The first part is 100 percent true, because you do need depth to win.

The second point is just … wrong. That is not a personal opinion, and it is not something that is going to change just because of one mostly unpredictable postseason. It is a fact. That is what makes it so maddening every single time it gets mentioned. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ core can’t be discussed without fear over their future salary cap situation and how they are going to build a contending team around so many big-money players. There is always trade speculation mentioned around teams that “need” to shed salary because they have too much money going to too few players.

I hate this mindset, mostly because there is zero factual evidence to back it up.

While it is true that the four Conference Finalists this season have made it this far without a mega-money player on their roster, it is also true that this development is an anomaly in recent postseason history.

Burns is currently the only player in the Conference Finals that accounts for more than 10 percent of the league salary cap this season.

The Blues and Bruins both have players in the 9 percent range, while the Hurricanes don’t have anyone that takes up more than 7.5 percent.

Let’s just take a quick look at how that compares to the past five years of Conference Finalists. The table below looks at the highest cap percentage on each team that played in the Conference Finals that season.

Of the 20 teams over the previous five years, 16 of them had at least one player accounting for more than 10 percent of their allotted salary cap space that season; 13 of them had one taking up more than 10.5 percent; nine had more than 11 percent; seven had a player taking up at least 12 percent.

That includes multiple Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh and Washington over the previous three seasons.

Many of these teams also had multiple players taken up between 10 to 12 percent of the salary cap on their own.

In any contract negotiation there are always going to be two sides with very different goals. The player is usually going to try and get as much money as they possibly can for their production. They have short careers and an even shorter window to get a significant contract, so they are going to try and cash in when they can. The team is going to try and get the player for the best bang for their buck, not only because of the salary cap, but because that is just how sports teams work. It is obviously beneficial for a team to get a superstar at a below market contract (think Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado) in a capped league but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you have to pay your best player top dollar. It is always worth it.

If there is a team in the NHL this offseason looking at the roster construction of these four teams and thinks it is going to be beneficial to trade a big money, star player for multiple, cheaper assets or play hardball with an RFA over an extra two or three million it is probably going to end very, very badly for them. Because they are either going to make a bad trade for the wrong reasons (quality for quantity) or risk damaging a relationship (or maybe even losing) a core player.

Just because this particular postseason will not have a mega-money player in the Stanley Cup Final does not mean that is always the best way to go about building your team.

Star players still matter a lot, and star players still cost a lot money.

One postseason will not change that.

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.

Bruins scoring first; secondary scoring shining

It makes for quite the concoction.

Scoring first always puts the conceding team on the back foot. The Carolina Hurricanes know all about that — they’re 4-0 in this postseason when they pot the first goal of the game.

But the Boston Bruins have been able to pip their opponents to that first marker during a four-game winning streak that’s seen them see off the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games and now take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final into Game 2 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

And in three of those wins, that first goal has come from someone outside the ‘Big Three’ on forward.

David Pastrnak got that all-important strike in Game 4 against the Blue Jackets, a goal that proved pivot in the Bruins turning around a 2-1 deficit in that series. David Krejci then went on to score first in each of the next two games and Steven Kampfer gave Boston an early lead in Game 1 against the Hurricanes last Thursday.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Secondary scoring played a big part in Game 6 for the Bruins, where Krejci was on point in the second, followed by goals from Marcus Johansson and David Backes in a 3-0 shutout win to send Columbus out.

In Game 1, Johansson was once again on point, scoring the tying goal in the third. After Patrice Bergeron‘s goal to take a 3-2 lead, Charlie Coyle and Chris Wagner each found twine to put that game out of reach.

Side note: Johannson’s emergence with two goals in this past two games has been a welcomed sight after he was picked up at the trade deadline. 

The harmony between top-line production and secondary scoring has been well in sync during this streak. Carolina has to devote a lot to shutting down Bergeron, Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. It doesn’t feel like feast or famine right now for the Bruins and their top trio. They’re dangerous, and the secondary guys are picking up the scraps when offered.

The last time the Bruins won five straight came in 2013 — coincidentally, the last time they reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Boston has led for 155:54 and trailed for 13:08 during their streak

“Sometimes we get in a little bit of a passive mode, but we play a layered system where we try to make sure we’re in front of them towards the net, so they have to go through multiple bodies to get there and try to limit turnovers as well,” Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk told NHL.com. “Just try to play a simple game. It’s not necessarily the most fun game to watch, but it’s winning hockey this time of year.”

The Bruins weather a second-period storm where they were outshot 15-10 in Game 1 and when they grabbed the lead in the third, they made sure Carolina’s possession game couldn’t do just that.

The Hurricanes don’t give up many goals — some of the least in the postseason and the regular season. So the Bruins can take confidence in the fact they tucked five past them in Game 1.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT roundtable
• Hurricanes/Bruins series preview
• PHT Conference Finals predictions


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Bruins vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Eastern Conference Final preview

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It’s easy to picture especially swaggery, Boston-sports-spoiled Bruins fans walking into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a mantra: “Just get past the first two rounds.”

On paper, that seemed to be the most treacherous steps in a hopeful path to a championship. Get past the Maple Leafs in Round 1, and then you’d assume they’d need to cross their fingers against the mighty Lightning in Round 2. Oops.

The Bruins figure to be fairly strong favorites heading into their Eastern Conference Final matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes, but if this postseason reinforces any lesson, it’s that it’s dangerous to assume any hockey playoff series is a lock, one way or another.

After all, that mighty Tampa team tumbled against Columbus, who pushed Boston quite a bit in that six-game series. The Hurricanes also dispatched the defending champion Capitals in Round 1, then swept the sweepers in the Islanders.

Despite this Carolina group largely being new to this whole playoff thing, the Hurricanes have shown remarkable resilience in rolling with punches. While other teams might crumble at the loss of a starting goalie, Carolina just kept trucking along. Playing the underdogs against the Bruins likely won’t bother this bunch of jerks.

The Bruins hold home-ice advantage and household names, but these Hurricanes might just make a name for themselves during this series.

SCHEDULE
(All times ET, subject to change):

Thursday, May 9, 8 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBCSN
Sunday, May 12, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBC
Tuesday, May 14, 8 p.m.: Bruins @ Hurricanes | NBCSN
Thursday, May 16, 8 p.m.: Bruins @ Hurricanes | NBCSN
*Saturday, May 18, 7:15 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBC
*Monday, May 20, 8 p.m.: Bruins @ Hurricanes | NBCSN
*Wednesday, May 22, 8 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Bruins | NBCSN

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

OFFENSE

During the regular season, the Bruins scored 259 goals, while the Hurricanes managed 245. The two teams have been neck-and-neck during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Carolina averaging 3.09 goals per game, barely ahead of Boston’s 3.08.

There’s no getting around it, and the Hurricanes haven’t tried to ignore it; every team in the league figures to have fits with the Bruins’ big three of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. This trio’s mixture of defensive play, finishing ability, passing skills, and all-around hockey IQ is basically unmatched in the NHL right now. (If they have equals, the list is short.)

That said, that big three has been slowed down at times during the postseason, which is a credit to the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets. Unfortunately for opponents, the Bruins have seen improved support beyond that top line. A strong second line is led by David Krejci, Charlie Coyle is finding nice chemistry with Marcus Johansson on the third line, and Sean Kuraly‘s been able to pitch in some offense, too.

Don’t count out the Hurricanes’ group, though.

Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen have been very much a dynamic duo in their own right. Jordan Staal‘s defensive game has essentially always been there, and now he’s getting some bounces on offense. There’s plenty of help on the wings, especially if Nino Niederreiter can shrug off a cold streak, and if Andrei Svechnikov and Micheal Ferland can get reasonably healthy.

On paper, the Bruins have the high-end edge, while the Hurricanes’ offensive advantage likely comes in depth. It’s a testament to both teams that, frankly, even those gaps are probably pretty small.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins.

DEFENSE

Despite a staggering array of injuries at times during this postseason run, the Hurricanes have been able to control the puck more often than not thanks to their splendid group of defensemen.

Losing Trevor van Riemsdyk stings from a depth perspective, yet if any team can spread those minutes out, it’s likely Carolina. Jaccob Slavin‘s received some long-deserved mainstream attention for excellent play, but Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk have also been excellent during the Rounds 1 and 2. Calvin de Haan and Brett Pesce round out one of the more complete groups we’ve seen since the salary cap was instituted. This group can move the puck, create some offense, and do a solid job of limiting opportunities against. Don’t be surprised if there are long stretches where the Bruins’ forecheck is short-circuited by Carolina’s ability to transition the puck.

The Bruins’ blueline isn’t as versatile, but as a unit, they make life easier for Tuukka Rask, for the most part.

Torey Krug is an absolute weapon on the power play, and effective overall. Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara enjoy an effective, symbiotic relationship when paired together. This is a solid group overall, even though Chara is understandably slowing down at age 42.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes, and not just when McAvoy is suspended for Game 1.

GOALTENDING

Both the Bruins and Hurricanes enjoy a luxury that few teams manage: a viable backup.

That proved especially important for Carolina, as Petr Mrazek missed the latter portion of Round 2 against the Islanders, making way for Curtis McElhinney. In a way, that seems quite fitting, as the two made things work in Carolina’s net, often by committee.

With Ben Bishop‘s Stars out, Tuukka Rask seems like the obvious choice for hottest goalie remaining in this postseason. Rask closed out Columbus with a masterful 39-save shutout, pushing his save percentage to a whopping .938 this postseason. He was the story of that Game 6 win, and really that series against the Blue Jackets, in general.

Losing Rask to an injury or slump would be brutal for Boston, yet Jaroslav Halak is a proven veteran who at times outplayed Rask during the 2018-19 regular season. Halak is arguably the second-best goalie in this series.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. Goalies are a strange lot, though.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins have generated the best power play percentage (28.6) of these playoffs, and ranked third in the NHL at 25.9 percent during the regular season. The Hurricanes converted on a middling 17.8 percent of their chances during the regular season (12th-worst), and have struggled in the playoffs, only converting on 10.5 percent of their opportunities.

(I’ve screamed from many mountaintops about the Hurricanes needing to move Hamilton to the QB role of its first power play unit in exchange for Faulk. Ultimately, I realize that this is a one-way conversation, as Carolina seems resolute in sticking with what … hasn’t worked.)

The Hurricanes sported the more effective penalty kill (81.6 percent) during the regular season (Boston was at 79.9 percent), while the Bruins have had more success in the playoffs (83.8 percent to Carolina’s 75). Of course, as dangerous as Toronto’s PP talent can be, the Bruins had the advantage of not facing Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals’ man advantage, while Carolina did during seven games in Round 1.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. The Hurricanes likely have an edge on penalty killing, but it’s incremental. Meanwhile, Boston’s power play may very well swing the series.

PREDICTION

BRUINS IN 7. The Hurricanes aren’t just some Cinderella story running on fumes. Instead, they’re a balanced team that can win battles in all three zones, and that defense gives Carolina a fighting chance against just about any opponent. That said, the Bruins have the big three, more trustworthy goaltending, and a power play that could buy them some precious breathing room. This should be a treat for hockey nerds and casual fans alike.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT Roundtable
Conference Finals predictions

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.