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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins host Canadiens on NBCSN

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.

The Buzzer: Kucherov dominant; Ovechkin makes history

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Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. It is starting to get insane. Nikita Kucherov had another four-point game for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, extending his league-leading point total to 69 on the season and his current point streak to 12 games. He also has points in 22 of his past 23 games. Thursday’s performance, which came in a 6-2 rout of the Los Angeles Kings, is already his 10th game this season with at least three points and fourth with at least four points. He has recorded multiple points in seven consecutive games, a stretch that has seen him record 21 total points. That is a three-point per game average. He also reached the 400-point mark for his career with that performance. The Lightning are now a league-best 32-7-2 on the season and sit 12 points ahead of any other team in the league. At this point a year ago they were only 29-9-3. They are somehow even better this season.

2. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. With Jack Eichel, their captain and best player, sidelined for at least the next two games the Buffalo Sabres needed somebody to step up to help them get out of their recent funk. That somebody on Thursday night was Eichel’s usual linemate, Jeff Skinner. Skinner scored a pair of goals in the Sabres’ 4-3 win to help them snap their three-game losing streak. Since the end of their 10-game winning streak earlier this season the Sabres have won just five out the 16 games that have followed. Skinner’s second goal on Thursday was his 28th of the season as he sits just two behind Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for the league lead. It was also his seventh game-winning goal of the season, putting him in a three-way tie with Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson and Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog for the league lead.

3. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. Playing in his first game since December 22, Carey Price stopped all 33 shots he faced for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks for his second shutout of the season. Price has not played up to his usual standard this season but has a save percentage of .920 or better in three of his past four starts. Perhaps he is starting to get back on track.

Highlights of the Night

Mathew Barzal continued his incredible play with this ridiculous goal in the New York Islanders’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Jeff Skinner’s first goal was as absolute beauty for the Buffalo Sabres in their win over the Florida Panthers.

Oskar Sundqvist scored the game-winning goal for the St. Louis Blues in what was a nice revenge game for him against Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals.

Factoids

It came in a loss, but Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin scored his 30th goal of the season on Thursday night against the St. Louis Blues. By doing so he has now done something that only one other player in NHL history has done by scoring at least 30 goals in 14 consecutive seasons to begin his career. What is perhaps most remarkable about this stat is that Ovechkin was able to maintain his 30-goal season run through a lockout shortened 48-game season. Gartner had his run ended by the 1994-94 lockout shortened season before scoring at least 30 goals in each of the next two seasons. Ovechkin is only the third player to ever record 14 consecutive 30-goal seasons at any point in their career, and just the sixth player to record at lest 14 30-goal seasons in a career. He is a remarkable goal-scorer. The best ever.

The Calgary Flames did not beat the Boston Bruins thanks to a pair of goals from Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk on Thursday night but they did record another shorthanded goal. They lead the league in that category this season.

Devon Toews scored the game-winning goal in overtime for the New York Islanders on Thursday night. It was also the first goal of his NHL career. Not many players have done that in the history of the NHL.

The Minnesota Wild were the latest team to overcome a two-goal deficit this season to win.

 

Sebastian Aho continued his great season for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

 

Scores

Minnesota Wild 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

Boston Bruins 6, Calgary Flames 4

Buffalo Sabres 4, Florida Panthers 3

Carolina Hurricanes 5, Philadelphia Flyers 3

New York Islanders 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2

Montreal Canadiens 2, Vancouver Canucks 0

St. Louis Blues 5, Washington Capitals 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Los Angeles Kings 2

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.

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 Morning Skate: 10 best games of 2018; Okposo’s slump

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Point Hockey argues that most of what Stars president Jim Lites said about Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin simply isn’t true. (The Point)

• A lot of hockey games were played in 2018. The Hockey News looks back at the 10 best ones. There’s NHL games, Olympic tilts and CWHL contests, too. (The Hockey News)

• Ty Smith impressed the Devils during their 2018 training camp, now he’s playing a big role with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. (TSN.ca)

• Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana is a special place for a Winter Classic to take place. (NHL.com)

• Sports Illustrated looks at the way the Blackhawks and Bruins’ Winter Classic jerseys came together. (Sports Illustrated)

• The Score breaks down five storylines that dominated the NHL in 2018. (The Score)

• Lightning GM Julien BriseBois asses his team’s performance in the first half of their season. Let’s just say there’s not much to complain about. (NHL.com/Lightning)

• Sabres forward Kyle Okposo is going through a huge slump right now. He has one more game to pick up his first point of December. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• With season-ticket renewals expiring at the end of this season, the Edmonton Oilers couldn’t have picked a worse time to go through another slump. (Edmonton Sun)

• Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk is blogging ahead of Tuesday’s Winter Classic. “I played a lot outdoors, especially growing up in Edmonton. We would go after school or even sometimes during recess, we’d play mini sticks in the snow, anything we could do to get out there playing hockey.” (NHL.com)

• Peter Chiarelli made two trades on Sunday. Those moves would indicate that he and this Oilers team is desperate for success. (Sportsnet)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.