Bruins’ playoff plan calls for Rask, rookies in Game 1

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If the Round 1 series lives up to the hype, Maple Leafs – Bruins could very well come down to supporting cast members moving the needle while big stars duke it out.

With that in mind, the Bruins made some interesting lineup decisions heading into Game 1 (airing on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN – live stream here).

In a sense, Bruce Cassidy’s calls come down to opting for one forward, defenseman, and starting goalie over three similar options. While Cassidy might quibble with that, let’s boil it down to those three decisions, especially since Cassidy might zig and zag depending upon how the series goes.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Choice 1: Tuukka Rask over Jaroslav Halak.

This one, obviously, is the most explicit. It’s also the most important, and one that could provide the most debate — at least, if the Bruins are willing to turn to Halak if Rask stumbles, which is plausible considering the sheer firepower of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Not to mention how great Frederik Andersen can be when everything’s clicking.)

In 46 games this season, Rask went 27-13-5 with a .912 save percentage. He’s enjoyed some considerable highs during his Bruins career, yet the returns have been more modest as the 32-year-old’s shown his age a bit. Since 2015-16, his save percentage has been at .917 or below. That’s not terrible by any stretch, yet there have been spans that prompted people to question Rask’s status as the No. 1 goalie.

Strong pushes from backups in recent years account for those debates as much as anything Rask’s done, and that’s been especially true with Halak in 2018-19. The often-underrated goalie sported a fantastic .922 save percentage while compiling a 22-11-4 record, and his 2010 run with the Canadiens was among the most memorable recent runs for a playoff goalie.

The good news is that, really, the Bruins have two viable choices. The bad news is that, if Rask falters, people will really second-guess this decision, especially if there are prolonged struggles.

[Toronto’s perspective: now is time for Babcock, Leafs.]

Choice 2: Karson Kuhlman instead of David Backes.

Through the first 11 games of his NHL career, Kuhlman scored three goals and two assists for five points. If the 23-year-old can keep up, Kuhlman could really help Boston push for depth beyond their deadly, possibly league-best top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Kuhlman fitting with the effective duo of David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk would allow the Bruins to try to hang with Toronto’s considerable third-line depth by keeping Charlie Coyle, Marcus Johansson, and Danton Heinen together.

It’s a small sample size, but Kuhlman’s been a strong possession player so far for Boston, so this might just work.

Really, if Backes draws back into the lineup, maybe it would be for a forward other than Kuhlman, anyway?

Choice 3: Connor Clifton plays, Steven Kampfer scratched.

Like Kuhlman, Clifton is only 23, and hasn’t been in that many games, as Clifton appeared in 19 during the 2018-19 season. (Less relevant yet fun: both of their names are also alliterative.)

On one hand, Clifton failed to score a goal and only generated one assist during those 19 games. On the other hand, he handled his 17:42 TOI pretty well, with possession stats that grade out nicely. Now, it certainly couldn’t have hurt his numbers to be paired most often with Torey Krug, but it’s better to look solid than to flounder in such a situation.

So far, the Bruins’ plan appears to be partnering Clifton with Matt Grzelcyk on the third pairing, which would likely ease some of the concerns regarding throwing a rookie into a pressure-packed situation against a dangerous opponent.

Kampfer could be a threat to bump Clifton out of the lineup, and the same can be said for John Moore if he can return from an injury. It’s possible that, inexperience and all, Clifton might be the best option of the three. Early on, Cassidy certainly seems to prefer Clifton to Kampfer.

Maple Leafs – Bruins Game 1 from TD Garden takes place on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (livestream)

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

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 – Red Wings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Boston Bruins at the Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

On one side, you have the Bruins, a team hoping to cement its hold on the second seed in the Atlantic Division, and thus a round of home-ice advantage.

The Red Wings don’t face much in the way of stakes … yet they’ve been playing with pride lately, nonetheless. It might not help their tanking chances to win on Sunday, but try telling that to the players on the ice.

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

What: Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings
Where: Little Caesars Arena
When: Sunday, March 31, 7:330 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Red Wings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

BRUINS

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciMarcus Johansson

Danton HeinenCharlie CoyleChris Wagner

Joakim NordstromNoel AcciariDavid Backes

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Kevan MillerMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

RED WINGS

Darren HelmDylan LarkinAnthony Mantha

Tyler BertuzziAndreas Athanasiou — Dominic Turgeon

Martin Frk — Christoffer EhnTaro Hirose

Matt Puempel — Ryan Kuffner

Danny DeKeyserFilip Hronek

Niklas KronwallMadison Bowey

Dylan McIlrath — Luke Witkowski

Jake Chelios

Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

Brendan Burke (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter.

Injury roundup: Islanders lose Filppula; Stepan close to return for Coyotes

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It was a pretty brutal Tuesday night for the New York Islanders. Not only were they completely dominated and blown out by the Boston Bruins, but they also lost a couple of key forwards to injury.

The team announced on Wednesday that center Valtteri Filppula will be sidelined for the next four weeks due to an upper-body injury that he suffered early in the first period, forcing him out of the game after logging just 2:57 of ice-time.

Filppula was one of the many veteran forwards the Islanders acquired over the summer following the departure of John Tavares to Toronto, and in 71 games has scored 15 goals to go with 14 assists.

He is one of six players on the roster to have scored at least 15 goals this season.

He was not the only player to have an injury issue after Tuesday’ game.

The team also announced that Jordan Eberle is day-to-day with an upper-body injury of his own. Eberle has 14 goals and 31 total points in 69 games this season. While neither player is a superstar or among the team’s top-five scorers it would still be a pretty big blow to their depth to be without both for an extended period of time. Even with them in the lineup the Islanders are still only 20th in the league in scoring.

Cal Clutterbuck was also injured in Tuesday’s game but he was back at practice on Wednesday.

Injured Bruins returning to practice

Few contenders have been hit harder by injuries this season than the Boston Bruins, but they did get some good news on Wednesday when coach Bruce Cassidy announced that Matt Grzelcyk, Marcus Johansson, and Kevan Miller will join the team for practice in Florida. All three player have been sidelined for at least two weeks. Johansson’s injury came not long after he was acquired in a trade deadline deal with the New Jersey Devils. He suffered a lung contusion when he was on the receiving end of a big hit from Carolina Hurricanes forward Micheall Ferland.

[Related: Ferland’s big hit gives Johansson lung contusion]

Lightning’s Girardi out indefinitely

In other injury news, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that veteran Dan Girardi is out “indefinitely” due to a lower-body injury.

Girardi has not appeared in a game for the Lightning since March 7, but in 61 games this season has four goals and seven assists while logging just over 17 minutes of ice-time for the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Stepan getting closer to return

Finally some good injury news for the Arizona Coyotes, another team that has been crushed by injuries all season.

Center Derek Stepan is getting closer to returning to the lineup after being sidelined since the end of February due to a lower-body injury.

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said on Wednesday, via Craig Morgan, that Stepan is “very, very close” to rejoining the team and that they could see him this weekend against either the New Jersey Devils or New York Islanders.

In 64 games this season Stepan has 13 goals and 19 assists and would be a big boost for the stretch run as the Coyotes look to secure a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. They currently occupy the second Wild Card spot, still holding a one-point lead over the Minnesota Wild.

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.

Should Bruins be worried about recent slump?

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Between Dec. 29 and Mar. 9, the Boston Bruins lost a grand total of three games in regulation. That two-and-a-half month stretch didn’t allow them to close the gap between themselves and the Atlantic-Division leading Tampa Bay Lightning, but it created some space between themselves and the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs.

Over the last few days, things have changed for the Bruins. They’re no longer one of the red-hot teams in the NHL. Instead, they’ve dropped three games in a row in regulation to the Penguins, Blue Jackets and Jets. Falling behind early has been a major issue in all three of those losses.

Last Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Bruins conceded the first two goals of the game. Tuesday night in Columbus, they scored the first goal but wound up allowing Columbus to score three unanswered goals before the end of the opening frame. And last night, they spotted Winnipeg a 2-0 lead before the 12-minute mark of the first.

“Poor starts, first and foremost,” forward Patrice Bergeron said after the loss to the Jets, per NHL.com. “We shot ourselves in the foot at the start of every game [in the losing streak], so tough to get back in this league. Tough to do that every night. And we’ve done it on the tail end of our [19-game] point streak.”

The Bruins won’t want to hear this, but it’s impossible for most teams to roll from December through April without so much as a hiccup. This was bound to happen. They played a stretch of tough road games so it only made sense that this mini slump would occur now.

“Listen, I don’t like to lose one in a row so there’s always concern,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “There’s different factors that go into it. I think we played three very good hockey teams this week, that’s part of it. Part of it is, as mentioned, is we haven’t started on time so we’ve put ourselves in a hole so we’re playing catch-up every night. That’s a bad formula in the National Hockey League.”

If you’re a Bruins fan looking for tiny positives at this point, you can just look at the slight improvement in each of the first periods over the last three games. They went from a 17.39 percent CF% in the first 20 minutes against the Pens, to 47.62 percent against the Blue Jackets, to 55.88 percent against the Jets last night, per Natural Stat Trick (I told you it was a small positive).

It’s also important to note that they’ve been dealing with some significant injuries of late. In last night’s game, they were without: Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Marcus Johansson, David Pastrnak, Matt Grzelcyk and Jake DeBrusk. Many of those players will return before the end of the regular season, which means the Bruins will only be getting deeper over the next few weeks.

The schedule will also get easier for them. After Saturday’s home game against Columbus, the Bruins will play five of the next seven games away from the TD Garden, but they’ll have dates with non-playoff teams like the Devils, Panthers (twice), Rangers and Red Wings.

There’s still a lot of time for the Bruins to get back on track before the playoffs start in April. There’s no need to hit the panic button just yet.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: What went wrong for Devils this season?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Devils shocked the hockey world last season when they finished in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. No one saw it coming. In the end, they fizzled out in the first round, but the 2017-18 campaign was filled with positives for this young Devils squad.

Fast forward one season, and things are very different. They’re nowhere near a playoff spot with just under a month to go and they’ve been out of the race for a while already. They sold players like Brian Boyle, Keith Kinkaid and Marcus Johansson at the trade deadline for draft picks, which showed they were focused more on the future than the present.

But why did things fall apart this year? Was last year just a blip on the radar?

Let’s take a look.

The biggest difference between this year and last, is Taylor Hall. The 27-year-old was named league MVP last year, as he accumulated 93 points in just 76 games. Unfortunately for Hall and the Devils, he just couldn’t stay healthy this year (he’s been out since Dec. 23 with a knee injury). When he played, he remained as productive as ever, scoring 37 points in 33 games. But there’s no way the Devils could compete for anything without Hall in the lineup. That’s the case for a lot of the borderline playoff teams in the NHL. No Hall=No playoffs. It’ll continue to be that way going forward, too.

Will Butcher was another one of the unexpected positives for the Devils last season. The 24-year-old had a terrific rookie season with five goals and 44 points in  81 games. This year, those numbers have come way down, as he has four goals and 26 points in 68 contests. Many of his key advanced stats have dipped, too. His CF% has gone from 53.14 to 49.72 percent, while his FF% dropped from 53.89 to 50.74 percent. That’s not completely unexpected when you consider how everyone on the team’s play has fallen.

Keeping the puck out of their own net has been a major issue, too. When Cory Schneider was injured or struggling in 2017-18, Kinkaid was there to pick up the slack. The veteran had a respectable 2.77 goals-against-average and a .913 save percentage in 41 outings. Before being traded to Columbus last month, he had a 3.36 GAA and a 891 save percentage in the same amount of games. That’s a significant difference.

As for Schneider, injuries and overall inconsistency have held him back over the last couple of seasons. If the Devils are going to make a run at a playoff spot next year, they’ll need him to be a lot better than he’s been lately. He and Hall could be the biggest keys to turning this thing around.

2018 Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield will serve as an analyst for NBC Sports’ Devils-Oilers Wednesday Night Hockey telecast. Coyne Schofield made her broadcasting debut as an analyst on Wednesday Night Hockey in January and has also served as a studio analyst for NHL Network.

Coyne Schofield will join Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) for the call of Devils-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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.