Bruce Cassidy

Getty Images

Should Bruins break up top line next season?

10 Comments

The Boston Bruins and their fans are likely still smarting from falling one win short of a Stanley Cup victory against the St. Louis Blues, but the bottom line is that this was an impressive run. Really, it cemented the notion that Bruins management has done a lot right in finding ways to extend this group’s window of contention, where other teams would age out of elite play.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the Bruins: their lack of experimentation toward the end of the regular season.

Most teams don’t get the chance to tinker without big consequences

For a long time, it was clear that the Bruins would meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There was also plenty of advance notice that the Bruins were unlikely to slip from the second seed.

While other NHL teams can be dinged for a lack of experimentation as well, the Bruins (and Maple Leafs) were in a rare position in this age of parity: they basically knew where they were going to land in the playoff branches, and didn’t really face much of a threat of dropping out of their position for some time.

In other words, if the Bruins wanted to try a bunch of different things – treating the rest of the regular season as a virtual hockey science lab – they wouldn’t have faced severe consequences, even if those experimentations blew up in their faces in the form of losses.

Instead, the Bruins more or less played things out.

If there was one question I would’ve wanted answered if I were in Bruce Cassidy’s shoes,* it would be: “What if we broke up the line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak?”

* – And, make no mistake about it, this would be a bad deal for the Bruins, because Cassidy is overall a very bright coach, and I’d struggle to keep a team under one Too Many Men on the Ice penalties per period.

[More: How will the Bruins look next season?]

Hitting a wall at the worst possible time

Overall, it’s fine that the Bruins leaned toward not messing with a good thing. For the most part, that trio absolutely caves in opponents with their mix of smart defensive play, blistering passing, and dangerous sniping.

Unfortunately, that group hit some serious roadblocks during the postseason, particularly as the St. Louis Blues’ defense found ways to short circuit that top line, and the Blues’ own best players feasted to a surprisingly lopsided degree. This tweet really captures how one-sided things often were during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final:

Yikes. Yikes.

While wear and tear cannot be ignored during the grind of a deep playoff run, it’s fair to ask if the Bruins didn’t have enough of a Plan B for if the top line sputtered. To some extent, you can understand why: because they basically never ran into that problem during the regular season.

Yet, lacking alternate options might have made the Bruins easier to “solve.” Consider this striking excerpt from the latest edition of Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts.”

When it came to the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand/David Pastrnak line, one Blue said they were determined “not to be fooled by their deception.” Those three are excellent at creating havoc through the neutral zone via the different routes they take. The Blues focused on where they wanted to get to (especially Marchand’s and Pastrnak’s preferred one-timer locations) instead of how they got there.

Attached at the hip

The Bruins certainly provided the Blues and other opponents with a lot of “tape” on the top line, so to speak, as they kept them glued together during the regular season.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Patrice Bergeron played more than 729 minutes with Brad Marchand at even-strength during the regular season, while Bergeron was only away from Marchand for less than 46 minutes. David Pastrnak saw a little bit more time away from that duo, but still spent far more time with them.

It’s striking, actually, that Pastrnak spent almost as much time away from Bergeron and Marchand during the smaller sample of the playoffs (123:12 without Marchand, 134:07 without Bergeron, in 24 games) as Pastrnak spent away from them during the regular season (202 away from Marchand, 182:27 away from Bergeron), and injuries exaggerated those regular season numbers.

You could argue that Pastrnak was moved around because of desperation, rather than inspiration, during the postseason, as things weren’t clicking. So it wasn’t exactly as if those swaps were happening in ideal circumstances.

But what if the Bruins had more combinations in their back pocket?

Roads less taken

Cassidy had the luxury of finding out a little bit more about how other duos or trios might click, but he chose not to do so. Could Marchand and Bergeron really propel their own lines, and how much does Pastrnak need at least one of those guys to thrive? Might Marchand find chemistry with David Krejci, and could Bergeron really click with Jake DeBrusk? If the drop-off from spreading the wealth vs. going top-heavy was small, then the Bruins might have been able to throw different looks against the Blues, rather than playing into their hands.

So, with all of that in mind, how much should the Bruins consider breaking up the top line for 2019-20, or at least portions of 2019-20?

Interestingly, there might be a political element to consider, too: would they grumble at being broken up? In particular, it could be a tough sell to pitch that idea to Bergeron and Marchand, specifically.

Expanding Marchand’s even-strength minutes from 2015-16 to 2018-19 with Natural Stat Trick, the results are pretty comical. Marchand spent 2,461 minutes and 40 seconds with Bergeron during that time period, and just 368:46 without Bergeron. That’s the hockey equivalent of a common law marriage.

If there’s no argument for breaking up the veterans, then maybe continued experimentation with Pastrnak is in order. Theoretically, Bergeron and Marchand could carry a lesser linemate, as that’s the general pattern around the NHL, as teams just don’t often enjoy the option to load up with their three best forwards and still have some talent left over not to get bombarded when their other three lines are on the ice.

Consistency vs. versatility

Again, the Bruins have done an impressive job finding other players, and this post is mainly asking the question regarding whether they can get even better, or at least more versatile.

This interesting piece by Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald discusses David Krejci wanting a more stable partner on the right wing to go with Jake DeBrusk on the Bruins’ mostly effective, but occasionally hot-and-cold second line.

To be fair, Krejci wants stability, where I would argue that the Bruins should try a number of different looks:

“We did touch on that a little bit, but that’s not really something I can control,” Krejci said. “We have lots of good players here who can play on that side, so I’m not worried about that. We have lots of players. But what I would like to have is consistency of the lines so you create some chemistry. You always go through some ups and downs. Everyone does. But if you stay together as a line, in your difficult time of the year, the two other guys can lift you up, or the other way around.”

Conroy brings up some options as right-handed shooters, from Pastrnak to interesting young forward Karson Kuhlman. I’d also throw Charlie Coyle‘s name in the hat, as while he’s mostly served as third-line center for the Bruins, Coyle also played at RW at times during his Wild years.

The thing is, coaches do what Krejci doesn’t like, and get the line blender going for reasons. During an 82-game season, you’re going to experience streaks, but also injuries. You also must battle stagnancy and predictability.

But, really, finding different looks comes down to the playoff contests after the 82-game season.

***

Would the Bruins have won it all if they could have kept the Blues a bit more off balance? Maybe, maybe not. You could also argue that staying the course helped the Bruins get as far as they did, in the first place.

Either way, these are the questions the Bruins should grapple with, and experiments they should undergo more often than they did in 2018-19. Chances are, their cap situation won’t allow them to add much and will probably force them to lose a nice asset like Marcus Johansson, so it’s about getting the most out of what they already have.

Cassidy & Co. deserve credit for getting a whole lot out of this group, already, yet maybe there are a few more answers that simply haven’t been explored, or explored enough to truly know?

LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD, FOR BRUINS

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.

Blues, Bruins trying to ‘live in the moment’ before Game 7

BOSTON — As much as the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues want to make Game 7 like any other game, it’s impossible. They can go through their same gameday preparations, but in their minds they know this is the last one of the season and only one team will be celebrating on the ice Wednesday night at TD Garden with the Stanley Cup (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Charlie McAvoy planned to go about his day as usual. Media, lunch, nap, get to the rink and go. His attempt at a good night’s rest on Tuesday? Well, that was a bit difficult.

“I had a little butterflies last night trying to go to sleep, just thinking about where we are and how fortunate I am to be in this position,” the Bruins defenseman said. “We just have to remember it’s just another hockey game. The stakes are what they are. We just have to enjoy it and have fun and realize how lucky I am and fortunate to be in this situation, a situation not many people get to be in. Just going to go out there give it everything I have. Just keep that attitude that it’s just another game. Nothing changes. Still the same the puck, still 5-on-5 and all that.”

Patrick Maroon soaked in the Blues’ morning skate, realizing it was the last one of the season — a season that’s featured plenty of ups and downs. The hours before puck drop will drag on and the anticipation for puck drop for everyone involved will be an an all-time high. It’s been two long off-days since Game 6 Sunday night — plenty of time for the nerves to hit you.

“You’d be lying if there wasn’t nerves on both teams,” said Maroon. “I mean, I guess both teams will have nerves during this time. It’s a big moment for everyone, the biggest stage and Game 7. But I think once you’re out there and you feel the puck a little bit on your warmups and first shift, all that goes away and you’re just kind of enjoying the moment.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Blues and Bruins have reached Game 7 via very different paths. The Bruins have been consistently in the playoff picture all season, while the Blues rode a second half surge that’s brought them on the cusp of the franchise’s first championship.

A win tonight and the story of each team’s season changes dramatically. But for the players and the coaches, that’s a discussion for later on. They can’t let themselves think about how tonight could end and what their summers will be like following one more victory.

“I think if you think that it could be toxic,” said McAvoy. “You’ve got to live in the moment. Dreaming is fine and it’s all good, but it’s fiction until it’s reality.”

Bruce Cassidy agrees with that. He got a second chance to become an NHL head coach 14 years after a disastrous stint in Washington. His Bruins teams have been consistent at winning since he replaced Claude Julien in 2017, but he isn’t thinking about hero status if he’s able to deliver another Stanley Cup to the city.

“I just want my name on the damn Cup. That’s what I want,” he said. “And then we can talk about it however you want.”

MORE BLUES-BRUINS COVERAGE:
• Three keys for Game 7
• It is all on line for Blues-Bruins 
• Which Blues, Bruins player will get Stanley Cup handoff?
• Conn Smythe watch
• Stanley Cup roundtable discussion

————

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.

Bruins’ Chara was more than just brave in Game 5

5 Comments

Making it to another Stanley Cup Final at age 42 already cemented Zdeno Chara‘s legacy as one of the all-time great Boston Bruins, but playing through Game 5 only added to his mystique.

(Remarkably, this wasn’t even the only time he’s bounced from a rather gruesome, bloody injury during this series alone.)

Merely suiting up as the Bruins went with seven defensemen and 11 forwards would have been enough for Chara to have a Willis Reed-style inspirational moment, and his courage was certainly noted by the fans in Boston:

Chara’s Game 5 differs from Willis Reed surprising the Knicks and Lakers in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals in two key ways. The one Chara is least happy about is that, while the Knicks won, his Bruins fell 2-1 to the Blues, who took a 3-2 series lead.

The other is that, while Reed’s return drew mythical status, his actual impact was overstated, as he merely sank two shots. Chara, meanwhile, put together the sort of performance that means he wasn’t just a token presence.

Chara logged 16:42 TOI in Game 5, including 1:21 on the penalty kill. During the nearly 17 minutes of game time, Chara delivered four hits, blocked three shots, fired two shots on goal, and earned a takeaway. Those aren’t exactly the stats of a passive observer.

Maybe more remarkably, Chara’s possession stats were strong; “The Big Z” was actually above 50 percent in stats like Corsi For for the first time since the Blue Jackets series in Round 2, according to Natural Stat Trick’s game logs.

Now, sure, you can nitpick if you’d like.

Chara did have a -1 rating in Game 5. It’s also fair to argue that his numbers, like those of other Bruins’ skaters, were likely inflated by how dominant Boston was at times on Thursday, and that the Blues never trailed.

But, overall, it’s impressive stuff.

It could be tough to top, too. On Friday, Bruce Cassidy noted that there might be some “residual” effects for the Bruins’ defense, so Chara’s status could still be something to watch. It’s also unclear if Matt Grzelcyk might be able to return for Game 6.

And even if Chara does play again in Game 6, it’s possible that he might not play as well as he did in Game 5. Sometimes, when it comes to athlete’s fighting through injuries – not just being hurt, but actual injuries – they’ll ride some adrenaline through a game, and then hit a wall as the grind continues.

So, this is all something to watch, yet that Game 5 performance just adds to the myth of Chara, even if the Bruins couldn’t manage a win.

Game 6 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

MORE BLUES – BRUINS COVERAGE

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.

Bruins know they need to move on from Game 5

7 Comments

The missed call from Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final stings for the Boston Bruins, but they still have a chance to fight back from the St. Louis Blues’ 3-2 series lead, and make sure that the controversy is a footnote, rather than a lasting memory.

If nothing else, the Bruins can look to their opponents for an example of bouncing back from that painful call, as Boston hopes to do in Game 6 at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

The Blues could have sulked after the Sharks got away with a hand pass before scoring a big overtime goal in Round 3, but if that happened, it mostly occurred behind closed doors. The Blues responded to that setback by winning the next three games of the Western Conference Final to eliminate the Sharks, transforming that missed call from a catastrophe to a mere bump in the road.

[That hand pass, Game 5’s missed call, and other highly controversial moments from these playoffs]

When it comes to rebounding from 3-2 deficits and tough calls, the Bruins also have their own firsthand experience, as Bruce Cassidy noted on Friday (via Michael Traikos’ transcript):

“We can draw on previous experience,” Cassidy said about the Bruins’ approach to Game 6. “This particular group went into Toronto, in a tough environment, first round, won a game on the road and came back and won it at home. That’s why we’re still playing. One of the reasons. The group that won the Cup (in 2011) had to win the last two. They were down 3-2 … They lived it. There’s some motivation that goes into it, but at this point of the year they know what’s at stake.”

Indeed, the Bruins can look to the frustration they had falling behind Toronto 3-2 in Round 1 after Zach Hyman might have gotten away with goalie interference on Auston Matthews‘ crucial Game 5 goal:

Boston bounced back from that to win that series in seven games, as they hope to do in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

As Torey Krug noted after Thursday’s frustrating 2-1 loss, the Bruins sometimes put themselves in tough positions, but have survived with their backs against the wall.

“We’ve done it before, for sure,” Krug said, via the Bruins’ website. “There’s a lot of different ways we’ve won series, won hockey games, and it’s just another test for this group. We haven’t done anything easy this year. We’ve put ourselves against the wall a lot this season, so it’ll be another test. I think we will be ready to go.”

Really, the Bruins can even take a certain level of pride from how they responded to being down 2-0 in Game 5.

While they couldn’t beat Jordan Binnington enough to tie things up, they finally broke through late in the third period to make it 2-1, and give themselves a chance. It’s likely that the bitterness continued, yet the Bruins still kept hammering away.

Both the Bruins and Blues have had moments where they could’ve been derailed by tough losses and controversial calls. Instead, neither team blinked, and that’s a big reason why they’re battling out in this rugged, hard-fought Stanley Cup Final.

It won’t be easy, but chances are, the Bruins will bring another strong effort in Game 6 at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

MORE BLUES – BRUINS COVERAGE

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.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ most controversial calls

8 Comments

The Boston Bruins and their fans were upset about officials not calling a penalty on Tyler Bozak before the Blues’ eventual game-winner in Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, but if misery loves company, than they shouldn’t feel alone.

In fact, the Bruins’ opponents in St. Louis had already been on both sides of some of the most pivotal, polarizing calls of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs before Game 5.

Let’s run down some of the biggest controversies of this postseason, starting with Thursday’s non-call. As a note: not every call was necessarily wrong, and this isn’t a comprehensive list, so feel free to air officiating grievances (or grievances about officiating grievances) in the comments.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Missed trip

Should it be considered a trip, a slew-foot, or no penalty at all? Well, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline, it sure seemed like Tyler Bozak thought he was going to the penalty box – just ask Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy – for taking down Noel Acciari.

At that point, the Blues were up 1-0, but moments after that non-call, Ryan O'Reilly found David Perron for what would eventually stand as the game-winning goal.

If the call was made, it would have still been 1-0 rather than 2-0 for the Blues, and the Bruins would have headed to the power play. It’s also worth noting that a) the Bruins seemed discombobulated by that turn of events and b) Acciari was taken out of the play, effectively making it a 5-on-4 situation, so that turn of events also heightened the Blues’ chances of scoring that goal.

The hand pass

It doesn’t get much more pivotal than a blown call in overtime, at least if that call leads to a deciding goal.

Consider this maybe the high point of the trilogy of moments that went the Sharks’ way during their playoff run, as Timo Meier got away with a hand pass before Erik Karlsson scored the OT game-winner in Game 3 of the 2019 Western Conference Final against the Blues.

The Blues took the high road following that controversy, and eventually won their series against the Sharks, while top officials noted that the play was not reviewable. Could that be one of those moments that changes the goal review process in 2019-20? We shall see.

Blues score with Bishop down

File this one under the tougher judgment calls.

It all happened pretty quickly, as Ben Bishop went down after a hard shot to the collarbone area from Colton Parayko. Moments later – but arguably with more than enough time for officials to blow the play dead if they chose to – Jaden Schwartz scored a big goal that helped St. Louis force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in what would turn out to be an extremely close Round 2 series.

The Gabriel Landeskog incident

It seemed like the Colorado Avalanche tied Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Sharks, until they didn’t.

Instead, the Sharks reversed Colin Wilson‘s would-be tying goal thanks to an offside review. To Landeskog’s credit, the Avalanche captain took the blame, rather than throwing officials under the bus.

Should that play have been offside? Was there even some room to look at it as too many men on the ice? It was a strange situation, either way, and another moment that worked out for San Jose, as the Sharks ultimately eliminated Colorado.

Major problem

The Golden Knights were up 3-0 against the Sharks in Game 7 of Round 1, and then Cody Eakin was whistled for a major penalty after his check (and a bump from Paul Stastny) led to a terrifying, bloody fall for Joe Pavelski.

The Sharks stunningly scored four goals during that five-minute major, and while Vegas showed scrappiness in sending that Game 7 to overtime, San Jose eventually prevailed. It’s true that the Golden Knights’ penalty kill was preposterously porous during that four-goal barrage, but Vegas was fuming after the loss, with Jonathan Marchessault comparing the perceived officiating mistake to the infamous blown pass interference call that went against the New Orleans Saints.

Most would agree that Eakin deserved to be penalized, while the debate revolves around it being a major and game misconduct. The human element of the situation cannot be ignored, as officials saw a scary scene where Pavelski was bleeding, and it happened in front of a San Jose crowd.

This is another play that might have a ripple effect. Will the NHL decide to make major penalties (or discussions of major penalties) subject to video review?

***

It’s crucial to mention that it must be difficult to officiate any sport, let alone one as fast-paced as hockey. For every call you miss or make, there’s someone behind the scenes complaining about too many or too few calls. After all, Bruce Cassidy believes that Craig Berube’s complaints about officials changed the “narrative” of the Stanley Cup Final.

Getting these calls correct, all the time, is a prime example of “Easier said than done.”

Still, for fans and teams who feel slighted, these moments will reverberate, at least if their runs don’t end with a Stanley Cup victory.

Are there any moments that stand out to you, beyond the five splashy ones above? If you want to dig up old gripes about Wayne Gretzky high-sticking Doug Gilmour, have at it. Replaying those major, split-second decisions is half the fun/agony of being a hockey fan, right?

Game 6 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

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.