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Should Bruins break up top line next season?

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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.

Even Grzelcyk’s Bruins teammates can’t spell his name

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This post features a video clip of hardcore Boston Bruins fans … but you have to wonder, are they hardcore enough to know how to spell Matt Grzelcyk‘s name correctly without looking it up?

Grzelcyk is on the Mount Rushmore of “Copy-Paste” NHL names, honestly. Every time I spell it (confession: usually after looking it up, and still not being very confident about it), that name always leaves me feeling less than confident.

As you can see in the video above, Grzelcyk’s teammates didn’t have much luck. While David Krejci was smart enough not to even try (call that veteran prowess), others tried and failed, with Grzelcyk himself admitting that even lifelong friends probably don’t know how to spell it. Patrice Bergeron tried his best, but his faceoff percentage is higher than his spelling score with, uh … Matt G.

In other fun posts, enjoy Bruins fanatics:

There’s a lot to take in there, with the biggest highlight (for me) being when Boston fans talk about “The Ultimate Warrior” in accents that almost feel too on-the-nose for “The Simpsons.” It’s truly splendid.

(Though, allow a moment of beef that those fans are using bWo. Have they not heard of The Blue World Order? Perhaps they need to settle that with some sort of tag team match.)

Game 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final is currently airing on NBCSN (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.

Bruins’ Grzelcyk scores after taking huge hit in Game 2

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When Matt Grzelcyk made it 1-0 for the Bruins during the first period of Game 2 against the Hurricanes on Sunday (airing on NBC; Stream here), it was surprising for more than one reason.

For one thing, it was a goal Petr Mrazek will surely regret. Marcus Johansson made some great moves to set up the play, but Mrazek really cannot let a goal like that squeak through, not from that angle. You can see that goal in the video above this post’s headline.

It was also a little surprising because, frankly, it’s impressive Grzelcyk wasn’t feeling too many ill effects from an absolutely massive hit by big Hurricanes forward Micheal Ferland. Grzelcyk didn’t seem to see Ferland coming, as the puck was lost in his skates, and Ferland delivered an absolutely thunderous hit on the Bruins defenseman. There seemed to be some head contact during the collision, but no penalty was called:

Ouch.

Maybe it wasn’t as painful as it looked, as Grzelcyk was able to give the Bruins that early lead, which Jake DeBrusk fattened to a 2-0 advantage minutes later. Carolina must show similar resilience in Game 2 if they want to avoid dropping to a 2-0 hole in this Round 3 series.

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.

Penalties crush Hurricanes as Bruins storm back in Game 1

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The Carolina Hurricanes had their moments in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, but penalties ended up being their Achilles’ heel in a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins.

The Bruins got on the board quickly thanks to Steven Kampfer, who was only in the game in the first place because Charlie McAvoy was serving a suspension. That lead was erased quickly though when Andrei Svechnikov‘s shot was deflected by Sebastian Aho just three seconds into a Hurricanes power play. Just like that, the score was 1-1 a mere 3:42 minutes into the contest.

Things calmed down after that until Greg McKegg charged hard into the net midway through the second period. Replays showed that he scored before colliding with Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask and the Bruins ultimately didn’t challenge the call, giving the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead.

Carolina’s edge wouldn’t hold though and it was largely due to a lack of discipline. Micheal Ferland was charged with interface late in the third and while the Hurricanes killed off that penalty, they weren’t so fortunate in the third. First Jordan Staal boarded Chris Wagner just 49 seconds into the frame. There might have been coincidental minors there as rookie defenseman Connor Clifton took exception to what Staal did, but Brad Marchand pulled Clifton back before the situation escalated.

That certainly isn’t a role Marchand is known for, but that wasn’t his only contribution in the period. He helped set up Marcus Johansson‘s game-tying goal on the ensuing power-play. When Dougie Hamilton took a roughing penalty at 2:41 of the third to put the Hurricanes in the box yet again, Marchand got another power-play assist, this time feeding the puck to Patrice Bergeron.

That said, the player who deserves the most credit on the Bergeron goal is arguably Jake DeBrusk, who collected the puck on his knees and got up while making the pass to Marchand to get that sequence going.

Hamilton took yet another penalty at 5:29 of the third, just to make life a little harder for the Hurricanes, but at least Carolina killed off that one. From there, the Hurricanes could not battle back. Brandon Carlo got an empty netter at 17:47 and Chris Wagner got one by Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek at 17:58.

Carolina can look back at this game as a missed opportunity to take one early in Boston. The silver lining for the Hurricanes is that this series has only begun.

Hurricanes-Bruins Game 2 from TD Garden will be Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Bruins vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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For the first time in franchise history the Columbus Blue Jackets will get to see what life is like in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After pulling off a stunning upset in Round 1, where they not only beat the NHL’s best team, but completely dominated them, the Blue Jackets get to see if they can shock the world once again when they take on the Boston Bruins.

The big thing to watch early in this series will be whether or not the lengthy, week-long layoff for the Blue Jackets will be something that helps or hurts them against a Bruins team that is coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs where they had to win back-to-back games to fight off elimination.

From a big picture outlook the Bruins are the superior team on paper and based on their overall regular season performance, but the same thing was said about the Lightning in the previous round, and we all saw how that turned out.

Going back to March 24 the Blue Jackets are 11-1-0 in their past 12 games, with that only loss coming at the hands of the Bruins, a 6-2 defeat on April 2.

The two teams met three times during the regular season with each team winning once in a blowout, and the Bruins taking the extra game in a 2-1 overtime decision on March 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Boston: It should be no surprise that the three-headed monster of of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is leading the way offensively for the Bruins. They have been doing it for years, and they did it again in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs. What is really helping is they are getting a lot of contributions from players outside of that group. Charlie Coyle, one of the Bruins’ trade deadline acquisitions, scored three goals in Round 1, Brandon Carlo didn’t record a point but was outstanding at times defensively, and their Game 7 offense came from a lot of their unsung depth players. The Bruins are a team with superstars at the top of the lineup (all playing exceptionally well) and has found some depth to go with the. That is a dangerous combination.

Columbus: Instead of dealing away their pending free agents, the Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, and it not only helped produce the first postseason series win in franchise history, it helped them pull off one of the biggest Round 1 upsets ever. Duchene was one of the driving forces behind that four-game sweep of the Lightning, recording seven points in the four games. Artemi Panarin was also an impact player throughout the opening round, while young players Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand started to make a name for themselves.

Struggling Players

Boston: Marcus Johansson had what could probably described as an “up-and-down” series for the Bruins. He scored a huge goal in Game 7, but it was his only point in the five games he played while he also finished as a team-worst minus-4 in the series. Jake DeBrusk also had a quiet round, but that was mostly due to poor shooting luck (only one goal on 20 shots) than anything that he was or was not doing.

Columbus: When you sweep the best team in the NHL in four games there probably are not many players on your roster that are struggling, and even if there are, you haven’t had enough time to figure out who they are. Still, the Blue Jackets would probably like to see a little bit more from Dzingel and Brandon Dubinsky in Round 2, as both were held off the scoresheet entirely in their first four games.

Goaltending

Boston: Bruins fans always seem to be waiting for an opportunity to criticize Tuukka Rask and make him the scapegoat for whenever the team falls short in the playoffs. While his regular season performance wasn’t consistently great, and there is reason to believe he is not the same goalie he was four or five years ago, he is still a very capable starter that has the potential to steal a game or two, and perhaps even an entire series should it come to that. He was outstanding in the first round with a .928 save percentage and was at his best in Games 6 and 7 when the Bruins needed him most.

Columbus: This was always going to be the big question for the Blue Jackets. For as good as Sergei Bobrovsky has been throughout his career he has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL come playoff time, consistently melting down at the worst possible time. He did a lot of work in Round 1 to quiet the doubters in helping to shut down one of the greatest offenses the NHL has ever seen. The Blue Jackets dominated the series so much that they didn’t even need Bobrovsky to be great, and he still finished with a .932 save percentage in what has been — by far — the best postseason performance of his career.

Special Teams

Boston: The Bruins’ power play can be a game-changer for them. It was among the best in the NHL during the regular season, and then absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs in Round 1 by scoring seven power play goals in the seven games (and they didn’t even get a power play in Game 7). And it wasn’t just any one player during the damage. They received power play goals from six different players in the first round (only Bergeron scored more than one) while eight different players recorded at least one point on the power play. The only flaw the unit has — and it is a big flaw — is that it is sometimes vulnerable to shorthanded goals against, giving up 15 during the regular season and another one in Round 1. The Bruins’ PK unit, on the other hand, is a tough group to figure out. With Bergeron, Marchand, and the defense they have behind them it should be a good group, at least based on the talent they have at their disposal. But they were only middle of the pack during the regular season and were just “okay” against the Maple Leafs, though they did kill have six in a row to end the series, including all five in Games 6 and 7 when facing elimination.

Columbus: It’s not always about how many goals you score, but when you score them. That was the case for the Blue Jackets’ power play that was one of the worst in the NHL during the regular season, but went off in Round 1 by scoring on five of its 10 attempts against the Lightning. Nobody should reasonably expect them to continue clicking at 50 percent into Round 2, but if they can find a couple of goals on the man-advantage and continue their excellent penalty kill that could be a huge difference in the series — especially if they can keep staying out of the box. Columbus was tied for best PK unit in the league during the regular season and then followed that up by taking just six minor penalties in the four games against Tampa Bay. Their PK will probably get more use in Round 2, and they are going to be challenged by a Bruins power play that is not only good, but is white-hot right now.

X-Factor for Bruins

After scoring 27 goals in only 68 games during the regular season Jake DeBrusk had a mostly quiet series against the Maple Leafs, but he still showed some signs (like the fact he had 20 shots on goal) that he could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way at some point very, very soon. If he does that would give the Bruins just one more weapon that Columbus has to contend with and try to slow down. In his first two years in the league he has already shown that he can be a legit top-six forward and could be a huge X-factor in Round 2 for the Bruins.

X-Factor for Blue Jackets 

Alexandre Texier was a late addition to the Blue Jackets’ roster, and the 19-year-old has already made a sizable impact. He has only played in six NHL games (two at the end of the regular season, all four playoff games to this point) and has already scored three goals and an assist. That includes his two goals in the Blue Jackets’ series-clinching win over the Lightning where he opened the scoring with an early power play goal.

Prediction

Bruins in 6. The Blue Jackets are not going to be an easy out, and even though they entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed the roster they have now is very different from the one they had for most of the regular season. And all of the new additions seem to have found their place in the lineup. They are legit. But so are the Bruins, and they not only have a trio of stars at the top of their lineup that are probably superior to Columbus’ top players, but they have also found some depth to complement them.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.