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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.

Blues’ Barbashev will miss Game 6 of Stanley Cup due to suspension

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Ivan Barbashev of the St. Louis Blues will miss Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final after he was suspended for delivering an illegal check to the head of Boston Bruins forward Marcus Johansson Thursday night.

There was no penalty on the play and Johansson did not miss any time during the Blues’ 2-1 Game 5 victory.

“It’s physical hockey, it’s heavy hockey out there both ways, and they’re going to look at some stuff once in a while, so that’s the way it goes,” said Blues head coach Craig Berube.

Here’s how the NHL Department of Player Safety came to their conclusion:

As the video shows, Barbashev had time to change the angle of his hit so that he did not connect with Johansson’s head.

Barbashev is now the second Blues player to be suspended in the Cup Final after forward Oskar Sundqvist sat for one game after boarding Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk in Game 2.

The Blues will miss Barbashev’s presence on the fourth line and penalty kill. Berube did not say on Friday who would take his place in the lineup. This could open the door for Robby Fabbri to re-enter the picture and go to the third line while Sammy Blais joins Sundqvist and Alex Steen.

“Somebody is going to have to step in and go do the job,  a lot like Sundqvist with the suspension there,” said Berube. “Somebody will come in and do the job.”

Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final will take place Sunday, 8 p.m. ET on NBC (live stream here)

MORE BLUES – BRUINS COVERAGE:
Both teams have seen officiating controversies even before Game 5.
Blues hope to keep emotions in check.
Cassidy rips officiating
Missed opportunities haunt Bruins.

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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.

Stanley Cup Buzzer: Bruins blow out Blues in Game 3

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  • To some extent, Game 3 felt over minutes into the second period. After Sean Kuraly‘s 3-0 goal stood, David Pastrnak made it 4-0 on the resulting penalty from the Blues’ offside challenge. Even when the Blues showed a modicum of life in making it 4-1, Torey Krug‘s power-play tally made it 5-1 about a minute later. We may not see much garbage time in this series, but the third period felt mostly like that, although the Bruins still managed to score against Jake Allen after he replaced Jordan Binnington. Yeah, it was that kind of night for the Blues.

Boston Bruins 7, St. Louis Blues 2 (Boston leads SCF 2-1; Game 4 airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

The Bruins’ power play supremely overpowered the Blues in Game 3. Boston went 4-for-4 on the man advantage on Saturday, and all four of those goals were scored in the first minute of those opportunities. Pretty mind-boggling stuff, and it made for a tough – and short – night for Jordan Binnington. When you lose 7-2, one thing can’t explain your struggles, and that was true here. Boston also dominated at even-strength, and scored the first four goals of Game 3, making you wonder how much St. Louis’ modest successes came from the Bruins merely taking their feet off the gas a bit. It would be surprising if we see more blowouts in this series, although the Bruins are playing at a level that continued dominance isn’t out of the question.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Torey Krug

Krug might have topped his wild, helmet-less hit from Game 2 with his Game 3 performance, as he managed an impressive one-goal, three-assist night. Krug’s four points is the most in a single SCF game in Bruins history.

The defenseman’s four points topped all players in Game 3, as he continues to be one of the leading catalysts of Boston’s peerless power play. His 5-1 goal killed any sense of momentum for the Blues, while all three of Krug’s assists were primary ones. Krug logged 22:09 TOI with an output that slightly outpaced other players, such as a strong secondary choice:

2. Patrice Bergeron

Bergeron scored an important 1-0 goal for the Bruins, beginning a dominant night for Boston’s power play. He also added two assists (though both secondary), and after some attention was drawn to Game 2 issues like relative struggles on draws, Bergeron went 11-8 in the faceoff circle on Saturday.

If you want, you can look at the top two stars as a collective award for the Bruins’ deadly power play in Game 3.

3. Charlie Coyle/Marcus Johansson

It would be too easy for the Blues to chalk everything up to special teams.

While Johansson scored his goal (and Coyle collected his assist) on a victory lap power-play goal to make it 7-2, the Bruins’ deadline duo also combined for a very nice goal to make it 2-0. Johansson provided a great setup, while Coyle showed great timing and precision in scoring that goal. So, each forward ended Game 3 with a goal and an assist.

You could make a decent argument for Tuukka Rask (27 out of 29 saves), Joakim Nordstrom (two assists), and maybe some others. That’s the nature of a 7-2 whooping. Coyle-Johansson deserve a mention for their great work, both on Saturday, and in general.

Factoids

How to watch Game 4

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (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.