Bruce Cassidy is as candid a coach as there is in the NHL. It’s a very safe bet that whatever he’s telling you is honest, and he has no problem explaining a play and he has even less of a problem calling out his own players.
He’s a reporter’s dream.
But when Cassidy was asked about how important it was for the Bruins to have a good effort against the Capitals and enter into the first round with some confidence, his answer was a bit different. It wasn’t so much so that it was candid — it was just how far he zoomed out. His answer spoke to the bigger picture and, more specifically, the worry surrounding the team.
“It’s hard to describe when we can’t really engage face-to-face with you guys and you guys haven’t seen the players, just you’ve heard them through a microphone,” Cassidy said via Zoom. “So, our guys are not in a bad place, they’re really not. We want to win; we want to play better. We wanted to preserve the number one seed, but we have a veteran group that knows what the ultimate goal is and what’s at stake. They know that come Tuesday or Wednesday – I assume we’ll open one of those two days – they know how to play playoff hockey.
“So, as a coach, yes, I haven’t been around as long as they have. But I do know my team pretty well. I feel like we’re trending in the right direction. I see energy in practice now, the last couple days. I think that is just a little more clarity in our situation came in last night. It’s either the [New York] Islanders or Carolina [Hurricanes]. There’s a team to start thinking about. Players to start to dislike. And that is part that gets the juices flowing.”
The Bruins now know their first-round matchup will be the red-hot Carolina Hurricanes. It’s sure to be a much different series than last season’s Eastern Conference Final because the ‘Canes are a much different team.
But the series will come down to what Cassidy so openly spoke of — his Bruins team falling to the No. 4 seed, while willingly playing those games to make incremental improvements in their game and return to normal. The veteran experience should also be a plus.
Boston is not at its peak after the three round robin losses. Scoring only four goals in three games is nothing to boast about. But the first round is a fresh start, even if it is against the team most have now dubbed the dark horse candidate to represent the East in the Final.
The Bruins have some issues to fix if they want to fulfill Cassidy’s vision, and find their way back to the Stanley Cup. I imagine that’s something they’d like to do.
Ramping up to “real hockey”
There was a noticeable difference in the pace of play between the qualifying round and the round robin, and that was to be expected. One series had teams fighting to stay in the bubble and literally make the playoffs. The other was for the top four seeds to stay sharp, play each other and determine the top four seeds.
Just look at the difference in play on Sunday alone. Going from Bruins-Capitals to Game 5 of Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs was like going from a glorified exhibition game to an actual do-or-die game.
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) August 9, 2020
So when Tuukka Rask dropped the term “real hockey” after Sunday’s loss, it’s easy to understand what he was talking about.
“I think these first round-robin games or whatever they were, you just try to shake the rust off and get your team game in a place you want it to be,” Rask said via Zoom. “I think we kind of improved over these three games. We worked very hard for our goals, just didn’t get rewarded but I think that’s going to come, you find a way. It doesn’t matter what seed you are, you have to beat every team anyways if you want to advance. I think we feel good. It’s over now and we start real hockey.”
“Or whatever they were”…”shake the rust off”…”it’s over now and we start real hockey”. Needless to say, the Bruins weren’t looking at these games as do-or-die.
Now come the games they’ve been preparing for the whole time. This is real hockey. Colleague Mike Petraglia wrote about this at length immediately following the 2-1 loss to Washington that left the B’s 0-3-0 in the round robin.
It was obvious from simply watching them from last Sunday to this past Sunday that despite the lack of any wins, the Bruins did get better over the course of the three games. Still, it was never the same Bruins team we saw skate off the ice in March. Boston’s effort in Sunday’s loss to the Capitals was dominant, yet they only had one goal to show for it at the final buzzer.
That’s not the typical 2019-20 Bruins.
Is it realistic to think come Game 1 Tuesday night, that team we watched for 70 games will show up in full? It’s hard to imagine that to be the case. With all their veteran experience and just falling short in last year’s Cup Final, it feels like the Bruins might be as good as any group to do it.
Getting to high danger scoring areas and finishing
This was why the Bruins only scored four goals in the three round robin games. It was their biggest problem, and it’s the team’s biggest concern going forward because it’s so unlike them.
Over the course of their games against the Flyers, the Lightning and the Capitals, the offense began to generate more and more chances and the 5v5 high danger numbers did go up — 3, 6 and then 12 in that order. But it still felt as though too much offense was being limited to the perimeter. It wasn’t until the game against the Capitals that the Bruins really began to penetrate the slot and find ways to get the puck to those areas.
It’s understandable why the Bruins’ normally sophisticated offensive zone time stumbled in the opening games — rust, rejuvenating chemistry and bad ice can all be aspects pointed to.
The Bruins brought Nick Ritchie in to score goals like…nevermind pic.twitter.com/f93Gdafjtc
— Evan Marinofsky (@EvanMarinofsky) August 9, 2020
But it’s a very dangerous sign for Boston’s long-term viability in the bubble if the ability to get to those areas and then actually finish continues to be a challenge. We know it’s been a driving factor as to why Cassidy has had so much success with the Bruins throughout his tenure as head coach. With his agenda heavy on offensive freedom and letting skilled minds like David Pastrnak and Torey Krug get creative, the Bruins offense has been much more exciting and dynamic in recent years.
The question then becomes how do the Bruins fix this issue? The answer: time. As I said earlier, the offense improved at generating better chances. Hell, they had 12 against Washington alone. The next step is just capitalizing on them.
It won’t be easy to do against a good Hurricanes defense. But signs certainly point in that direction.
Bergeron line production issues
This ties in perfectly with generating and finishing high-danger chances.
Boston’s first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak hasn’t had an ideal start to their time in the bubble. Bergeron is the only one with a point and they were especially lackluster against the Flyers and their top line of Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux — a team they could face in the second round.
As was the case with the team as a whole when it came to the high danger chances, the Bergeron line got a lot better over the three games. Were they what we’re used to seeing, which is a line that shuts down the opponent while putting up a truckload of points? No. But their effort against the Capitals was certainly an encouraging sign.
Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak vs. WSH
Shot attempts for: 21
Shot attempts against: 4
Corsi For Percentage: 84.00%
Take out the line not scoring any points — which, I must admit is a large omission — and they were dominant. Part of that was a favorable line matchup, which they could draw against Carolina. But even with that, the line appears to be on the cusp of putting up points. Marchand’s protecting the puck as he enters the zone well, Bergeron’s getting better chances from the bumper and Pastrnak has had some great opportunities off the rush.
What moves by David Pastrnak pic.twitter.com/jt9VVhhA5a
— Evan Marinofsky (@EvanMarinofsky) August 9, 2020
It’s hard to put a ton of relevant stock in the losses to the Flyers and Tampa Bay, given that more and more rust came off the legs of the first line in each matchup.
If the Bruins want a fighting chance against the Hurricanes, they absolutely need this line to be producing. I know that, you know that and if last year’s Cup Final taught the Bruins anything, they know it, too.
The power play
Even at its worst, the Bruins power play never looked this bad during the regular season. The five-man unit of Krug, Bergeron, Pastrnak, Marchand and a mix of Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen or Charlie Coyle was dominant. The second crew could always be counted on for some strong chances towards the back half of the power play.
In the round robin, we saw the Bruins force chances and make extra passes that weren’t necessary. One of the big messages from Cassidy coming out of the losses to the Flyers and the Lightning was his team needed to just shoot the puck. Krug mentioned keeping things much more simple midway through the week.
Again, we’re going to look the closest at the Washington game because it’s most recent and it looked most like the Bruins team we expected to arrive in the bubble.
The B’s went 0-for-2 on the power play in the game. DeBrusk was moved off the first unit and replaced with Coyle, who played the role of puck-retriever and the guy most often with the puck behind the net. All in all, they only came away with five shot attempts at 5v4 and only one high-danger chance. Not great.
The Hurricanes have a very aggressive penalty kill, so finding the right keys to this power play won’t be easy against a group like that. But, if there’s one thing that’s true about aggressiveness while shorthanded, it’s that passing lanes will eventually open up as you get the four penalty killers out of position, so long as the Bruins can maintain long periods of time in the Carolina end.
Through three games, Zdeno Chara has looked his age.
His Corsi For percentage of 42.86 is currently the worst among all Boston defensemen. His subpar play in his own zone became clear to every pair of eyes when T.J. Oshie outmuscled him right outside the crease and scored a goal because of it. That wasn’t the only time Chara was beat.
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) August 9, 2020
We knew it would take some time for the captain to get his legs back under him — he’s 43 years old and at 6’9”, it can’t be that easy to return after a random, four-month layoff and a few weeks of training camp and expect to get right back to shutting down opposing team’s top lines.
But Chara never seemed to really improve over the three games.
As the team’s go-to shutdown defenseman, this isn’t good for line matchups against the Hurricanes. They’re deep, and even if Chara doesn’t get the Sebastian Aho line, which we’ll get to in a bit, it’s still going to be a challenge for whatever line he ends up getting pinned against.
For the Bruins to have a chance against the Hurricanes, they’ll need their captain’s ability to keep opposing scorers away from the front of his net and an occasional breakout pass.
How will the Bruins defend the Sebastian Aho line?
This isn’t so much a problem the Bruins must fix, but a problem they’re about to face and therefore must solve.
Last season’s Eastern Conference Final saw the Bergeron line shut down the Aho line with ease. However, given the performance of that line against the Rangers, don’t expect such a lopsided matchup in this series.
The Hurricanes first line of Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov appeared to join the NHL’s elite lines against the Rangers. Here’s how each did with goals and points in the qualifying round.
Aho: 3 goals, 5 assists — 8 points
Svechnikov: 3 goals, 2 assists — 5 points
Teravainen: 1 goal, 1 assist — 2 points
Maintaining that productivity against the Bruins will certainly be a much taller task than doing that against the No. 11 seed Rangers. Boston’s strength is in its defense and its ability to shutdown opposing scorers. Even in the round robin series, the Bruins showed signs of still being able to do that.
But given the Bergeron line’s recent lack of production and Chara’s abnormal play, it’s not a sure bet who Cassidy taps on the shoulder to match up with Carolina’s best.
Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were much better when they played against Washington’s second line. They’re usually at their best when they get those favorable matchups and not so much so when they’re against the other team’s best scorers.
This may be a series in which Cassidy pins Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner against the Aho line. Carolina’s first line is extremely fast, skilled and shifty. Rather than try and outscore them, the Bruins should aim to simply neutralize them with physical play, shot blocking and a hard forecheck. That will allow the Bergeron line to get the more favorable matchup, as well as keep the Aho line off the scoresheet.
On defense, the Aho line is too quick for Chara. This might just be the series where Brandon Carlo officially takes the throne of No. 1 shutdown defenseman and gets the assignment against Aho. Although Krug isn’t usually the type to neutralize opposing scorers, he’s quick and physical, which would be the perfect blend to stop the ‘Canes’ best.