Coaching has been key to Bruins' hot streak


Coaching has been key to Bruins' hot streak

With the bye week upon us, we present a five-part series breaking down Boston’s 17-3-3 run over the last two months, and how the Black and Gold have gone about making the surge from Atlantic Division bottom dweller to legitimate playoff contender. Today, in Part One, we look at the impact the coaching staff has made.  

It would have been fair to still have some questions about Bruce Cassidy as an NHL head coach entering this season.

Sure, the 52-year-old Cassidy had previous NHL experience in Washington, had paid his dues in the AHL, and showed plenty down the stretch last season in Boston after replacing Claude Julien. Still, it could have been a bit of a tall task getting full buy-in from a grizzled group of Cup-winning veterans and overseeing a clear youth movement while competing for a playoff spot at the same time. That goes double for a guy in his first full season after 13 years between big league gigs.


But if there were any lingering questions about Bruce Cassidy in his first full season behind Boston’s bench, they’ve been answered resoundingly.

“I hope so . . . that’s what you want as a coach,” said Cassidy, when asked if last season’s buy-in from the players has carried over into this year. “We’ve upgraded with our young players. No disrespect to anybody in the lineup from last year, but we’ve got some good, young players. The buy-in is more about the guys from last year’s team believing that they can be a successful team and win in the playoffs, even if it didn’t go our way in the playoffs last season. 

“I think we just picked up where we left off there. Unfortunately we never got our team together. That was the biggest problem. The buy-in probably came earlier in the year when certain guys were out of the lineup [with injuries] that we relied on. Guys played hard and fought through it. I think that’s when the real buy-in took place, and now guys are just seeing how good they can really be. We’re going through that right now. The lines have balanced out where [David] Backes is really able to take control of that third line. Right now it looks good and we’re winning games, and it’s not by accident. It’s not like we’ve got goaltenders standing on their heads or one line is scoring all our goals. It’s good, balanced scoring, it’s good team defense and we’re getting key saves when you need them. As a coach you like that.”

Put bluntly, his choices have made the Bruins a better team and his adjustments helped pull the season back from the danger zone after the first few weeks. Rookies are given the opportunity to make mistakes and grow from them as a learning experience, and veterans are kept on their toes while held to the same level of accountability as everybody else.

That certainly hasn’t always been the case with the Bruins over the last 10 years. 

Cassidy has displayed a real willingness to put young players in a position to succeed, something Julien wouldn't always do during his long, successful stint in Boston. Both Charlie McAvoy and Danton Heinen are legitimate Calder Trophy candidates among the best first-year players, and on any given night the Bruins have between four-to-six rookies in their lineup taking a regular shift. 

Cassidy has taken the same approach to managing established All-Stars and Cup-winning veterans, as well.

In fact, you could make the argument Cassidy’s pinpoint feel for this Bruins team has helped save the season. When injuries crippled the B’s in the first couple of months, Cassidy pulled back the reins on the aggressive offensive tendencies and played a more conservative brand of hockey with the bare bones lineup. 

But in an 11-game point streak that ran into the bye week -- led by the dominant Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, and with three other healthy lines that Cassidy could roll with regularity -- the Bruins have outscored opponents by a whopping 47-18 margin. They're getting contributions from everywhere:  The back end and the front end are contributing, the goaltending has stabilized, and Boston is a top-10 team in just about every measurable category aside from drawing penalties. 

Clearly a great deal of that is a credit to the players. But it’s also about a coaching staff that’s put them in a position to succeed.

“We’ve learned that when we play to our identity and our game, protect the puck well and manage it properly, we’re a tough team to play against. We’ve got great goaltending performances, the penalty kill is kind of the backbone of our team, the power play chips in and we’re able to get timely goals from places up and down the lineup,” said David Backes. “If you’re writing the story yourself you’re probably not putting all the obstacles and speed bumps that [Cassidy] had to face in the first half-season as the full time coach of the team, but he’s managed it well. His practices are up-tempo and he’s been able to manage the [player] workload very well. 

“Bergeron and Marchand play some big minutes, and he’s done a good job of managing those types of minutes and that workload. Now we’re in a pretty good spot at this point given some of the obstacles that we’ve faced. It’s a pretty darn good circumstance that we’re in.”

It was during Boston’s early struggles, with the Bruins teetering on the edge of playoff oblivion, that Cassidy benched Tuukka Rask for four straight in favor of red-hot Anton Khudobin. The Bruins ripped off four wins in a row behind Khudobin, and have gone an incredible 16-3-2 in the 21 games since then. It clearly got the attention of Rask, who was named the NHL’s No. 1 Star of the month in December with a 9-0-1 record with a .955 save percentage.

“Tuukka is clearly, however you want to summarize it, has benefitted from being pushed or not playing, or finding his game. Whatever you want to call it, he’s dead-on,” said Cassidy. “You could see after a few games [on the bench] that the passion was there and [Rask] wanted the net back.”

More recently, Cassidy has held a now-healthy Adam McQuaid up in the press box with young D-men like McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo playing strong hockey during the B’s extended hot streak.

Cassidy conceded it’s a difficult choice to sit down established veterans, but it comes down to two things with the Bruins: Doing what’s best for the team, and calling on his long relationships with many of these players as they paid their dues in Providence.

“It just felt like the right thing to do. As a coach you go with your gut at times, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It worked out,” said Cassidy. “I’ve also known Tuukka a long time. When I got to Providence he was in his second year there. We have a good relationship that way.

“It’s the same conversation that I’ve had with [McQuaid], who I’ve known a long time. We’ve talked about the why and finding the right time with him. But it’s a little tougher. The team is going well and the pairs are meshing. When you see Adam get back in there, you hope to see that extra push from him as well.”

Pushing the right buttons on a hockey club through an 82-game schedule is among the most difficult skills for an NHL head coach, but that’s been right in Cassidy’s wheelhouse this season. So is shepherding through the next generation of Bruins prospects making the jump to the NHL this season, and managing to juggle lineups and pairings while being waylaid with injuries through pretty much all of October and November. 

Cassidy certainly isn’t the self-promoting type and he had awfully big coaching shoes to fill when he stepped in for Julien last Februar. But he’s shown this season from the very start through his coaching skill set that he’s the right guy to take the Bruins back to the next level.


Takeaways from the Bruins' 6-1 blowout loss to the Canucks

Takeaways from the Bruins' 6-1 blowout loss to the Canucks

Here’s what we learned from the Bruins Saturday night 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Centre. 

1)  The young players for the Bruins are responding very differently while knowing they’re front and center in trade rumors going on this month. It’s a funny time of year when the rumors and the whispers kick up to high gear in the final weeks ahead of the NHL trade deadline, and it’s no different this season with the Bruins heavily involved with the deadline little more than a week away. Brandon Carlo has been mentioned early and often as a young D-man that’s drawn interest around the league, and it’s no surprise given that the 6-foot-5 defenseman has been a constant top-4 guy during his two seasons. He’s accomplished plenty at 21 years old and holds plenty of value around the league even if he’s never going to be a puck-moving demon like fellow youngster Charlie McAvoy. All that being said, Carlo responded to hearing and seeing his name kicked around by having one of his worst games of the season. Loui Eriksson basically backed him into the front of the Boston net on Vancouver’s first goal against the Bruins, and Carlo was an adventure with both defensive zone coverage and gap control all night. He finished a minus-4 in the blowout loss, and he was every bit that bad. Conversely, Jake DeBrusk has seen his name come up recently in the Ryan McDonagh rumors, and it’s clear other teams would hold him in high esteem given his solid NHL debut as a 21-year-old rookie this season. DeBrusk responded to the rumors by enjoying one of his best games of the season even if he didn’t end up on the score sheet. DeBrusk finished with four shots on net, hit a post in the first period on a nasty shot from the high slot and was turning pucks over while playing active, engaged hockey all night. DeBrusk was Boston’s best player, and that’s impressive given the circumstances. But then again, DeBrusk has shown early in his career that he responds in a very good way when he’s challenged by the circumstances around him. That kind of character is one of the reasons I wouldn’t want to give him up in a trade if I were Don Sweeney. Either way, it’s interesting to see how both of these young players are responding under the microscope. 

2)  Leave it to Loui Eriksson to pick his spot against the Bruins. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years covering Eriksson, it’s that the Swedish winger can be a very good NHL player when he really wants to be. Like when he’s playing for a big contract in his final year with Boston, and posted 30 goals and 63 points while playing grittier and tougher than he ever had in his previous two seasons with the Bruins. After signing a huge six year deal with the Canucks, he responded with 11 goals and 24 points last season and is once again just “meh” this season as a minus player that’s pacing for much less than 30 goals and 60 points. But he rose to the occasion against his old Bruins team and scored a pair of goals while attacking the Boston net, and generally playing with an urgent approach that I’m pretty sure Vancouver hasn’t seen much of over the last two seasons. One of the best things that Don Sweeney did was take a pass on the passive, play-when-the-mood-strikes Eriksson, and instead replace him with a bigger, tougher and more consistent – if not quite as offensively gifted – winger in David Backes. Good luck with four more years of Eriksson, Vancouver. Yikes. 

3)  Once again Thomas Vanek gave Bruins fans a reminder that he is a certified Bruins killer and that perhaps they could use a player like Vanek at the trade deadline. Vanek didn’t even have a shot on net during the game, but it was his play attacking the Boston net that freed up Daniel Sedin for a wide open goal during the four-goal, first period onslaught against the Bruins. The 34-year-old Vanek has 16 goals and 40 points this season along with a minus-13 rating, and definitely stands as one of those second tier wingers that could be available to Boston if they strike out on Rick Nash as the top rental winger that’s going to be available at the deadline. It’s interesting that both Vanek and Patrick Maroon, who are both on Boston’s trade radar, will be available to the Black and Gold if they want them after tormenting the Bruins pretty much every time they play against them. The current tally: 33 goals and 68 career points in 63 games, and a plus-21 mark against the Black and Gold. That is some serious damage against the Bruins over the years, so maybe it bodes well for what he could do if the notoriously streaky forward donned the Black and Gold.  


*Loui Eriksson – Credit where it’s due to the Swedish winger that stepped up and probably had his best game of the season against the Bruins scoring a couple of goals and doing some of the things that allowed to put up a massive final season in Boston. The two goals and constant pressure around the net were a big factor in the win for Vancouver. 

*Jake DeBrusk – The Bruins rookie winger didn’t end up scoring any goals, but he was all around the net with four shots and one post on a Grade-A chance from the high slot. It was an impressive performance in an otherwise gross effort from the Bruins, and it also came in front of his dad, Louie DeBrusk, who was working the color analyst gig between the benches for Hockey Night in Canada’s crew covering the Canucks/Bruins game. 

*Anders Nilsson made 44 saves, so credit where it’s due in the victory over the Bruins. But the backup goalie was shaky throughout while not making any clean glove saves, so the best thing the Bruins ever did for him was fall way behind early in the first period. That took the pressure off Nilsson, and he was able to keep it simple with a big cushion and ride that to victory. 



*The minus-4 for Brandon Carlo was literally and figuratively the biggest minus for the Bruins in defeat. Carlo wasn’t nearly tough enough in front of the net early in the game, had some coverage issues in the defensive zone and really was a liability with Torey Krug as a pairing. Credit Carlo for stepping up and dropping the gloves with Darren Archibald after a big hit on David Pastrnak, and in doing so displaying a little toughness midway through the game. But it was too little, too late at that point.

*One shot on net and a minus-1 rating in 20:03 of ice time for Brad Marchand, who was clobbered early with a high stick that went uncalled and remained pretty silent in the game after that despite logging over 20 minutes of ice time. Marchand has had some pretty eventful games in Vancouver during his NHL career. This was not one of them. 

*The defense was dreadful in front of Tuukka Rask, but he also gave up four goals on nine shots before getting pulled after the first period. His rebound control was poor while he was in there in the first period and the Bruins only gave up a couple more goals the rest of the way, so it certainly feels like it was a combination of a bad night for the B’s and their goalie when they’ve both been so brilliant this season.


Morning Skate: Blackhawks fans ejected for racist chants

NBC Sports Boston Photo

Morning Skate: Blackhawks fans ejected for racist chants

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while blown away at the amount of money that Black Panther is going to make this weekend. 


*An ugly incident in Chicago where Blackhawks fans were chanting racist garbage at Devante Smith-Pelly as he served out a penalty during the Caps visit to Chicago. Hockey fans are better than this. Everybody should be better than this. Here’s the statement from the NHL released on Sunday morning, and I sure hope those four fans ejected are never allowed into the United Center again after embarrassing their NHL team, and their city: 

 "Last night in Chicago, individuals directed racial taunts and abuse at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "The National Hockey League condemns this unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. The League fully supports the actions taken by the United Center and the Blackhawks to eject the offenders and would expect the same response to any similarly unacceptable behavior at any of our arenas.

"While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games. The League will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment - free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience."


*The Hockey Night in Canada crew goes over the latest in rumors, including the NHL expansion into Seattle and the unclear situation still developing with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. 


*Eric Staal deserves plenty of credit for the success of the Minnesota Wild after he’s been reborn as a player since going to Minnesota a couple of years ago. 


*Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray wants the prices to come down for potential deadline deals, and certainly they will to some degree ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. 


*The Dallas media is certainly getting worked up about Tyler Seguin, as they’re starting to call him Mike Modano 2.0 as they enter the playoff picture. My prediction: Seguin is on his best behavior this season in his first year under Ken Hitchcock, but a leopard doesn’t truly change his spots. The talent is obviously there in huge amounts if he really wants it, but let’s see what Seguin does when things truly get nasty in the playoffs. 


For something completely different: As I mentioned above, it looks like Black Panther is going to break all kinds of box office records this weekend. Good stuff.