PHILADELPHIA – Don’t look now, but the Bruins are getting healthy and starting to rack up the wins.
Both David Krejci and Anders Bjork returned to the lineup for Saturday afternoon’s matinee against the Philadelphia Flyers, and helped push a stronger, deeper Bruins lineup to a 3-0 win over the Broad Street Bullies at Wells Fargo Center. The victory meant Boston has six wins in their last seven games for the Black and Gold, and continued to fortify their position in the Atlantic Division where they’re one point out of a playoff spot with four games in hand against the Montreal Canadiens.
“We’re defending well and keeping the puck out of our net. Some nights it’s good goaltending and others it’s stopping momentum. We’re scoring enough, but as we get healthy I think you’ll see us [score more in the three or four goals per game range]. The offense is coming. It was more 2-1 [scores] out West, and now you’re seeing us score a little more and hold leads even against good teams,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We’re a resilient group and we like the feeling of winning. That’s what is going on in the locker room. You hear a lot of that chatter on the bench…positive talk about what we need to do and talking about the details. That’s a good sign of our leadership.”
Clearly it’s not exactly where the Bruins want to be, but it’s a stunning turnaround from just two weeks ago when the Bruins were tied for 13th in the Eastern Conference and facing a very challenging schedule ahead. The Bruins managed to grind their way through those weeks thanks to some red-hot goaltending from Anton Khudobin and some very good performances from B’s youngsters, fill-ins from Providence and the few remaining healthy veterans.
Now they’re getting back to the original game plan where they can score enough to do offensive damage. Tuukka Rask seems to be back in a confident place after a few well-earned wins and the Bruins have a better lineup after going through November’s trials and tribulations. Wins in games over Tampa Bay and Philly are much closer to the blueprint that Bruce Cassidy drew up prior to the start of the season: Start strong early, build a lead, and then strangle your opponents with heavy pressure, smart defense, and reliable goaltending.
It's been a complicated formula for Cassidy, having to mix and match due to injuries. Then there has been the added pressure of teaching AHL players, integrating the youth, and even a goalie controversy to spice things up. But we can now say the Bruins look like an impressive hockey club that has every reason to believe they’ll be a playoff caliber group, and could surprise once they finally, believe it or not, actually have their opening night lineup for the first time this season.
Saturday was just the second time all-season David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and David Backes were in the lineup together for the B’s season, and Boston is now 2-0 while outscoring their opponents by a 9-3 margin in those games.
“It was only a matter of time, and we knew that. Anytime you have a lot of young guys starting in the lineup you need to give them time to adapt earlier in the year. We might have played one game all year with our full lineup, and it makes a big difference when you’re missing guys like [David] Krejci, [Patrice] Bergeron and [David] Backes, and [Adam] McQuaid. It’s difficult with guys like that out of the lineup."
“But with everybody back and the young guys hitting their stride, we’re a pretty deep team. We know that we can compete every night, and we just want to keep building.”
With a healthier and increasingly successful lineup, difficult decisions arise for Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy. Both Frank Vatrano and Matt Beleskey were healthy scratches on Saturday, with Krejci and Anders Bjork back in the lineup. It's only a matter of time before Jake DeBrusk is also ready to return as well.
This is the type of situation a coach would much prefer. It could also lead to increased trade chatter for players like Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner, who scored his first goal vs. the Flyers. Matt Beleskey that has yet to really find his game this season, and the team may be inclined to cut ties with him. It would be a major, costly decision to target Beleskey as the player to subtract from the roster, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines when Cassidy deployed seven defensemen last week with Beleskey as a healthy scratch.
It seems clear at this point that Danton Heinen has earned his spot in the big leagues, aside other players including Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk.
Cassidy said he welcomes tough choices for the game-to-game lineup, but there will also be challenging decisions for Don Sweeney when the lineup becomes more and more healthy.
“It’s a good problem to have. I don’t like telling any player that they’re out of the lineup, especially if they’ve been helping us win. But that’s the business,” said Cassidy. “I think it makes you a better team when guys are pushing one another.”
It’s taken nearly two months of the regular season, but the Bruins are finally looking like the team many thought they’d be after last month's abomination.
As it turns out, this Bruins hockey club has a shot to be pretty damned good.