Here’s what we learned in the Bruins’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals at the Capital One Center on Thursday night:
1) Bruce Cassidy and his staff on the bench aren’t perfect
Clearly, Cassidy and Co. have done an excellent job this season and provided way more good than bad in getting the B’s into a playoff spot despite the injuries and youth in the lineup. Still, the Bruins bench staff had a rough outing on Thursday night on a number of different fronts and certainly didn’t help matters during some key moments.
Things were good early when the Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, but Washington made their push in the second when Lars Eller scored from the slot on a loose puck in front of the net. It appeared that Washington winger Brett Connolly was clearly off-side on the zone entry prior to the Eller goal and that the Bruins had grounds for a successful coach’s challenge. Clearly, it would have carried some risk if the challenge went against the Bruins because the Caps would have cut the lead to 2-1 and would have immediately been granted a power-play chance. But a successful challenge would have been a momentum-killer for a Capitals team that hadn’t scored a goal in more than 170 minutes.
In the split-second needed for a decision, Cassidy and his video coordinator opted not to challenge the Capitals goal and instead played it conservatively. That led to the Capitals tying the score in the second period. The Bruins opted to unsuccessfully challenge a Capitals goal in the third period where they were clearly trying to compensate for their error earlier in the game. Unfortunately, for the Bruins bench, the play was clearly on-side and the Capitals got a power play out of the failed challenge.
The challenge flap was further compounded in the shootout when Cassidy opted for Riley Nash as his third and final shooter after Alex Ovechkin scored for the Capitals. That left Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy, who has already won a pair of shootouts for the Bruins this season, among others on the bench when a valuable point was on the line.
Predictably, Nash went high and wide with a shot and completely missed the net and that was it for the Bruins basing their fate on the shootout abilities a bottom-six forward. Clearly, Nash has enjoyed some level of success in the shootout with a 6-for-14 career mark headed into the game, but most of that was with the Carolina Hurricanes rather than the Bruins.
Those numbers are fine and dandy in theory, but it hasn’t worked out when the Bruins have tried to force Nash into some kind of shootout option the past two seasons. It’s even worse when you consider the kind of offensive firepower sitting on the bench when you try to re-invent the wheel with Nash. Put it all together and the Bruins coaching staff and support staff had an uncharacteristically tough night in Washington and should simply learn from it and move on. No need to dwell on an aberration in what’s been a very positive season for the coaching staff.
2) One move Cassidy made that was spot-on was sitting Torey Krug in the 3-on-3 OT session
Krug some tough mistakes in the latter 40 minutes of the game. It was Krug that was caught completely flat-footed by Jakub Vrana on an eventual slashing penalty that led to Washington’s tying power-play goal. Krug also fell down on the power play that led to a shorthanded chance that could have been really damaging for the Bruins, but instead, Anton Khudobin was able to bail out his teammates and make the stop on Eller.
After that, Krug didn’t play in the final few minutes of regulation with both teams hanging on for the 3-all tie and then didn’t take a single shift in the 3-on-3 overtime, where Krug has usually been a staple with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. In all, Krug had five shots blocked in his 18-plus minutes of ice time, had a single shot on net and had the one giveaway on the PP leading to the Washington shorthanded chance. That was part of a Bruins power play unit that went a rough 0-for-5 on a night when they could have extended the lead. It wasn’t Krug’s night this time around and perhaps the puck management and defense for Krug will get reined in a little bit Saturday night in Ottawa.
3) David Backes is enjoying the best stretch since signing with the Bruins
That continued with a pair of goals in the shootout loss to the Capitals. Backes has seven goals and 12 points in 13 games in December and has been incredibly effective on the third line with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash since they came together. Both Backes goals were vintage stuff. He got in front of the net to receive a Nash dish from below the goal line for the first goal, then Backes fired past Braden Holtby from the slot off a heady Heinen dish from the side boards.
In all, Backes finished with the two goals, a plus-1 rating, five shots on net, a couple of hits and 15:47 of rugged, competitive play in a big game against a team that has bullied the B’s over the years. If Backes can stay healthy and play close to this level for the rest of the season, you can begin to see what the Bruins envisioned when they brought him in as a free agent two summers ago. He turns the B’s into a speedy, multi-faceted group capable of beating teams with multiple lines and in different ways, and really transforms them into a much more dangerous team. Nobody is complaining about that contract right now and that’s a very good thing.
*Backes was Boston’s best player with the two goals and five shots on net while consistently getting position around the front of the net. He’s been one of the B’s best players in December with seven goals thus far.
*Danton finished with a pair of assists and has been a point-per-game player in December with five goals and 14 points in 13 games with a plus-4 rating. In fact, Heinen has cracked the NHL’s top-five rookie scorers and only Clayton Keller, Mat Barzal and Brock Boeser have more points than him this season. That’s impressive and it’s amazing how quietly he’s done it.
*Great play by Sean Kuraly to step up after Brooks Orpik had drilled Tim Schaller when his head was down, and challenge Orpik to a quick bout that ended almost before it started. The Bruins continue to stand up for their teammates and that is a very admirable team-wide trait that shows some great chemistry in their dressing room.
*Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins bench staff had a tough night. They didn’t challenge a Washington goal that could have been overturned, then challenged a Capitals goal that clearly wasn’t offside. Cassidy then opted for Nash in the shootout and left Patrice Bergeron and McAvoy on the bench with a point on the line. That’s a move that will always be second-guessed if and when it doesn’t work out.
*Krug took a slashing penalty that led to a Capitals tying power-play goal in the second period and he simply fell down on a PP in the third that led to Eller’s shorthanded breakaway. Krug wound up being benched in the final minutes of the third and the entire 3-on-3 overtime on a night that was clearly pretty frustrating for him.
*No goals or points from the Bruins top line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak for the second game in a row. Some of the questionable puck management from Pastrnak reared its ugly head. The Bruins third line has made up for top line’s lack of production the past few games, but they need their top players contributing again pronto.