Jake DeBrusk

Haggerty: Time to look at the Bruins as one of the NHL's best

bruins-islanders-haggery-column-11918.jpg

Haggerty: Time to look at the Bruins as one of the NHL's best

There is no exaggeration or sports writing hyperbole when we say the Bruins are the NHL’s hottest team.

They secured points in their 15th game in a row (11-0-4) with a 5-2 demolishing of the New York Islanders on Thursday night, and are pulling away from the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs with a five-point lead for second place in the Atlantic Division. Oh, by the way, they also hold three games in hand over the Leafs. Amazingly, the Bruins are just five points behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning with a game in hand on them as well while boasting the NHL’s second-best goal differential with a strong plus-36 mark.

MORE BRUINS:

Basically, the Bruins are kicking butt, scoring goals and taking names all across the league.

Taking all this into account, it’s also no longer a leap to say the Black and Gold are one of the best teams in the league after showing no signs of slowing down the past two months. They’ve embarrassed the Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and spanked the Islanders, Senators and Canadiens multiple times in their stretch of dominance while outscoring opponents by a whopping 60-18 over those past 15 games.

It looked like they might slacken a little bit when they were a tad bit rusty coming off the five-day bye week with a couple of close, slightly sloppy games against the Habs and Dallas Stars, but they’ve bounced back with dominants wins over the Canadiens and Islanders.  

“We feel so good about our game that we know over the course of 60 minutes that we’ll get our chances if we’re working hard and stick to you know our layers and stick to our defensive posture that will turn into offense,” said Torey Krug. “For us, you know, it’s just confidence in our system and the way that we’re rolling right now. Guys are stepping up, we’re getting contributions from everyone and that’s a big part of it.”

So how are they doing it?

Well, the Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak has gone supernova in January. Marchand (five goals, 14 points in seven games) and Bergeron (eight goals, 13 points in seven games) are averaging two points per game. Not only that, but David Krejci and Ryan Spooner have been point-per-game players on the second line to provide extra offensive support, Danton Heinen continues to bring an offensive element to the third line and the fourth line is bringing energy and physicality while taking regular shifts.

Basically, it’s come to the point where Boston’s top line is arguably the best 200-foot line in the NHL and their other three forward lines aren’t allowing opponents to simply key on the brilliantly flawless Perfection Line. That allows Bruce Cassidy to roll his forward lines, wear opponents down as they get deeper into games and simply overwhelm teams with their depth and quality while playing at a high pace.

“On our team this year I know for a fact that our four lines can play against anybody,” said Cassidy. “That’s the message I want to send to the players. I want them to feel like they can play against anybody, but I also want to be mindful of it and not get burnt by that. People will look at you and say ‘Geez, you’ve got all these great defensive forwards and you don’t use them.’ I’m not going to match David Krejci every night against the other team’s best line, but I don’t mind if for a shift or two they’re out there. That’s just the rhythm of the game, and I’m not going to jerk [players] off the ice [to play hard matchups].”

It’s not just about offense, though, as Zdeno Chara has made it his personal challenge to turn Boston’s penalty kill into Operation Shutdown. The Bruins basically won Wednesday night’s game in Boston when Chara stayed on the ice for nearly an entire, extended 5-on-3 power play for the Canadiens where they didn’t get much of a sniff. The 40-year-old was at it again on Thursday night with 25 plus minutes of ice time while blocking multiple shots killing an Islanders power play. Teams will always need defensive warriors to win big, important hockey games, and Chara is still the biggest, baddest shutdown defenseman warrior on the block.

“[Chara] thrives on it; he wants it. Sometimes you’ve got to grab him by the scruff – well I can’t – but [B’s assistant coach] Kevin [Dean] will try to get him off in [some of] those situations – not in a five-on-three – but he relishes that role,” said Cassidy, of Chara’s penalty killing ferocity. “If you look at our PK all year it has been in the top five, maybe slipped out to seven or eight. Zee is the biggest reason on it – and the goaltender has to make the saves. That’s not being disrespectful to [Patrice Bergeron], who does a great job, or [Riley] Nash, but Zee sees a lion’s share of it, and he sets the tone on it.”

Mix in consistently strong goaltending with the offense and the defense and it’s easy to see why the Bruins are dishing out humble pie to just about every opponent that crosses their path. It will be interesting to see if they can catch a Tampa Bay team without Victor Hedman for the next six weeks and if they can truly lock down home ice in the first round of the playoffs against the Maple Leafs.

But one thing to keep in mind before crowning the Bruins as the NHL’s next big thing: There is a huge youth faction on this team.

The five or six rookies in the lineup on a nightly basis have been instrumental to their success and, at this point, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk and Sean Kuraly are becoming consistent contributors. But they’re only halfway through their first NHL season and Boston’s schedule gets much heavier in the second half. The Bruins, rookies and all, will be playing a taxing 16 games in March and it’s doubtful they’re going to come out of that heavy stretch at full strength.

It’s a very real possibility that Boston’s heralded rookies hit a wall at some point the next couple of months and they’ll need to be able to bounce back.

“I think we will keep an eye on it, but we have no intention of decreasing the workload right now until we see a drop-off because I don’t want to mess up a good thing,” said Cassidy. “You want to be out in front in some situations, but because [Charlie McAvoy] is so strong I think he’s going to be okay. But that will play itself out, and that will be a conversation with a number of guys and not just [McAvoy].

“How will DeBrusk handle it? Kuraly has played a lot of hockey for us, but he’s a little more down the lineup and doesn’t play as many minutes. Grzelcyk has now played a lot of games in a row. We have a few young guys that we’re going to have to monitor.”

The good news is that this Bruins team has been extremely resilient this season and they have a hardened, experienced leadership group that’s going to push them through. The Bruins also believe they’re one of the NHL’s best teams after the past couple of months. They’re absolutely right after the two-month run of awesome that they’ve been on.  

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Bruce Cassidy shows why he's behind Bruins bench

cassidy_haggerty_1142018.jpg

Bruce Cassidy shows why he's behind Bruins bench

MONTREAL – In another sign that things are definitely going the Bruins way this season, they exited Montreal with two points and good vibes after defeating their arch-rival Canadiens. Both the B’s and the Habs were a little sloppy coming off the five day byes and made their share of mistakes in Boston’s 4-3 shootout win over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.

One thing the Bruins did well, however, was put their rookies and young players in positions to succeed in their first rivalry games against the Habs. Many of them played vital roles in getting the two points in a hostile environment against the Habs, and once again came through when given the opportunity. The win against the Canadiens exemplified exactly why Brace Cassidy is now coaching the Bruins, and it just so happened to be in his first game against former boss Claude Julien. The method and results truly illustrated how differently B’s players are being handled these days.

Young players are consistently placed into very big positions to succeed with the Black and Gold, and many of those youngsters came through in big spots in their first go-around against Montreal.

Jake DeBrusk scored a second period goal and then also rewarded Cassidy’s confidence in him by lighting the lamp as the first man in the shootout. Think about that: When would Claude have ever pointed to a fresh-faced rookie as the tone-setter in a shootout against Boston’s hated rival from Montreal? Cassidy has done it early and often with his talented rookie crop this season, and some of it is certainly due to guys like DeBrusk seemingly elevating their games in the big spots like a Bruins/Habs showdown.

“It was pretty crazy. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was pretty hostile…especially after they got that first goal,” said DeBrusk. “It was interesting and it got loud, but I like that. It brings the emotion and the energy into the game. The fans obviously don’t like us, but that makes it a fun atmosphere to play in. It was obviously nice that we got the win."

“It was kind of a choppy game on both sides and it certainly wasn’t the prettiest game we’ve ever played. But I thought we responded well when we needed to and it was really fun to play in.”

Charlie McAvoy wasn’t perfect on the night while taking a couple of penalties, including a third period tripping call where he got sucked into the kind of retaliation that always get noticed by the refs. But he also finished with a couple of assists in 21:18 of ice time, had four hits and was a plus-1 in looking completely comfortable during his first experience within the heated rivalry.

Cassidy tapped McAvoy third in the shootout after DeBrusk led the B’s off, but this time McAvoy couldn’t play the hero role as Carey Price turned away his bid. Even though he didn’t come through with some kind of dazzling move in this shootout, one can see where the new Bruins head coach helps breed confidence in his young guys.

Cassidy drops those rookies into big positions at important moments, and does so even after they’ve made a mistake or two in the game. In the past an ill-advised penalty or a bad play or two in a Bruins/Habs game could have easily turned into a seat on the pine at crunch time. It helps to have rookies that will come through in those big spots, but it also takes a head coach willing to take the heat if the faith isn’t rewarded by the kids.

“[The kids did] very well. I thought Jake gave us some good juice, Heinen  made some plays and Charlie was frustrated at times and called for it, but then he bounced right back. That’s just Charlie,” said Cassidy. “We expect that every night out of these guys, and they’ve been doing it for three months. We’ve also got other guys that can pick them up, so it’s like they have to carry the team. But they are making their contributions.”

Want a little more stark evidence of the difference between benches?

Take a look at the David Pastrnak, Ryan Spooner and Matt Grzelcyk trio utilized together during the 3-on-3 overtime session. That is speed and skill to the max in all three young players, who want to play fast and make things happen in the offensive zone while pushing the gas pedal. But there are also some serious defensive zone concerns that go along with playing those three offensive players together, and it played out that way at points during the extra session where the Bruins were outshot by a 5-3 count.

It’s doubtful one would have ever seen that, even in the fast-paced 3-on-3 OT, with a coach in Julien that always requires one of his safety blanket two-way players on ice at all times. If one didn’t know any better they’d almost say that Cassidy was focused on getting good performances out of his young guys in Montreal perhaps to prove a point.

The truth is, however, that those players are now part of this Bruins team’s DNA, and they are a big part of the rolling Black and Gold success story.

The traits Cassidy showed in his first taste of the rivalry at the Bell Centre are exactly why he’s running the Bruins these days, and why they are the hottest team in the NHL with an 18-3-3 record over their last 24 games. Julien, on the other hand, has a Habs team that’s now lost six of their last eight games and continues to sink deeper in the Atlantic Division standings with a mostly stagnant offense, jittery rookie players and a group of veterans that aren’t living up to their press clipping.

Boy, that sure feels like the bad dream the Bruins finally snapped out of midway through last season and haven’t looked back since, doesn’t it? 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Behind the B's surge: Offensive explosion

firepower_bruins_112017.jpg

Behind the B's surge: Offensive explosion

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 legit playoff contender. Today we look at the Bruins offensive explosion over their extended successful run.

Judging by the raw overall numbers, the Bruins have been a good, above-average offensive team this season. They’re sixth in the NHL scoring 3.2 goals per game and rank 11th in power play success rate, and have consistently been no worse than average during even their lowest points this season.

But they have completely exploded in the 11-game point streak that led into the five day bye week while outscoring opponents by a 46-19 margin over that course, and have blown out the Hurricanes, Islanders, Blue Jackets and the Senators a couple of times during that span.

So what’s been the key to the Black and Gold lighting the lamp with impunity over the last month worth of games?

BEHIND THE B's SURGE

It’s about two different things that are essentially working in tandem that has recently made the Bruins pretty darn close to unstoppable for other teams.

One is the sheer dominance of their stacked top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, who caught fire again right before the bye week with Bergeron’s four-goal outburst in their squashing of the Carolina Hurricanes. Marchand and Pastrnak share the team lead with 17 goals on the season, and the three Bruins forwards lead the team in points while giving teams everything they can handle on a nightly basis.

Marchand is on pace for 39 goals and 91 points this season, Pastrnak is set to nearly match last season’s production with 34 goals and 79 points and Bergeron is on pace for 35 goals and 69 points as “weak link” of the stacked forward trio. Even more impressive the Perfection Line has given up just a single even strength goal in their time together this season, a single goal allowed in a one-sided road win over the Islanders. Bruce Cassidy put that line together while injuries were hitting the Bruins hard in the opening months of the season in order to give them something they could rely on offensively. Now they’ve become so good together playing the 200-foot game that there’s no good reason to try and break them up.

“We have three really good players. Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] is about as good a 200-foot player as there is in the league. He can obviously score goals but defensively…I knew he was good coming to the team, but when you watch him on a nightly basis, he’s always in the right spot. He is never is out of position and he’s always hard on the puck when it’s around him,” said David Backes. “From that, Marchy gets to open up his offensive side of things. Pasta [David Pastrnak] does the same thing and Pasta is certainly a very special offensive talent. March [Brad Marchand] just as well."

“Marchy maybe helps a little more on the defensive side of things but they’re a pretty special combination when they are together. They play power play together so they get a lot of that commonality. They get the consistency and they produce. We love having that. I don’t know what you do as a game plan to shut them down, and hope someone is going to beat you with somebody else. They are also a matchup line that’ll play against another team’s best line, but they’ll get the better of that matchup. That’s a nightmare, I think, for coaches.”

The real secret behind Boston’s big offensive splash over the last two months has been the scoring depth that’s backed up the B’s top line. Danton Heinen has brought a scoring and playmaking touch to Boston’s third line, and is among the NHL’s top rookie scorers while playing the very same 200-foot game that Bergeron and Co. are working on the top line. The 22-year-old Heinen is joined by a solid two-way center in Riley Nash, and a resurgent David Backes as he plays the best hockey of his Bruins career since returning from his diverticulitis surgery.

Heinen is on  pace for 21 goals and 64 points as a rookie left winger on the third line, and Backes is on pace for 22 goals and 47 points despite missing 17 games in the first half of the season. Even better they stepped up and provided the bulk of the offense in recent weeks when Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak hit a rare slow patch in their production.

“We have talked about it. We need it, different lines contributing. Some nights, they all do it at once,” said Cassidy. “It seems lately we are getting a lot of those five, tonight seven-goal games. You know that is not going to continue forever, but good for them. I don’t think they’re cheating or it’s dumb luck. They are playing the right way.”

Add to that a second line of Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci and Ryan Spooner that’s beginning to take shape and a fourth line of Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari that’s actually influenced some games with their high-effort and blue collar approach, and the Bruins have a forward group where Bruce Cassidy can roll his four lines. This has allowed the B’s head coach to selectively limit the amount of ice time thrown on the shoulders of Bergeron and Marchand, and it makes it much more difficult for opponents to key on one particular group in efforts to shut down the Bruins.

“I think our goal-scoring has come around, and a lot of that has to do with us being healthy for one of the few times this year. In the last few weeks we’ve had our full lineup out there,” said Bruce Cassidy. “You’re starting to see us be a harder team to check and match up against because we’ve got a lot of different lines scoring. The first part of it is to keep the puck out of the net and do the right things defensively, and then the rest seems to take care of itself for us.”

At least that’s the plan on most nights when all things are equal for a B’s team that’s done a very good job of playing front-runner over the last couple of months. If they keep scoring at their current rate up and down the lineup, that trend isn’t going to be changing anytime soon for them either. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE