Bruins

Bruce Cassidy hoping to address Bruins' defensive slippage

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Bruce Cassidy hoping to address Bruins' defensive slippage

BRIGHTON, Mass. – The Boston Bruins have won two of their last three games while playing some very beatable teams with the likes of the Rangers, the Sabres and the Devils. But bad habits have officially crept into their collective game. The Bruins had a lackluster first period against the Rangers, but managed to blow them out once Henrik Lundqvist started experiencing some tough times between the pipes.

The Bruins simply weren’t good against the Sabres while allowing odd-man rushes amid shoddy puck management and some shaky defensive work. Then on Sunday they gut-checked their way to a win over New Jersey with a phenomenal individual effort from Anton Khudobin, and just enough offense to outweigh some miscues and careless plays in the other two zones.

The Bruins have allowed as many goals in their last two games (seven) as they had in their previous five games, which speaks to some slippage in their game that Bruce Cassidy acknowledges is in need of a correction.

“Slot coverage on plays from below the goal line, and communication between our two D’s and our low forward, generally our center man, [because] I think we’ve been a little late on who is going,” Cassidy said when asked what stood out in video review by the coaching staff. “It’s in our system that we don’t want to give too up too much time in that trapezoid area. Some of the other ones are puck management in the neutral zone where we need to just get wiser and more responsible. Definitely from goal-to-goal line our play needs to be better, and our wingers collapsing when we are losing that [coverage]. So our layers, I guess, have broken down at times more so than earlier in the year. I think the New York Ranger game, for a coach was awesome, but it was also problematic.

“We had breakdowns in the first period in our slot coverage, and [Anton Khudobin] made some great saves. They got masked because we had a terrific second period…then the players forget about the first period where things could have gone the other way. That’s when it bled into Saturday and Sunday. Now we won two of the three games and this is a results-oriented business, so we can’t forget that. But [the season] is 82 games and we’re trying to play the same way every night where we win the slot battle and defend hard. So that’s been addressed. I also find February is a tough time of year to sometimes get the players’ attention, depending on where you are. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, so that’s the challenge for the coaching staff right now … to get their attention, and get back to detailed hockey.”

The big challenge for the B’s is to make sure this defensive slippage becomes just that, and doesn’t devolve into something worse with a five game road trip. The real danger is that repeated mistakes can turn into bad habits if they’re not nipped in the bud.

A look at Bruins in free agency: Anton Khudobin

A look at Bruins in free agency: Anton Khudobin

It was a bit eyebrow-raising when Bruins team president Cam Neely last week mentioned backup goaltending as a priority for the Bruins on their offseason shopping list. The assumption was that the Bruins would find common ground with looming free agent Anton Khudobin after a stellar season in which he played 31 games as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

The ability to play well and play relatively often is a mandatory one with the Bruins as the formula for team success includes a plan that gives their No. 1 in Rask ample physical and mental rest in the regular season.

A return for Khudobin, 32, is still the most likely scenario for the Bruins when all things are considered given that he posted a 2.56 goals-against average and .913 save percentage as the perfect backup to Rask, and given that he wants to stick around in Boston.

“I want to be here. I like [it] here. I’ve been in California, I’ve been in Texas, I’ve been in Carolina, I’ve been in Minnesota. I’ve been in a lot of cities and a lot of states, and Boston is my favorite one,” said Khudobin, with the trademark twinkle in his eye as he discussed a city he returned to two years ago after his first stint with the Bruins. “That’s clearly [the truth], and it’s not because I want to give it a shot, or try to say I’m so nice I’m going to just sign here. This is my favorite city. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to sign here, or if I’m going to go away, or if I’m going to sign here. Boston is still going to be my favorite city.

“Don [Sweeney] knows that I love it here. I love the city and everybody knows it. How much is it going to be a factor in signing a new contract, I don’t know? I don’t think it will be a factor. I don’t think it matters. It matters what they can offer and how much I’m willing to take. For me personally, I would love to stay here. I’m 32 right now, and if I’m going to play until 40 I would love to play another eight years here. That’s clear for me. If we will get a deal, today, or tomorrow, or in free agency, I don’t know. But if it will happen in Boston, I will be happy.”

So, the good news is that the B’s and Khudobin are halfway there with the player clearly in love with the city and the team and has already proven he can provide the support Rask clearly needs. Still, it’s also a safe bet that, coming off a strong season, Khudobin is going to want a bit of a raise from the two-year, $2.4 million contract he signed a couple of years ago. Perhaps his season was even good enough to entice a goalie-challenged NHL team into giving him another go-round as a possible No. 1 candidate after mixed reviews in his one and only shot with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The uncertainty of Khudobin as a possible free agent come July 1 and the poor conditioning that factored into an at-times bad opening season in Boston might just be giving the Bruins pause about bringing him back on a multi-year deal. That seems to be bearing out in some of the B’s organizational comments about the backup goaltending headed into the offseason.

“I thought [Khudobin] had a great year for us. He really stepped in when Tuukka was struggling a little bit and gave us an opportunity to win hockey games,” said Neely. “If he we didn’t have that, we certainly have had the year that we did. He’s well-liked in the locker room and starting last year with those two big games against Chicago and the Islanders before he followed it up with a great start this year.

“Obviously it has to make sense for us. When somebody has a really good year headed into UFA they want to see what’s out there, so you can’t blame them for that.”

Certainly, the Bruins could, and should, be willing to go into the two-year, $3-3.5 million range for Khudobin given the stability he helped bring to the goaltending situation. That would be a fair league rate for a backup goalie. The problem for the Bruins is that they don’t have any ready-made alternatives within the organization. Zane McIntyre had a very mixed AHL season with the Providence Bruins and Malcolm Subban was lost to the Vegas Golden Knights via waivers at the beginning of this past season.

“Zane had pushed the previous year. He had an up-and-down year this year. Had some real good pockets of games where he was excellent, and other games where some of the situations, he didn’t necessarily rise up to. He’s in the [backup goalie] mix, certainly, to push for our group. We’re exploring bringing Anton back and see if that might work,” said Sweeney. “If not, we may have to go to an alternative. Daniel Vladar was around, played a lot more games this year. He will be in Providence next year as part of the development process for him.

“[Kyle] Keyser came in at the end of the year, as well, had a good year. He’s part of it. Jeremy Swayman also had a very good year in Maine and took over the starting role there. We feel like we’re starting to make sure we address it appropriately, and hopefully one of these guys emerges as the next number one for the Boston Bruins. It’s an area we have to make sure that we’re spot on. We’ll be looking at [McIntyre] again this summer, and it starts with where our talks with Anton go.”

So let’s be honest about the names mentioned above. The 20-year-old Vladar has played 12 games in the AHL the past two seasons and Swayman is in the middle of his collegiate career with the Black Bears. Keyser was last spotted being taken to the hospital via ambulance after getting hit in the neck with a puck at a Bruins playoff practice. He was expected to be fine afterward, but it’s clear he’s also not ready to be an NHL backup straight out of junior hockey.

So, McIntyre is the only candidate with any qualifications to be an NHL backup next season and his 3.97 GAA and .858 save percentage in eight NHL appearances should give the Bruins a whole lot of pause given the importance of the position. Certainly, there will be some backup goalie candidates in free agency that have experience with the Bruins organization whether it’s Chad Johnson, Michael Hutchinson or Jeremy Smith, or Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen or Jaroslav Halak that might be ready to transition fully into an aging, oft-used backup at a discount in Boston.

The good news is that the Bruins should have a lot of different backup goalie options to choose from if that’s the plan come July 1, but the better news would be if both Khudobin and the B’s come to a sensible agreement to keep Rask and Khudobin intact as a tandem. After all, they finished last season fourth in the NHL in GAA (2.57), tied for ninth in save percentage (.912), and gave the Black and Gold a chance to win just about every night.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Morning Skate: Don't overestimate Smith's role in this Vegas show

Morning Skate: Don't overestimate Smith's role in this Vegas show

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while wishing I’d put some money on the Vegas Golden Knights at the beginning of the season to win the Stanley Cup.

*Interesting piece on the aforementioned Vegas Golden Knights, and their MVP Marc-Andre Fleury on their unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final. A number of players were mentioned including William Karlsson and Nate Schmidt among others, but one that wasn’t is former Bruins winger Reilly Smith. Smith has been a pretty good performer for Vegas in the postseason, but let’s be honest for all those people harping on the Bruins giving him up a few years back: He’s got two goals through three full rounds of the playoffs, so he hasn’t exactly been worthy of mention for the Conn Smythe trophy either to this point. He’s a good complimentary player on a Vegas team taking a deep run, nothing more and nothing less.

*Speaking of the Cinderella Golden Knights, here’s a piece on their rise to the Cup Final in their franchise’s first year of existence after dispatching the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday afternoon. It looked to me like Winnipeg ran out of gas after a tough series against the Nashville Predators, but full credit to Vegas for seizing their chance. It’s also a great thing for the NHL that Vegas was able to do this in their first season and truly prove to all fan bases that anything is possible. I don’t get what’s going on with people saying otherwise.

*Larry Brooks has a column on the New York Rangers getting the head coach that they wanted in BU hockey coach David Quinn.

*The Golden Knights, at the urging of Marc-Andre Fleury, follow the lead of Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and show no fear in handling the conference championship trophy.

*The Tampa Bay Lightning have done a good job of keeping Alex Ovechkin under wraps as they’ve taken control of the Eastern Conference Final.

*For something completely different: It’s good to see that Janet Jackson has still got it in a Billboard Music Awards show performance this weekend.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE