BRIGHTON, Mass – In an interesting twist, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t making any secrets about the strategy for his team headed into Game 1 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s already been there when you read between the lines with big, physical players David Backes and Connor Clifton appearing to be healthy scratches while faster players Karson Kuhlman and Steve Kampfer looking as if they’ll be in the lineup. It’s an interesting decision given that the choices of speed and skill would seem to be playing right into the strengths of a Toronto Maple Leafs team hoping to play run-and-fun hockey.
Still, that’s where Cassidy appears to be going at the start of the series.
“We’re going to try and dress our fastest lineup,” said Cassidy. “I just feel that the series is going to start that way, and then as you get into it I feel that the teams will get that early energy out [of their system] and settle in. That’s kind of the plan for Game 1 anyway.
“[The speed] is up and down their lineup. [Auston Matthews] is No. 1, and Mitch Marner is No. 2. There’s [Kasperi] Kapanen and [William] Nylander. All of their lines have players that want to attack with time and space. Our MO all year has been to try and eliminate that with the best players in the league that can take advantage of those situations.”
Clearly, there is some question as to what the 34-year-old Backes can give at this point in his career with a league that’s speeding up, but he’s also the kind of experienced, physical player that could elevate his play over a short period of time.
The real question is whether a decision to play with greater speed, and perhaps less physicality without Backes or Clifton, is going to backfire on the Bruins, and instead give Toronto’s best players exactly what they want. Certainly, there are still some big, strong Bruins in the lineup with Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo still in there. Fourth-line bangers Chris Wagner and Noel Acciari will bring their hard-hitting style as well.
But part of Boston’s success against Toronto last spring was their embrace of a physical style against the younger Leafs, who largely didn’t want to get into it with the Black and Gold. Normally a hockey team wants to seize control of the pace and style of play in a playoff series and dictate terms whenever they can. Cassidy admitted as much when asked about it on Tuesday morning.
“I think last year what I got after the fact [from the Toronto series] is that they got dragged into a bit of our game with the physical part. They wanted to play with pace and play to their strengths. I think every team goes into every series and wants to play to their strengths, but it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why there’s a winner and a loser,” said Cassidy. “But for us, we’re comfortable in the skating game and I think we’ve proven that. When the battle level goes up, I think our guys are willing to accept that kind of game. The guys are almost like ‘game on, let’s go’ and trade some hits to see where it leads them.
“Obviously we want to be physical when we can, but if we chase hits in this series that aren’t there then we’re going to be digging our puck out a lot. We’re going to be relying on our goaltender to bail us out, or we’re going to be giving up odd-man rushes and digging the puck out of the back of our net. I think the guys understand that they can’t let the emotion and the physicality part of it overtake us. We want them to be uncomfortable and we want their D to double-check over their shoulder and be a little hesitant [when retrieving pucks].”
Certainly, the Bruins have shown in their 107-point regular season that they are comfortable playing the speed game and they gave Toronto all the offense it could handle in the series last spring as the top line truly dominated the series. Still, it’s a legitimate question to ask at the outset of the series if the Bruins are making a tactical error going with speed over physicality in Game 1 on Thursday.
Is it really necessary to change things up from the norm when the Bruins edged out the Leafs in seven games last spring, and then took three of four games from them in the regular season this year as well?
Certainly, adjustments will be made throughout the series and the Bruins can quickly reverse course if things don’t work out for them in Game 1 on their home ice. But it’s an interesting, somewhat counterintuitive, choice that Cassidy is making to match Toronto’s blazing speed with Boston’s own version of the speed attack at the outset of the series.
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