Coaching has been key to Bruins' hot streak


Coaching has been key to Bruins' hot streak

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 legitimate playoff contender. Today, in Part One, we look at the impact the coaching staff has made.  

It would have been fair to still have some questions about Bruce Cassidy as an NHL head coach entering this season.

Sure, the 52-year-old Cassidy had previous NHL experience in Washington, had paid his dues in the AHL, and showed plenty down the stretch last season in Boston after replacing Claude Julien. Still, it could have been a bit of a tall task getting full buy-in from a grizzled group of Cup-winning veterans and overseeing a clear youth movement while competing for a playoff spot at the same time. That goes double for a guy in his first full season after 13 years between big league gigs.


But if there were any lingering questions about Bruce Cassidy in his first full season behind Boston’s bench, they’ve been answered resoundingly.

“I hope so . . . that’s what you want as a coach,” said Cassidy, when asked if last season’s buy-in from the players has carried over into this year. “We’ve upgraded with our young players. No disrespect to anybody in the lineup from last year, but we’ve got some good, young players. The buy-in is more about the guys from last year’s team believing that they can be a successful team and win in the playoffs, even if it didn’t go our way in the playoffs last season. 

“I think we just picked up where we left off there. Unfortunately we never got our team together. That was the biggest problem. The buy-in probably came earlier in the year when certain guys were out of the lineup [with injuries] that we relied on. Guys played hard and fought through it. I think that’s when the real buy-in took place, and now guys are just seeing how good they can really be. We’re going through that right now. The lines have balanced out where [David] Backes is really able to take control of that third line. Right now it looks good and we’re winning games, and it’s not by accident. It’s not like we’ve got goaltenders standing on their heads or one line is scoring all our goals. It’s good, balanced scoring, it’s good team defense and we’re getting key saves when you need them. As a coach you like that.”

Put bluntly, his choices have made the Bruins a better team and his adjustments helped pull the season back from the danger zone after the first few weeks. Rookies are given the opportunity to make mistakes and grow from them as a learning experience, and veterans are kept on their toes while held to the same level of accountability as everybody else.

That certainly hasn’t always been the case with the Bruins over the last 10 years. 

Cassidy has displayed a real willingness to put young players in a position to succeed, something Julien wouldn't always do during his long, successful stint in Boston. Both Charlie McAvoy and Danton Heinen are legitimate Calder Trophy candidates among the best first-year players, and on any given night the Bruins have between four-to-six rookies in their lineup taking a regular shift. 

Cassidy has taken the same approach to managing established All-Stars and Cup-winning veterans, as well.

In fact, you could make the argument Cassidy’s pinpoint feel for this Bruins team has helped save the season. When injuries crippled the B’s in the first couple of months, Cassidy pulled back the reins on the aggressive offensive tendencies and played a more conservative brand of hockey with the bare bones lineup. 

But in an 11-game point streak that ran into the bye week -- led by the dominant Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, and with three other healthy lines that Cassidy could roll with regularity -- the Bruins have outscored opponents by a whopping 47-18 margin. They're getting contributions from everywhere:  The back end and the front end are contributing, the goaltending has stabilized, and Boston is a top-10 team in just about every measurable category aside from drawing penalties. 

Clearly a great deal of that is a credit to the players. But it’s also about a coaching staff that’s put them in a position to succeed.

“We’ve learned that when we play to our identity and our game, protect the puck well and manage it properly, we’re a tough team to play against. We’ve got great goaltending performances, the penalty kill is kind of the backbone of our team, the power play chips in and we’re able to get timely goals from places up and down the lineup,” said David Backes. “If you’re writing the story yourself you’re probably not putting all the obstacles and speed bumps that [Cassidy] had to face in the first half-season as the full time coach of the team, but he’s managed it well. His practices are up-tempo and he’s been able to manage the [player] workload very well. 

“Bergeron and Marchand play some big minutes, and he’s done a good job of managing those types of minutes and that workload. Now we’re in a pretty good spot at this point given some of the obstacles that we’ve faced. It’s a pretty darn good circumstance that we’re in.”

It was during Boston’s early struggles, with the Bruins teetering on the edge of playoff oblivion, that Cassidy benched Tuukka Rask for four straight in favor of red-hot Anton Khudobin. The Bruins ripped off four wins in a row behind Khudobin, and have gone an incredible 16-3-2 in the 21 games since then. It clearly got the attention of Rask, who was named the NHL’s No. 1 Star of the month in December with a 9-0-1 record with a .955 save percentage.

“Tuukka is clearly, however you want to summarize it, has benefitted from being pushed or not playing, or finding his game. Whatever you want to call it, he’s dead-on,” said Cassidy. “You could see after a few games [on the bench] that the passion was there and [Rask] wanted the net back.”

More recently, Cassidy has held a now-healthy Adam McQuaid up in the press box with young D-men like McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo playing strong hockey during the B’s extended hot streak.

Cassidy conceded it’s a difficult choice to sit down established veterans, but it comes down to two things with the Bruins: Doing what’s best for the team, and calling on his long relationships with many of these players as they paid their dues in Providence.

“It just felt like the right thing to do. As a coach you go with your gut at times, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It worked out,” said Cassidy. “I’ve also known Tuukka a long time. When I got to Providence he was in his second year there. We have a good relationship that way.

“It’s the same conversation that I’ve had with [McQuaid], who I’ve known a long time. We’ve talked about the why and finding the right time with him. But it’s a little tougher. The team is going well and the pairs are meshing. When you see Adam get back in there, you hope to see that extra push from him as well.”

Pushing the right buttons on a hockey club through an 82-game schedule is among the most difficult skills for an NHL head coach, but that’s been right in Cassidy’s wheelhouse this season. So is shepherding through the next generation of Bruins prospects making the jump to the NHL this season, and managing to juggle lineups and pairings while being waylaid with injuries through pretty much all of October and November. 

Cassidy certainly isn’t the self-promoting type and he had awfully big coaching shoes to fill when he stepped in for Julien last Februar. But he’s shown this season from the very start through his coaching skill set that he’s the right guy to take the Bruins back to the next level.


NHL Power Rankings: Big shakeup in the Top 10 this week

NBC Sports Boston Illustration

NHL Power Rankings: Big shakeup in the Top 10 this week

Sure, the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs are months away, but it's never too soon to look ahead, right?

The competition for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference could be tight, as several teams have surged forward recently, including the Flyers, Panthers and Canadiens — all of which missed the playoffs a season ago.

The picture is also crowded out West, where not many teams have started to separate from the pack as of yet.

How are the Bruins stacking up after a four-game losing streak? And which teams are making leaps forward?

Click here for Joe Haggerty's NHL Power Rankings.>>>>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

David Pastrnak should be a lock in Bruins' shootout lineup going forward


David Pastrnak should be a lock in Bruins' shootout lineup going forward

The shootout is a problem for the Boston Bruins, and already this season it has cost them three points. Now, that might not sound like a lot, but in a very competitive Atlantic Division that's shaping up to include five playoff-caliber teams, those points are quite valuable.

The Bruins blew a four-goal third-period lead Tuesday night and ultimately lost 5-4 in a shootout to the Florida Panthers at TD Garden. Charlie Coyle extended the shootout with a third-round goal, but it's Boston's only tally in 11 shootout attempts this season. Only three of the 26 teams that have taken part in at least one shootout have a worst shooting percentage than Boston. 

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy's shootout lineup was a real head-scratcher. Here's a look at the skaters chosen:

Chris Wagner: No goal
Brad Marchand: No goal
Charlie Coyle: Goal
Charlie McAvoy: No goal

The lack of speed and creativity with the puck made Panthers goalie Sam Montembeault's job too easy. Take a look for yourself in the highlights below:

The most curious absence from the above list is David Pastrnak, who leads the league with 16 goals and is tied for second place in scoring with 31 points. Pastrnak is just 3-for-19 in shootouts for his career, but despite this lack of success, he absolutely should be one of the first two shooters in this format, especially when the opposing team has its backup goalie in net, as was the case Wednesday night. The most talented players should be on the ice with the game on the line, and Pastrnak is without question the B's most skilled offensive player. 

Cassidy explained after why Pastrnak wasn't involved in his team's latest shootout loss.

"(Bruins goalie coach) Bob (Essensa) has information on that," Cassidy told reporters. "One thing Bob suggested -- we were going to use Wagner. There was maybe more shooters than dekers against this goalie coming in, but Charlie (Coyle) scored in the shootout shooting. You know, we put Coyle in and recommended shooting. Pasta tends to like to deke, so that’s why we went away from him. He’s been a little bit cold lately in the shootout, so give some other guys an opportunity that we feel can finish. Charlie McAvoy definitely has but didn’t happen."

Pastrnak has shot in two of the three shootouts this season. Jake DeBrusk has taken part in only one. David Krejci didn't shoot in the one game he's played in that ended with a shootout. Patrice Bergeron has zero shootout attempts despite scoring 70 goals over his last 147 games. Bergeron's nine shootout goals are tied for the team lead with Marchand since the beginning of 2012-13. Even defenseman Zdeno Chara deserves a look in the shootout with his powerful slap shot.

Let's be clear: shootouts aren't a new problem for the Bruins.

They actually ranked as the third-best shootout team during the 2011-12 season with 19 goals on 38 attempts, but it's been all downhill since then. The Bruins are dead last in the league with a 20.7 shooting percentage (49-for-237) in shootouts over the last eight seasons, including the current campaign.

We can complain all day about the shootout and say it's a gimmick, and that might be true, but the fact remains it's a very important part of today's NHL. The Bruins' lack of success in the shootout won't hurt them in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it could end up costing them the most desirable seed if the current trend isn't reversed soon. Consistently putting the most skilled offensive players on the ice would be a good way to remedy the situation.

Joe Haggerty: The root causes of this alarming Bruins skid>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.