Bruins

Bruce Cassidy shows why he's behind Bruins bench

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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? 

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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.

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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.

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