Bruins' Brandon Carlo under the radar but having his best NHL season

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Bruins' Brandon Carlo under the radar but having his best NHL season

It’s been there all season long, but perhaps the elevated play wasn’t truly noticeable until both Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy went down with injuries over the last few games.

After all, most of Brandon Carlo’s responsibilities as a shutdown defenseman mean he’s doing his job best when he goes unnoticed without much of the glory.

But it’s impossible to ignore the way the 23-year-old Carlo has played in the last three games while topping 25 minutes of ice time in each game while getting the upper hand going against elite offensive opponents like Alex Ovechkin and Jack Eichel.

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Carlo is winning battles all over the D-zone with his long reach, his 6-foot-5, 210-pound size and the strength that goes along with it, and he’s even developed a little bit of a mean streak for an incredibly nice guy off the ice. Couple that with the four goals and 12 points in 40 games this season offensively and the Bruins have a premium shutdown defenseman beginning to reach his ceiling of offensive potential as well.

He’s tracking for career highs in both goals and points while on pace for eight goals and 25 points this season and has become much more adept at deciding when to take a risk offensively while still holding defense as the first priority in all situations. Carlo himself knows he’s probably playing the best hockey of his career combining his three-plus seasons of experience with the natural physical maturity that comes naturally by entering your mid-20’s at the NHL level.

“I love having more responsibility. It really forces you to elevate your game and play to the best of your ability,” said Carlo. “I don’t get intimidated by those situations, which is a good stepping stone toward being better in those situations. I just enjoy it rather than getting worried or anxious about anything. I feel like I’m continuing forward and growing my game in certain ways. I feel l like I still have a way to go and feel like the ceiling on my game is as high as I want it to be. I’m never going to be content with anything.

“I just want to keep growing my game. I think last year getting my game back on track was a step with that. In my second year I lost a little bit of confidence and I wasn’t playing the game the way I knew I could play it. I’m seeing a lot more opportunities on the ice in terms of when to join the rush and when to not join. I see the ice better and recognize that as long as I play a simple game it’s the best way for me to be. I think I overthought things a lot in my second year. I have a better grasp on that now.”

It may be heard to believe now, but that second year was 2017-18 when Carlo didn’t have a single goal in 76 games played, and finished with a modest six points while averaging a career-low 19:14 of ice time per game. Since then it’s been onward and upward for Carlo as it just keeps getting better and better with the ideal D-man size and excellent skating ability to go along with it, and the raw offensive skills to make him an effective offense producer as well.  

He doesn’t block as many shots as Charlie McAvoy (who leads the team with a whopping 76 blocked shots) or throw as many hits as Connor Clifton, who is third on the B’s with 85 registered hits, but Carlo plays good, hard, old-fashioned defense where he extinguishes plays before opponents even get around to shooting the puck.

In the fancy stats world, they call that shot suppression — and Carlo is one of the best.

It’s no stretch to say Carlo is playing the best hockey of his career while building off a breakout spring during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. As Torey Krug said best, his defense partner is beginning to develop a little swagger in addition to the fundamental parts of his tough, competitive game that play so well once the Black and Gold get to the postseason.

“In the playoffs last year [Carlo] was pretty damn good,” said Krug. “I would say that right now he’s right up there. For him it’s exciting that he sees with Charlie and me both out that he’s going to play a few more minutes and he’s going to play in every situation. If he makes a mistake [during a shift] then he’s probably going to jump over the boards again [quickly] because he’s such an important part of our team and a great player. He’s developing a swagger and that’s what guys from the bottom of our lineup to the top really need in order to be successful.”

When it comes down to it, Carlo has developed into a first-round kind of talent that the B’s managed to get in the second round, a pick that has in some ways saved their 2015 NHL Draft class from being an out-and-out disaster. They may have missed with Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshyn in the first round, but they hit a top-of-the-second-round bullseye with Carlo. And he also gives the Bruins a very different kind of defenseman than the smaller, puck-moving types like Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk while also handing the B’s a big-bodied shutdown D-man who will still be around to stop opponents when 42-year-old Zdeno Chara opts to someday hang up his skates.

Carlo has been this good all season, but maybe everybody is noticing now because injuries have hit Boston’s back end and the youngster is seizing the opportunity to show just how much his game has elevated over the last calendar year.

“His first year I always look at and thought he was excellent, but some of that had to do with age and where he was in his career. Our expectations were a little lower and he was in a shutdown role every night and scored five or six goals,” said Bruce Cassidy. “But I think all-around [he’s playing his best hockey this year]. He seems to have more confidence with the puck and he’s getting over the bad shifts much more quickly. I think this is a big step for him. Charlie [McAvoy] goes out and this is one of the things that makes our team so good. It’s the next man up.

“A guy gets a little more ice time and takes advantage of it. That’s the sign of a team that’s got good players on it that can go the extra mile when given the opportunity. The extra responsibility hasn’t fazed him. In fact, he’s relished it. That’s the sign of maturity and confidence.”

This mature, confident Carlo continues to be a difference-maker for the Bruins and the last three games with a B’s back end in disarray has been a picture-perfect example of that.

Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: How to watch NHL game online

Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: How to watch NHL game online

The Boston Bruins just beat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night at the TD Garden. After the Penguins scored the opening goal just seconds into the contest, the Bruins roared back and scored four unanswered to earn the win.

Now, they'll have to bring forth that same type of energy in a hostile road environment.

The Bruins are taking on the Penguins at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon in a marquee afternoon clash at the PPG Paints Arena.

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The Penguins (30-13-5) sit at second place in the Metropolitan division behind only the Washington Capitals, a team that has the most points in the NHL. Pittsburgh is coming off a 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night that will serve as a palate cleanser for the team.

Meanwhile, the Bruins (28-9-12) are coming off the win against the Penguins and have posted a modest 5-2-3 record in their last 10 games. They've made some roster changes in the past week with Brett Ritchie and David Backes being waived while Tuukka Rask is dealing with a concussion.

Rask's concussion means that Jaroslav Halak will likely start again in net. Halak had been in a bit of a slump before the game against Pittsburgh, allowing 17 goals in a five-game span in which he went 1-2-2 as a starter. Hopefully, he will be able to repeat his strong performance against Pittsburgh.

The Bruins will also be without second-line center David Krejci for another game. Par Lindholm will take his place in the lineup and will likely center the team's third line with Coyle playing on the second unit. Lindholm is on a two-game point streak and scored a goal on Thursday against the Penguins.


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Krejci (upper body) out for Sunday afternoon game vs Penguins

Krejci (upper body) out for Sunday afternoon game vs Penguins

BRIGHTON, Mass – The Bruins will be without playmaking center David Krejci again on Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Penguins as he’s been ruled out for the second half of the home-and-home series against Pittsburgh. 

It’s believed to be a lower-back issue for Krejci, 33, something he’s battled the past few years. He also missed the B's win Thursday over Pittsburgh in Boston.

The hope is that Krejci will feel good enough to play in the Tuesday pre-All-Star break finale against the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of a 10-day break around the bye week and All-Star weekend, then again an extended rest period of more than two weeks for the veteran second-line center might not be the worst thing in the world either.

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“He’s not traveling. He didn’t skate today so he doesn’t have a chance to play [on Sunday],” coach Bruce Cassidy of Krejci, who has 11 goals and 32 points in 41 games this season, but will miss his ninth game of the season due to injuries on Sunday. “We’ll look at Tuesday if he’ll skate on Monday, but then it becomes an issue of are you better off just getting a whole break in there. If he can come in and skate [on Monday] then that would be a good measure for [his readiness for] Tuesday.”

Charlie Coyle will bump up in his place between Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork and Par Lindholm will enter the lineup as a third-line center with Krejci still injured. It should be the same exact lineup as the one that scored a convincing 4-1 win over the Penguins on Thursday night.

Ahead of practice on Saturday the Bruins also recalled 6-foot-5 goaltending prospect Dan Vladar and Max Lagace was sent back down to Providence after he stopped 24 of 26 shots in the P-Bruins' 2-1 loss to Bridgeport on Friday night.  

Here are the projected Bruins line combos and D-pairings against the Penguins based on Saturday practice at Warrior Ice Arena: