Bruins' Matt Grzelcyk knows ex-BU teammate Jack Eichel is 'antsy' to play in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Bruins' Matt Grzelcyk knows ex-BU teammate Jack Eichel is 'antsy' to play in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Given that they both belong to a small club of Massachusetts hockey players in the NHL, Matt Grzelcyk and Jack Eichel would be solid friends regardless of their background.

But it goes one step further with Grzelcyk and Eichel playing on the same Boston University team in 2014-15 that made it all the way to the National Championship game before falling to Providence College. Grzelcyk was a 20-year-old junior defenseman and Eichel was the teenaged prodigy who scored 71 points in 40 college hockey games before jumping right to the Buffalo Sabres.

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Grzelcyk and Eichel remain close friends, and that gave the Bruins defenseman some unique perspective on his friend’s struggles in Buffalo after missing the playoffs in each of his first five seasons with the Sabres.

It’s led to speculation that interested teams like the Bruins might try to pry the young superstar out of Buffalo as Eichel prepares for another rebuild with all-new faces in hockey management. Certainly it also makes Grzelcyk appreciate the run of success he’s had with the Bruins since breaking in with his hometown team several seasons ago.

The disparity between the Bruins and Sabres in the Atlantic Division is pretty stunning.  

“I know that it’s a tough situation, especially for Jack. He’s one of my good friends. I know firsthand how competitive he is and how much he wants to win more than anything. He’s not really concerned with individual accolades or anything like that. He’s aware that you have the most fun at the rink when you’re winning,” said Grzelcyk, during a Zoom video call with Bruins reporters on Tuesday morning. “It’s for sure very frustrating for him. I haven’t really had the opportunity to talk to him about that. I’m sure he’s getting texts left and right about the situation that’s going on.

“But it certainly makes you look inward and how grateful I am to play for such a great organization [in the Bruins]. We have such good leaders and such good veterans and guys that have been there before, and they know what it takes to get the job done. I’m so blessed to be on this team. Going through the experiences in the playoffs helps you grow each and every season. I know Jack is quite antsy to get into the playoff picture and play in those important games, and shine in those big moments. I just hope he can reach that goal soon and we can see his full potential.”

Buffalo, of course, cleaned house this month by firing GM Jason Botterill along with over 20 members of management and the scouting department, and the 23-year-old Sabres star voiced his clear frustration a couple of months ago.

It remains to be seen how long Eichel is going to remain patient in Buffalo, but there are a lot of curious eyes watching that situation as next season will be 10 years since the Sabres have even qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

NHL Playoffs: Bruins in danger of wasting the season if they don't snap out of it

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NHL Playoffs: Bruins in danger of wasting the season if they don't snap out of it

The Bruins were a tad upset with the NHL's return to play format, but it turns out they should be thanking the league.

They just lost their first four games after the regular season (one exhibition, three round robin) and weren't eliminated. What a bunch of lucky ducks.

And if this thing crashes and burns against Carolina — it could; I'll explain that in a minute — there's no blaming the pandemic or the format. Sure, the stoppage was a nightmare that brought about new variables for the season, but don't we keep saying about the Patriots that the best teams are able to deal with these variables better than anyone else?

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The Flyers didn't have an issue coming back and hitting the ground running. Neither did the Lightning, and they had injuries. You can look around the league and find teams that got caught up quickly.

The Bruins not doing so is their problem — not anyone else's.

Now, there has been some weirdness across the league. The Blues were the No. 1 team out west and also got the 4-seed. Half the qualifying round series were upsets, but upsets happen in the NHL. The only one deserving of the "no one could see this coming" label would be the Canadiens upsetting the Penguins, but Mike Felger, Jim Murray and probably 100,000 Bruins fans saw that one coming a mile away. Claude Julien in the playoffs with a good goalie? It was at least going to be close.

If you want to spin the Bruins sucking in the round robin, you can liken it to them swinging a weighted bat. They played the other three best teams in the conference, so maybe their effort in Sunday's loss to the Capitals gets them a win against a different team.

The Bruins should be better than that, though. I've gone on breathlessly about the team's roster issues, but things like the Bergeron line struggling, Zdeno Chara looking out of sorts and the team not having a power play are new. In addition to being flawed, the Bruins were plain bad in the round robin.

Tuukka Rask has given quotes about the round robin games not mattering much, but those games held meaning. The Bruins were clearly trying to win Sunday (Ondrej Kase finally played and the forward group resembled what they'll probably go with in the playoffs) in order to get the No. 3 seed and get the Islanders in the first round.

Instead they have the Hurricanes, who had absolutely no problem getting going again. They're young, they're skilled and they've got to love the way they're playing after sweeping the Rangers in the qualifiers. Sebastian Aho was second in points in the play-in round despite his series only lasting three games. His line with Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen is freaking legit.

On the back end, old friend Dougie Hamilton could put them over the top. He was having a career year before a left fibula fracture ended it... or so everyone thought.

The Hurricanes traded for Sami Vatanen to replace him on the top pair, but now after a setback caused Hamilton to miss the Rangers series, he’s back practicing with the team. That’s reason to think he’ll be back for some — if not all — of the series, which would bump Vatanen down to the second or third pair and further bolster Carolina’s back end.

They're obviously beatable, and the Bruins should hope Carolina just sees the uniforms, thinks about last year's Eastern Conference Final and shrivels up. Yet if the Bruins are what they've been so far in the return, Carolina could easily win this series. This will all come down to whether the Bruins find what they were before the break.

If they don't, they could be out after one round, which didn't seem like a possibility pre-COVID, but last year's Presidents' Trophy-winner experienced that very fate. Teams that aren't prepared lose, which is what happened to the 2018-19 Lightning.

Maybe the Bruins didn't take the round robin seriously, but they should have. If they take that same "eh, we'll figure it out" approach against Carolina, they'll have wasted a chance as Cup contenders.

That won't be the NHL's fault. 

NHL Playoffs: Bruins still need to answer these offensive questions

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NHL Playoffs: Bruins still need to answer these offensive questions

Clearly there are myriad things that could have gone better for the Bruins during the round robin portion of the NHL’s Return to Play.

They could have won one of the round robin games to begin with, or even just held a lead at some point rather than being tied or trailing for all 180 minutes they played against the Flyers, Lightning and Capitals over the last week of action. But it’s plainly obvious the Bruins viewed the three round robin games strictly as a ramp-up instrument to get them ready for the real playoff games rather than anything to be concerned about when it comes to wins and losses.

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Still, there are lingering offensive questions with this Presidents' Trophy-winning group that will need to be answered as they ready for the first-round matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes beginning Tuesday night at 8 p.m.

Pretty much all those questions concern the Bruins offense, which never showed up in three wholly unimpressive round robin losses.

The good news is that the chances were plentiful on Sunday afternoon against Washington, but the bad news is that Braden Holtby very clearly still owns Boston after stopping 30-of-31 shots.

“We clearly generated more offense tonight than we have in other games more consistently. [We] didn’t finish well around the net a lot 5-on-5. Our power play is still work in progress,” said Bruce Cassidy. “[David] Krejci’s line looked comfortable, scored a goal obviously. They played well, had their legs, made some plays. Ondrej [Kase] was good on the walls.

The last few games [were] better offensively so that’s starting to come. Guys that have been there, obviously those stakes are still in the ground. You look at our top line, they’ve been held off the scoresheet. I believe that it’s going to be a tough task for Carolina to do that on a consistent basis. I think those guys will be able to get their game going. We’re going to need that primary scoring for one. Maybe some of that will come to life on the power play.

The Bruins averaged 1.33 goals per game in the three round robin games and went 0-for-9 on the power play while managing more than one goal just once in the four games played (one exhibition and three round robin games) since arriving in the Toronto bubble a couple of weeks ago. That’s a far cry from the Bruins team that finished 9th in the NHL with 3.24 goals per game this season and 2nd in the NHL with a power play that scored on over 25 percent of its possessions during the regular season.

The Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak finished with just one point in the three round robin games while struggling to finish plays, but they did manage a combined 11 shots on net and 21 shot attempts in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Washington. Bergeron was Bergeron for most of the three games and Marchand finally looked like himself in Sunday’s round robin finale after forcing a lot of plays while knocking rust off during these last couple of weeks.

The good news is that the game-breaking Pastrnak is shooting the puck early and often while generating numerous offensive chances as he did against the Capitals. It’s a far cry from last postseason when a thumb injury clearly eroded his confidence shooting the puck and forced him to become a passive offensive factor in a decidedly uncharacteristic development. A confident, healthy Pastrnak at the height of his game, as he is right now, will be a game-changer for the Bruins in these playoffs.

And that’s really what it comes down to for the Black and Gold.

The concern is that Boston can be stopped in the postseason if the Perfection Line can be contained, as they were by the St. Louis Blues last season and the Lightning a couple of seasons ago in the second round of the playoffs. Certainly, the Hurricanes aren’t that kind of defensive team, which will make this a problematic matchup for Carolina and a series where the B’s top guys could do tons of scoring damage.

The later rounds will likely be the question mark when it comes to secondary scoring and support players stepping up and doing their thing for the Bruins. Chris Wagner and the B’s fourth line were consistently Boston’s best players during the round robin, and Jake DeBrusk scored the team’s only goal on Sunday afternoon in a needed show of offense ahead of the first playoff round next week.

When it comes to the later rounds and possible showdowns with teams like the Lightning, Capitals or Flyers, the Bruins will need to get some answers from their middle six forwards and some consistent production from DeBrusk, David Krejci, Ondrej Kase, Charlie Coyle and Anders Bjork just to name a few key players.

Clearly there weren’t enough of those offensive answers in the round robin games while Bruce Cassidy was tinkering with different line combinations and fine-tuning ahead of the “real hockey” as Tuukka Rask called it after Sunday’s game.

“I think we kind of improved over these three [round robin] games,” said Tuukka Rask. “We worked very hard for our goals and just didn’t get rewarded. But I think that’s going to come, you find a way [to get through offensively].”

Some will look at the Bruins' struggling offensive game in the round robin and see a trend that could lead to their demise in the next couple of weeks. Others — including pretty much everybody inside the B’s dressing room — have already moved on to next week’s series against Carolina and started building the offensive swagger needed to win during the playoffs.

The B’s clearly aren’t worried about the round robin or their offense, and we’ll know pretty quickly whether everybody else should be or not.