Bruins' roster moves to shake off recent malaise pay instant dividends

Bruins' roster moves to shake off recent malaise pay instant dividends

BOSTON — The Bruins were stuck in neutral for much of the last six weeks while comfortably in first place in the Atlantic Division and coming off last year’s Stanley Cup Final appearance.

So Bruins management decided to act by switching things up on their NHL roster a bit, and Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights was the latest evidence of those moves bearing some fruit.

The changes and roster alterations certainly aren’t done, as an NHL roster is a living, breathing thing that changes due to needs and external factors, but for now the addition of Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh and Jeremy Lauzon while subtracting Brett Ritchie, David Backes and Steve Kampfer gave the Bruins a winning combination on the ice.

Now the Bruins head into the 10-day All-Star weekend and bye week break with a comfortable eight-point lead in the division and a chance to hit the reset button after some truly ghastly losses over the last six weeks.

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“I’ll be very open, is we decided a couple of weeks ago or whatever it was that we needed a little more internal competition. Usually, that starts from the bottom up," said Bruce Cassidy. "We identified some guys in Providence that were playing well. [Blidh] was one of that was hurt at the start of the year that we were going to look at in training camp. I think we discussed that; we thought he was a lot closer than he was maybe a couple of years ago, so that was something that was going to be in the works when he was ready.

"We did it with [Karson] Kuhlman. [Jeremy] Lauzon, we took a veteran out in [John] Moore, so [Kuhlman] came up in place of however you want to look at it. That was a bit by design these last two weeks to see if it will give us a little extra push, so we’ll see where it leads us.”

The 9-7-7 record since Dec. 5 isn’t very impressive when compared to what they did in October and November, but it’s also the only level of play required for the Bruins to still surpass 100 points this season and protect a playoff spot that’s pretty much guaranteed at this point.

Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning will catch them with three games in hand, but it’s still very much in Boston’s control to win or lose the division based on the way the Bruins approach the final 31 games of the season over the next three months.

That was part of what factored into a very clear malaise that swept over the Bruins roster in recent weeks. It was behind a number of blown three-goal leads that had been unheard of for these recent Bruins teams, and it was at the heart of a number of disinterested, disengaged and losing performances against some of the NHL’s worst teams in Ottawa, Detroit, New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles over the course of the first half.

It hasn’t all magically disappeared as the Bruins didn’t get off to a roaring start against Vegas on Tuesday night, but Lauzon brought some added toughness around the net, physicality with four hits and he also chipped in an unexpected goal in his season debut. Kuhlman logged a pair of assists in his return to the lineup a few games ago, and now it looks like the Bruins are going to try him with David Krejci and Danton Heinen on a different-looking second line.

Kuhlman, Heinen and Krejci all ended up on the score sheet on Tuesday night with both Krejci and Kuhlman winning board battles that led to Lauzon’s goal from the point, and all three forwards were again on ice for Krejci's game-winner in the third period.

Afterward, Krejci was overflowing in his praise for his new cerebral, hustling linemates while also deserving some of his own for overcoming a cranky back with a multi-point effort after he’d missed essentially a week of action with the injury.

“They are very smart. It’s fun to play with smart guys. They make plays. It doesn’t work all the time, but the effort is there. You can always do better, overall I thought it was pretty good,” said Krejci. “All three of us are pretty smart on that line, and we’ve played together before so we all know what to expect from each other. It was working well tonight and I was happy to get the ‘W.’”

Blidh had a quiet game with three hits and a shot on net in less than 10 minutes of ice time, but he was no more or less of a factor than Ritchie had been in a half-season where he never distinguished himself in any way for the Black and Gold. And it’s clear that both Blidh and Chris Wagner have been tasked with upping the physical factor and the agitation level to get the Bruins more engaged in games where they might otherwise lean toward indifferent mode against opponents that don’t exactly get the blood boiling on their own.

That being said, the Bruins also know that the time for mental or physical fatigue in the regular-season grind is pretty much over now. The Bruins have just 31 games remaining in the season after a 10-day break, they have a trade deadline next month where they will most assuredly pick up an added player or two, and they have just a few months to prepare for a playoff run that will come with considerable expectations based on last season’s playoff run.

“People talk. [The media] talks, but we know how we want to play and we know if we’re good or if we’re bad. At the end of the day we’ve got 70 points and we’re sitting at the top of the division. So we’re happy with where we’re at,” said Krejci. “But we know the stretch [run] is going to be most important.

“Everybody will be playing their best hockey in February and March to make the playoffs, or teams that aren’t in the playoffs are playing for their jobs. So it’s going to be much harder, but it’s also much more exciting.”

The Bruins hope some of their recent adjustments have addressed the ennui that very clearly crept into the hockey club over the last couple of months, but the circumstances facing them once they get going again in a couple of weeks might just do that all by itself.  

Nick Ritchie struggles in Bruins debut, but it'll take some time to fit in

Nick Ritchie struggles in Bruins debut, but it'll take some time to fit in

Nick Ritchie didn't play well in his Boston Bruins debut Tuesday night, but to be fair, most of his teammates gave a similarly lackluster performance against the Calgary Flames.

Ritchie did not score a goal, tally an assist or register a shot on goal in 14:17 of ice time. The Bruins were out shot 11-4 and outscored 2-0 during 5-on-5 play when Ritchie was on the ice. The physical forward did have seven hits, but that was more of an indication that the Bruins were chasing the play when he was in the game.

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Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy was not shy about calling out his players following a 5-2 loss at TD Garden, but he wisely wants to see more of Ritchie before giving a real critique of his game.

"I thought he was fine," Cassidy told reporters when asked about Ritchie's debut. "I’m not going to judge him on a... he flew in here yesterday. He’s trying to get acclimated. There has to be a decent amount of period before we see what we got, and then go from there. I’d rather not, I’d rather watch some tape and see if, did he finish checks, did he get inside?

"Some of the details he’s going to bring to us. Rather look at the whole group, and we just did not have our — the guys we rely on to play, play well, had a tougher time tonight. And it kind of showed up in the end."

Cassidy made the decision to give Ritchie the first shift of the game, and the chance to develop some chemistry on the third line alongside Charlie Coyle and Anders Bjork. The Flames held a 5-1 edge in shot attempts, a 3-0 advantage in shots on goal and a 1-0 lead in goals scored against the Ritchie-Coyle-Bjork line at 5-on-5. This Bruins line also created zero 5-on-5 scoring chances in 4:57 of ice time together.

"Listen, you give him a chance to start. He’s going to get on the ice eventually anyway," Cassidy said. "That was, they just had (Matthew) Tkachuk and (Milan) Lucic, so you put him out there in case if they want — I think Looch is more about being a body, playing here than anything. But if they want to play that type of game early, then we want to be prepared for it and have (Zdeno Chara) back there as well and be ready to bang.

"But that was the thinking there, certain matchups you’re looking for throughout the game. To be honest with you, I don’t know that we ever truly got them tonight where they were in our favor."

Ritchie doesn't have to score goals to be effective. He's doing his job if he's aggressive on the forecheck, winning puck battles to maintain possession and getting to the front of the net where he can screen the opposing goalie. We didn't see much of those things from Ritchie against the Flames, but fortunately for him and the Bruins, they'll be right back on Garden ice Thursday night against another Western Conference contender in the Dallas Stars.

Cassidy blasts B's: 'They didn't break a sweat, some of them'

Bruce Cassidy on Bruins' loss to Calgary: 'They didn't break a sweat, some of them'

Bruce Cassidy on Bruins' loss to Calgary: 'They didn't break a sweat, some of them'

BOSTON – Sometimes a team plays with renewed energy and vigor in the first game with new players added after the NHL trade deadline.

And sometimes a team lays an egg despite the addition of new trade pieces as everybody searches for the right fit while moving on from the players dealt away ahead of the very same deadline. 

The Bruins were much more the former when they played a flat, “sleepy” game that ended with a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames Tuesday night at TD Garden.

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It was the second loss in a row for a team that on Saturday night provided very little resistance in a rudderless, 9-3 blowout at the hands of the Canucks and left their coach wholly unimpressed after the loss to the Flames.

“[It was] clearly not good enough. I thought some guys came to play and some guys didn’t. [Some guys] didn’t break a sweat, some of them it looked like,” said Bruce Cassidy, right out of the gate after a game where the Bruins never held the lead. “I’m sure there was effort [and that] they were trying. They were just in-between, couldn’t execute or whatever. At the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”

Certainly, those direct words from Cassidy aren’t meant to be a pretty pointed message to the passengers on a  Bruins team that had just watched Danton Heinen get shipped off 24 hours prior to the Calgary game.

The Bruins coach could have pointed out plenty of things that were lacking, whether it was the rare, poor overall game from the Perfection Line aside from Brad Marchand’s shorthanded goal, or the lack of resistance from too many good players when Calgary scored the back-breaking fourth goal in the third period. 

On that one, David Krejci didn’t do enough on the back-check, Tuukka Rask left the five-hole wide open for Mikael Backlund and David Pastrnak never really got things going as the NHL’s leading scorer.

Surely, the just-concluded trip to Western Canada could be used as a travel-weary excuse by the Black and Gold, but those excuses should be pushed by the wayside for a team with big-time Stanley Cup playoff aspirations.

“We weren’t at our best for sure. We didn’t have it all the way through the game. We were a little sleepy, I guess, at times,” said Marchand, whose shorthanded tally tied it in at 1 in the second period before two more second-period Flames goals allowed Calgary to pull away. “It wasn’t our normal, upbeat, high-energy game, but it’s going to happen during an 82-game schedule. You’re not going to be perfect and unfortunately, we didn’t get this one.”

The Bruins will quickly dust off that performance, be happy that the Tampa Bay Lightning also lost so they stay five points behind Boston in the Atlantic Division and instead focus on getting the intensity back against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.