BOSTON – Boston’s top trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak is deservedly getting the lion’s share of the credit due to their dominant work since coming together as a “super line”, but those three forwards can’t do it all. Most nights, they will hold one of the other team’s best forward lines in check and they'll do plenty of offensive damage with Marchand and Pastrnak on pace for 40-goal seasons.
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Still, the Bruins need diversification in their scoring up front if they’re going to be anywhere near as good as they aim to be. That’s why the recent surge from their third line of Danton Heinen, Riley Nash and David Backes has been an extremely important development. The 5-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night at TD Garden served as Exhibit A of that.
The trio combined for four of the five goals for the Black and Gold against a ragged Senators bunch. The third line continued to exhibit its willingness to play the 200-foot game while lightening the load for Boston’s top forwards. With David Krejci still out with an upper-body issue, that’s been a huge development for a Bruins team rolling on most cylinders with 14 wins in their past 18 games.
“We’re going to try to get [the Nash Line] against one of the scoring lines for the other team. Usually, [Patrice Bergeron] will get one of those matchups. If Krech [David Krejci] is in there, we don’t mind using him," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. "He has been in the league a long time – just he has the younger wingers, so the more 200-foot guys
with [David] Backes and [Danton] Heinen – that’s why they were put together,” said Cassidy. “So, they’ll probably see some skill [matched up against them]. If the other team is really looking for a matchup, we might just put them against their checking line to negate it because we think Bergy can outplay any line in the league. We just feel that way.
“Balanced scoring, secondary scoring...it’s something we were searching for. Nash’s line has chipped in on I think on a fairly regular basis. [Ryan] Spooner’s group certainly has the ability to do it. You saw that with Anders [Bjork] tonight, found his legs. It’s a big plus for us, takes a lot of load off of those [top] guys. They’re going to want to score every night; it’s how they play. I think they had drive tonight – Bergy’s [Patrice Bergeron’s] line – it just didn’t go in for them, or maybe one too many passes or however you want to analyze it. For us to be able to [score without goals from the Bergeron Line] is a good sign.”
In the win over the Senators, it was Nash who stood out most with a pair of second-period goals against the Senators team that ended the Bruins season last year in the first round of the playoffs. Some will remember that the bottom-six center took it pretty hard after his retaliation penalty led to an overtime home playoff loss for the Bruins.
It might not have completely removed the sting, but Nash scored twice to help the Bruins pull away in a game they never trailed. The first score was a breakaway goal off an Erik Karlsson turnover and the second was a nasty little dangle drive to the net where he slid the puck under Craig Anderson.
With the three-point game, Nash now has two goals and seven points in 11 games in December and is on pace for a very strong 10 goals and 36 points on the season. That’s a step up from last season and a sign that Nash is responding to a little more responsibility on his plate.
“It seems to be every year it kind of comes in bunches, so you know, now I get two [against Ottawa]. Hopefully, I can keep that rolling and feel good and maybe shoot the puck a little bit more,” said Nash. “I think my linemates played great. They’re both tremendous. [They have] very good shots, so you know, it’s just give and take for our line for contributing, and I think that’s more important than anything.
“Anytime we can kind of give [the Bergeron Line] some support, and you know, not put the pressure on them. I know coming in that they probably want to score a goal or two every game, but some nights it’s not going to happen. And having Krech [David Krejci] out, I think that also puts a little bit of onus on the second and third line. Everybody as the bottom nine is kind of banded together in helping out.”
Clearly, Backes also has been very good since coming back from diverticulitis and has been close to a point-per-game player in December with five goals and 10 points in 12 games as a big-bodied finisher around the net. He’s skating and moving around better than at any point in his first season in Boston and is playing the best hockey of his Bruins career at a time when they really need him.
Then there’s Heinen, who is coming into his own with offensive playmaking and a 200-foot game that makes him just another well-rounded weapon. He crashed backdoor for the game-winning goal on Wednesday night while connecting with Ryan Spooner on the between-lines score and has been a point-per-game player this month with five goals and 12 points in 12 December games.
Oh, by the way, Heinen has also busted into the NHL’s top five for rookie scoring.
Only Mathew Barzal, Clayton Keller and Brock Boeser have more points than Heinen among NHL first-year players. His nine goals and 24 points in 31 games projects to 23 goals and 60 points for a full season. Clearly, there is a lot of deserved hype with Charlie McAvoy in his rookie season, but the Heinen, 22, has helped elevate the games of Backes and Nash as third-line partners. That’s quite an impact from a rookie who wasn’t getting hyped quite like Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork in camp.
The development of the B’s third line into an impactful offensive and defensive force has helped the Bruins elevate their game over the last month. That’s exactly what the hockey doctor ordered for Boston.
“You need guys to step up on different nights,” said Zdeno Chara. “You can’t be always relying on the same guys to score goals, you know? So obviously [the win over Ottawa] was a night for our secondary scoring guys, and they did a great job.”
The challenge now for Heinen, Nash and Backes will be to keep building on the promise they’ve shown in December and to keep providing scoring depth that is making the Black and Gold awfully tough to beat right now.