Bruins

Charlie McAvoy 'building (his) game' after slow start to Bruins season

Charlie McAvoy 'building (his) game' after slow start to Bruins season

The good news is that a physical challenge against a big, strong and offensively explosive Washington Capitals team brought out the best in Charlie McAvoy on Saturday night.

The bad news is that hasn’t been the norm this season for the 21-year-old McAvoy more than a month into the new NHL season. McAvoy picked up a couple assists in 23:23 of ice time in the shootout loss to the Caps, and even better, along with defense partner Zdeno Chara he was able to keep Alex Ovechkin under wraps throughout the game.

The two points would have been better, of course, and McAvoy quickly confirmed that after the game while also acknowledging that he played well.

“I tried to play hard on those guys and a big part of that is physicality,” said McAvoy. “[Ovechkin] ending up with zero is pretty nice. I can be happy with that, but I’m pretty pissed off that we pissed away two points.”

That was something to build on for a player in McAvoy who has just six assists in 20 games, and equaled half his offensive output from the first 19 games with the two helpers against Washington.

“He was terrific tonight. [The] level of competition tends to bring out the best in Charlie, and we certainly saw that [against the Capitals]. We needed it against a heavier group. I think he took the challenge head on. It’s a tougher game for the [Connor] Cliftons and the [Matt] Grzelcyks of the world,” said Bruce Cassidy of McAvoy, who one evening prior had been part of a defensive breakdown that led to a Maple Leafs goal when he wandered away from the front of the net. “[McAvoy] played a lot of minutes, and Charlie was really good in that way at both ends of the ice.

“I thought he was excellent. With Charlie, it’s just, he’s got to stay in the moment, that’s when he plays his best hockey. We’re not in there feeding him. It’s not information overload for that particular type of player. It’s protect the middle of the ice, be assertive with the puck when you see ice and make good decisions when to go. I thought [against the Capitals] a lot of it fell into place. He was up the ice at the right time, defending at the right time and not being vulnerable to a serious counterattack from a team that can finish. He wasn’t putting himself in bad spots. I thought that was the best part. As much as he was involved in the game, there wasn’t much risk. That’s a sign of a guy that’s growing.”

Now McAvoy faces the challenge of maintaining that high level of play and continuing to eliminate the tentativeness to his game. It certainly hasn’t been all bad as McAvoy is leading the Bruins with 22:21 of ice time per game and is a plus-8 for the season while routinely lining up against the other team’s best offensive players.

But he’s also on pace for just 25 points this season and is still looking for his first goal of the year, and hasn’t really managed to find the balance between offense and defense that makes for a true No. 1 defenseman at the NHL level.

Some of it has been a few unlucky bounces along the way for McAvoy and those he’s set up for scoring chances, but some of it is also about the paltry 20 shots he’s put on net in his 20 games played this season. Even in the Washington game, McAvoy missed high and wide with a golden scoring chance from the slot on a setup by David Krejci that eventually turned into a goal for David Pastrnak from a bad angle at the side of the net.

McAvoy talked about his game a couple of days ago ahead of the semi-breakthrough performance against Washington, and it was pretty clear the 21-year-old knew there was more for him to give out on the ice.

“For me, it’s just playing hockey. Every night I’m lucky and I’m happy I get to take a lot of pride in the defensive side of the game lining up against guys who are world class players. I really take pride in just shutting them down. [Chara] takes a lot of pride in that and he sets the precedent in how we approach those things,” said McAvoy. “Then it’s easy for me to follow his lead. Whatever the game presents is what I try and get [offensively]. I feel like I’m building my game right now. I’m trying to build it from the defensive zone out.

“Things just happen and you’ve just got to play and have fun. At times if I’m going through streaks where I’m not having much opportunity or chances, that’s when I look at it and say where I can start joining in more. But I feel like I’m getting these chances. Some of it is just shooting more, and some of it maybe is just bounces. It’s been kind of new to me where it’s a streak like this, but I think there’s a lot of guys on this team like me that are looking to break through and get on a roll. I know that if I build my game from the defense out and that I’m a defenseman first and foremost. If I can do the best I can every night to keep the puck out of our net, hopefully when we get to the other side of the net I can start helping put it in theirs.”

To put it in perspective, some hockey prognosticators — this humble hockey writer included — pegged McAvoy as a possible Norris Trophy candidate for this season, and he’s got a long way to go to achieve that level. There are encouraging signs he’s starting to make the climb there after a very slow start out of the gate, but McAvoy won’t be there until he becomes the Bruins' best D-man pretty much every night for long stretches of time.

McAvoy was exactly that against the Capitals, and now he needs to begin doing it again and again with Torey Krug out of the lineup due to injury, and Zdeno Chara unable to shoulder that kind of burden anymore nightly at 42 years old. The game Tuesday night in New Jersey won’t be as stimulating as a Saturday night game against a Capitals team that won the Cup a couple of seasons ago, so it might be a good test for McAvoy as he keeps building his game to a higher level.

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Complacency and comfort are real concerns for a Bruins team running away with division

Complacency and comfort are real concerns for a Bruins team running away with division

BOSTON – The good news for the Bruins is that they hold a 15-point lead over every team in the Atlantic Division and it isn’t even Christmas.

The relatively bad news for the Bruins is also that they hold a 15-point lead over every team in the Atlantic Division and it isn’t even Christmas.

Clearly, the Bruins would rather be up 15 points than behind 15 points, but with every situation there comes challenges.

It certainly seems as if some disarming comfort and an old-fashioned lack of urgency have crept into the B’s game as they again stumbled through the first 40 minutes Thursday night before a patented third-period comeback earned them a point in an eventual overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at TD Garden.

The game against Chicago was particularly damning because it uncovered a real lack of focus in the overall game. The Bruins allowed a pair of special teams goals in the final two minutes of the first period and were caught napping again 17 seconds into the third to dig a 3-0 hole.

One can dissect the individual problems, whether it was a costly turnover from Charlie McAvoy on the power play that led to Chicago’s shorthanded goal, or the ensuing penalty from David Pastrnak that allowed the Blackhawks to double up with a PP goal 37 seconds later. Or Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug flat out getting caught flat-footed on Alex DeBrincat’s speed rush in the opening shift of the third that finally seemed to act like smelling salts to the Black and Gold.

It says something about the character and the overall talent of the team that they can continuously overcome deficits in the third period. There’s no denying they are the best team in the NHL in the final 20 minutes of the game.

They are outscoring opponents by a 2-1 margin (42-21) in the third period and have a whopping plus-21 goal differential when it comes to winning time.

But the lack of urgency out of the gate game after game of late sure looks like complacency and certainly looks like a team that knows they are far out ahead in the standings.

“Complacency? I would say no. Lack of urgency some nights? I would say yes. We’re not pushing as hard as we need to to get to our level. Is that because of where we are, is that because of last year, is that because we feel like we’re a good enough team that we can flip a switch? Probably bits and pieces of all those things, I’m not going to deny it,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Our job is to make sure we don’t get complacent. I don’t think we have been, to be honest with you. I think it would show in our record if we were.

"But, lack of urgency from period to period, absolutely. We’re going to continue to address it, but to get to your level 82 times a night for 60 games, if you feel you’re better than – you’re going to be in that second season, it is a challenge for a coach, and it’s a challenge for the players, but we’ll need [the urgency]."

The danger, of course, is that the Bruins turn into this season's version of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where they race off to such a commanding lead that they never truly face character-building adversity in the regular season. The B’s have enough experience and talent to overcome that once they are in a playoff series, which would make them demonstrably different than a Lightning team that folded like a cheap chair in four games against Columbus last spring.

But there is still very much a danger now that the Bruins can float through the rest of this regular season where they only need to win half (27) of their remaining 53 games to still get to 100 points based on their bounding start. Essentially the Bruins could play .500 hockey the rest of the way and still breeze right into the playoffs, and win the division as well.

It's difficult to stay sharp under those circumstances and it will be equally difficult to match the intensity in the postseason facing a team that will have been scratching and clawing in order to get there. Torey Krug maintained he didn’t know what kind of lead the Bruins had in the Atlantic Division standings, and that’s probably the best thing for the Bruins to do right now.

“I would say normally yes, but it doesn’t feel like we’re in that position right now,” said Krug, when asked if the Bruins need to guard against complacency. “I don’t why that is. It’s so early in the season and we’re chasing perfection, and there’s a high standard here. So maybe that’s where it comes from,  but it doesn’t feel like we’re that far ahead [of everybody else].

“We’re missing a lot of guys too, so you always feel like going into these games that you need to bring your ‘A’ game because of who we’re missing. As a veteran guy, you feel like you need to take more onto your shoulders. I’m not even sure if guys know [their lead in the Atlantic] and it’s probably a good idea to just stay in the moment.”

Clearly, Krug walks it the way he talks as it was the puck-moving D-man that notched the tying goal Thursday in the final minutes to cap off the three-goal comeback in the third period.

The one silver lining that could stoke the B’s hunger and keep them at least partially invested in the game-to-game gauntlet the next five months: The top seed in the Eastern Conference is still wide open in competition with the Capitals.

Home-ice advantage all through the playoffs is certainly something to play for and could be a difference in a conference final showdown with Washington, and that should be a carrot directly in front of the Bruins that the coaching staff can sell them on.

But at no point does it seem as if the Bruins are going to have to fight for their lives for the rest of the season and they are already close to finishing the season series with the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, rivals that are chasing them in the standings.

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Bruins' Patrice Bergeron (lower body) out Saturday against Colorado Avalanche

Bruins' Patrice Bergeron (lower body) out Saturday against Colorado Avalanche

BRIGHTON, Mass – The Bruins will continue to be without Patrice Bergeron this weekend, but the B’s top center is making progress with his lower-body injury.

Bergeron, 34, took a positive step by participating in practice with his teammates for the first time since being injured on Friday morning at Warrior Ice Arena, though he was wearing a no-contact sweater and didn’t really mix in with his normal linemates for drills. Bruce Cassidy confirmed following practice that Bergeron won’t play Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche, but remained hopeful he may return early next week barring any setbacks.

“[He’s wearing] a red sweater; that’s good. He participated in some line rushes, but it wasn’t a heavy contact practice,” said Cassidy. “He won’t play [against Colorado], but once you have the red sweater on you’re that much closer. Monday [against Ottawa] now becomes more of a target date for us if there are no setbacks.”

It will mark the seventh straight game that Bergeron has missed with his lower-body injury and the ninth game of the past 11 games that he’s missed due to the nagging injury. The amazing thing: The Bruins have gone 6-0-2 thus far without Bergeron and have done a pretty good job of getting by having David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and others fill into his many different roles on the ice. 

Brett Ritchie skated in line drills and appears close to a return, but it remains to be seen which forward he might replace in the lineup. 

Here are the projected line combos and defense pairings based on practice Friday ahead of the big non-conference tilt Saturday against eth talented, explosive Avs:

Marchand-Coyle-Heinen

DeBrusk-Krejci-Pastrnak

Nordstrom-Kuraly-Wagner

Bjork-Lindholm-Ritchie

 

Chara-McAvoy

Krug-Carlo

Moore-Grzelcyk

 

Rask

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