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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