BOSTON — The Bruins have won all three games coming out of the 10-day break for NHL All-Star Weekend and the bye week, and they’ve won each of them in convincing fashion.
There have been a lot of things going right for Boston over the winning stretch as it appears that the time away from the rink was extremely beneficial for the team. But one remarkable feature considering the long layoff has been the awesome display of special teams prowess over those three games.
The Bruins have been a top-5 power play team and a top-10 penalty kill squad all season, and now they rank top-3 in the NHL in both special teams categories after a torrid last three games, culminating with Tuesday night’s 4-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks at TD Garden.
The Bruins hit for a power play goal late in their shutout win over the Canucks even after fumbling away a couple of 5-on-3 chances earlier in a game they dominated while outshooting Vancouver 42-25, and have scored six power play goals in 14 chances in the wins over Western Conference teams Winnipeg, Minnesota and Vancouver. The Bruins have also killed all 14 power plays they've faced in these three victories where they’ve outscored opponents by a 12-2 margin, and continue to sit five points ahead of everybody else in the Atlantic Division.
The fact that the Bruins special teams were so sharp coming out of a 10-day break with no practice time is pretty remarkable, but speaks in many ways to the raw talent that makes them so good in the first place.
“I think it helped us to get away and not have any practice time, because maybe we were overthinking it a little bit,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Coaches and players alike are trying to find solutions. I’m not the type of guy that’s going to watch it and do nothing. I’m going to say, ‘let’s try this’ and then maybe you’re overthinking it.
“On the penalty kill, sometimes you have to be fortunate. In Winnipeg, they were off with some of their chances, but I thought we were good on the 5-on-3’s. In Minnesota, we were excellent and able to roll through almost eight forwards that can stay fresh and put more pressure on. That’s something to build on and it was good.”
The Bruins are 48-for-179 with a 26.8 percent success rate on the power play this season, good for second in the league, and third in the league while killing 84.5 percent of power plays while holding a clear special teams advantage over just about everybody they face along the way.
So why is all of this happening right now? Some of it is about simplifying things on the power play and just finding the open guy as they have begun to do when pressured on the top unit, and some of it is about the mental break accompanying the midseason pause button.
“I think we went back to a little bit less overthinking and maybe being a little more assertive on our passes, and then putting the puck on net a little bit more. There are lots of options on the power play, some that we use more than others,” said Patrice Bergeron, referencing the David Pastrnak one-timer which has accounted for an NHL-leading 17 power play goals this season. “We need to utilize all of the [options] and when we do that, it really puts the penalty kill on their heels a little bit, and then things open up. You take what’s open and don’t force plays. When you go back to that good things always happen.”
As far as the penalty kill goes, it’s about a larger group of forwards that Bruce Cassidy can shuttle in and out of the PK with higher energy levels and Brandon Carlo really turning into a premier penalty kill player.
Everybody talks about Zdeno Chara’s role as a penalty kill stopper, of course, but it’s the 6-foot-5 Carlo who now logs the biggest workload on the penalty kill (3:03 of shorthanded ice time per game) and has become equally good at snuffing out plays and getting the clears that are vital to killing off two-minute power plays.
“A little more energy on [the penalty kill]. Rolling through six or eight forwards helps right now with our lineup the way it is. I can’t remember going to the start of the year, but I know that a guy like [Anton] Blidh comes out and can kill. And when [Par] Lindholm’s in, he’s very good at it,” said Cassidy. “I think Brandon Carlo is growing in that reputation and he should be. He’s a leading minutes guy on our team for the kill and he does a great job. He’s got a long stick, will block shots and he’s getting better with his clears. That’s usually why you kill well because you stay fresh. It’s a bit of composure and experience in that department for Brandon.”
It’s all added up to special teams domination for the Black and Gold over the last three games, and performances that are much more in line with the hockey club that piled up wins and points during the first few months of the season.