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Dominant special teams carrying streaking Bruins out of the break

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Dominant special teams carrying streaking Bruins out of the break

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.

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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.

Interesting details why NHL reportedly chose Edmonton as hub city

Interesting details why NHL reportedly chose Edmonton as hub city

It’s pretty much official at this point as countless reports have the NHL settled on Edmonton and Toronto as the two hub cities when teams return to play at the end of the month.

TSN Insider Bob McKenzie revealed on Thursday afternoon that Edmonton will also end up being the site for the conference finals as well as the Stanley Cup Final given how well the city has contained the COVID-19 virus over the last three months.

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Edmonton Oilers radio analyst Bob Stauffer confirmed that it indeed is looking good for Edmonton and outlined some of the finer points to the Edmonton plan that attracted the NHL once they decided to avoid Las Vegas despite its glamorous appeal.

“Edmonton is in a unique situation. It’s low-population density and the majority of the international travel went through Calgary, so if you compare [Alberta] to the U.S. there’s only four U.S. states that have fewer cases per million [people] than Alberta. And Edmonton only has 13 percent of the cases for the entire [Alberta] province despite the fact that Edmonton has 37 or 38 percent of the population. We only had 15 deaths total [from COVID-19] in the last 15 weeks and just three deaths over the last two months. The caseload has been light.

“That’s a major reason why Edmonton got this [hub city designation]. Make no mistake, the Edmonton Oilers Entertainment Group was really aggressive to get the bid. The province really wanted it. Edmonton has a brand new JW Marriott hotel that’s adjacent to Rogers Place and, if we’re able to push the ball over the goal line here, all 12 teams’ players will stay there. There are a couple of supporting hotels that will house the executives and the rest of that 50-man group as well the television crews that will be in to work it. I would call this more of an Olympic-style hub city bid. That was the key.

"They’ll work out an arrangement with 5-8 restaurants, they’ve got the hotel they want to use and they’re just going to cordon everything off. There’s lot of green space for the players and there’s a golf course five minutes away right in the downtown. The average temperature is 68-76 degrees during the day, so it’s not like the 110 degrees that it would be in Vegas. I get it that Vegas was super-sexy [as an option]. I think Gary [Bettman] wanted Vegas. I think the players wanted Vegas. But it seems that the COVID situation really knocked [Vegas] out. At this stage of the game it really looks like Edmonton and they’ve been working on it for a while.”

TSN Insider Darren Dreger had mentioned Edmonton as the biggest and best option for the NHL when he spoke to NBC Sports Boston about a month ago as well.

“Edmonton is on a full-out campaign. They’ve talked about having a million square feet inside their facility. They’ve got a practice rink there. They can literally put 12 dining areas and separate sanitization stations for all 12 teams inside that building,” said Dreger. “And then they’ve got the ice district and they’ve got the JW Marriott, which is a brand-spanking new, world class hotel. Everybody can be housed in that.

"You want to watch a movie outside on a big screen, or you want to watch some of the other games that are being played in the other hub city? You can do that in the ice district. You can watch multiple games if you’re not playing. They were heavily investigating a private golf course and renting it out, so that on their off days the players could go and play golf as a leisure activity as well.”

At that time, it seemed that Vegas, Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton were the lead candidates with other U.S. locales in the mix as well, but Edmonton became a no-brainer once it turned to an all-Canada setting for the NHL games. It also seems clear that the NHL is going to keep the Eastern Conference teams in Toronto and the Western Conference teams in Edmonton for the first couple of playoff rounds following the qualifying round/round-robin games.

But then it will be the many amenities being offered in Edmonton that are going to create a safe, remote environment for the NHL to pull off a Return to Play when so many areas in North America would not be right for it at this point.

Retirement or extension? Looking at Bruins' options for Tuukka Rask

Retirement or extension? Looking at Bruins' options for Tuukka Rask

The clock is ticking for Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins.

The 33-year-old Finnish netminder will be headed into the final year of his contract with the Bruins following this summer’s Return to Play playoffs, and he’ll be coming off a season that should make him a Vezina Trophy finalist for the second time in his career.

Rask, of course, won the award in the 2013-14 NHL season and is in a bit of a two-man race with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck for the honors as the NHL’s top goalie this time around.

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But it’s all proof that he’s essentially lived up to a contract that paid him $7 million a season as one of the highest paid goaltenders in the NHL. Rask is also the second-highest paid player on the Black and Gold behind center David Krejci, but he’s dropped to fifth in salary among NHL goalies with Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury all equal or greater in annual salary.

All of that makes it all the more fascinating what’s going to happen following this summer when Rask will enter the last year of his deal as a 34-year-old goalie with a 36-year-old backup in Jaroslav Halak. Rask and Halak won the Jennings Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltending duo this season and could very well be in line for those honors again next year.

Next year may be the last season that the Bruins can afford that partnership for a number of different reasons, but that doesn’t mean that Rask won’t continue as the No. 1 guy in Boston.  

Meanwhile, the regular season accolades go on and on for Rask. He’s the all-time winningest goalie in Bruins history with 291 wins, and has the most games played (536), the most saves (13,711) and the best save percentage (.922) in the B’s nearly 100-year franchise history. Rask ranks seventh all-time in NHL history with a .9268 save percentage in the playoffs and is the active leader among all NHL goalies with a .9218 career save percentage over his 13-year career.

He ranks third all-time in career save percentage behind Dominik Hasek and Johnny Bower, both Hall of Famers. All that and he showed this season that he’s still got it as one of the NHL leaders in goals against average (2.12) and save percentage (.929) while largely splitting time with Halak. The reduced workload has been a big deal to Rask in the last couple of seasons and it allowed him to carry the Bruins with a .934 save percentage during last spring’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Still, Rask has yet to get the B’s over the top in two tries at the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019 and the contract negotiations are going to be fascinating given that the NHL is looking at a largely flat salary cap for the next three seasons.

According to Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Freidman, the cap is going to go up a million to $82.5 million in 2022-23, but that’s essentially a flat cap for three years considering that the salary cap ceiling had been going up $3-6 million pretty much every season like clockwork.

The good news for the Bruins: They are going to presumably have some salary cap space to work with following next season as they are currently committed to just $35.7 million in salaries for the 2021-22 season, and aren’t going to be on the hook for much more than $52 million when they’ve finally dealt with open contracts for Torey Krug, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, Zdeno Chara and Matt Grzelcyk following this summer’s run of playoff hockey.

A big factor is the $7.25 million cap hit for Krejci that will be coming off the books at the same time as Rask following the 2020-21 NHL season. The expiration of the Krejci contract is going to open up considerable cap space for a strapped front office, and taking both Krejci and Rask deals off the books at the same time lops off a whopping 17 percent of their cap. It will be fascinating to see how the Bruins utilize that space with the expectation a 36-year-old Krejci will either be done playing by then, or will be playing at a greatly reduced rate moving forward.

The real question will be exactly what kind of salary an aging Rask will command at 35 years old?

He’s flirted with the notion of retirement several times over the last couple of years and it seems clear he won’t be the type to keep hanging on when it’s clear he’s at the end of his career.

But he also reiterated his desire to keep playing when he spoke with reporters about it a couple of months ago on a Zoom call.

“I haven’t thought about retirement at all,” Rask said. “I know that this [offseason], I can start talking to the Bruins about a possible extension. When that day comes, we’ll see what happens. But definitely I haven’t put any thought into retirement, nothing like that. We’ll see how this season plays out, and then we’ll see if there’s extension talks.”

He also needs a particular situation to be successful and that means the B’s employing a backup who's good enough to help keep Rask to a modest 50-55 game workload.

The need for a quality backup in Halak has meant that the B’s have shelled out well north of $9 million per year for goaltenders in their three seasons (counting next year) together. That’s a big chunk of salary cap space devoted to the guys who stop the pucks.

Given that Rask isn’t a workhorse type goalie at this point in his career, perhaps that means the Bruins could get him back for a slightly reduced rate in the twilight of his career. At a similar stage in his career, Pekka Rinne signed a two-year, $10 million contract extension with the Nashville Predators in 2018 that should pave the way for exactly what Rask could be looking at following next season.

The $5 million cap hit would take $2 million off Rask’s current cap hit and hand the Bruins extra room to improve their roster while staring down a pretty bleak financial picture over the next three seasons, if not longer than that.

A two-year deal in the $5 million AAV range would still put Rask in the middle of the pack for NHL goaltender salaries, but it would also be the same kind of reasonable deal other core Bruins players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and David Pastrnak have taken to keep the band together over the years. All in all, not a bad solution to the Tuukka contract dilemma.

As dire as things seem fiscally for the NHL and especially this coming offseason for the Bruins with limited funds to sign a handful of key players, it actually doesn’t seem like a new contract for Rask will be all that tricky as long as all parties involved want to keep Tuukka Time going for a while longer.