Bruins

Haggerty: Impressive B's adjust to getting opponents' best shot

bruins-devils-haggerty-column-12418.jpg

Haggerty: Impressive B's adjust to getting opponents' best shot

BOSTON – With the Bruins ascending to true contender status the past couple of months, things have certainly changed for the Black and Gold. Most of it is for the better, with the B’s pushing up in the standings while sitting just five points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

MORE BRUINS:

Still, that also means the other 30 NHL teams are going to ramp up their effort against a team that’s been trouncing opponents on a regular basis lately. Boston isn’t going to sneak up on anyone anymore and teams are going to throw their best at the Bruins as New Jersey did on Tuesday night in a tight 3-2 Boston win at TD Garden.

The Bruins gave up the first goal of the game for the sixth time in a row and Tuukka Rask needed to essentially steal the two points with his 37 saves. The B's recognized a couple of things in the aftermath: They certainly didn’t play their best against a pretty good Devils outfit even without the injured Taylor Hall, and they’d better start preparing for opponents to throw everything they’ve got at them.

That started with a 20-shot barrage at Rask from the Devils in the opening 20 minutes and concluded with some Grade-A chances to tie things up in the third period that was once again foiled by the B’s goaltender.

“I would assume that when you’re going well that teams want to bring their A-game. They’re gunning for you, and our guys are getting used to it. They want to make sure that they’re out there and proving that they can play against a very good hockey team,” said B’s coach Bruce Cassidy. “I think more [on Tuesday night] their start was they lost a home game [on Monday], so the natural thing to do was let’s not turn down shots a lot of the times.

“We would probably do the same thing with our group. If we’re not scoring, make sure we get an ugly one, usually the philosophy. I don’t know if that was the directive, but I have to believe it was. “

It only makes sense given that the B’s are 22-3-4 in their last 29 games dating to when Rask was benched. They've since gone well beyond a hot streak and into an ascension to one of the NHL’s deepest, most well-rounded teams. They are scoring 3.3 goals per game and again notched three goals against the Devils on an off night with the NHL’s best forward line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak) carrying the burden, and they are the NHL’s best defense allowing just 2.4 goals per game.

The 5-on-3 advantage midway through the second period is when the Bruins seized control and Patrice Bergeron scored his 20th goal of the season from his usual spot right in the slot area manning the bumper position.

“It is his bread and butter. He scored the majority of his goals from there. Great chemistry with Marsh. They were killing five-on-three two high and one low a little bit," Cassidy said. "Usually, you see two are low and one high lot of times. There were some opportunities low; we got one across to [David Krejci], just missed, and Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] made the appropriate read as they were covering low and kind of went against the grain…good timing play and a great shot. It doesn’t surprise me from there; he tends to be able to hit it and hit it well. I’ve said this before; he is out there with [assistant coach] Jay [Pandolfo] pretty much every day working from that spot, moving into the puck whether it is five-on-four, five-on-three situations, so good for him.”

The Bruins were the first team in the NHL this season to boast three 20-goal scorers with Bergeron’s power-play strike, and were joined later in the evening by Dallas with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov also turning the trick.

The Bruins rank seventh in the NHL on the power play and have the third-best penalty kill in the league as well. They took full advantage of some excessive officiating when Miles Wood was slapped with a double-minor penalty for taking a few retaliatory shots at Riley Nash. But that’s what good teams do. They take advantage when an opponent opens the door for them, and the Bruins stepped through when that chance arose against Jersey.

That’s what they’ll have to continue to do, knowing they’re going to receive the other team’s best punch just as they did against an urgent Jersey team while extending their point streak to 17 games.

“I think so,” said Nash, when asked if “teams are starting to get up to play the Bruins” at this point. “At the same time we just have to match that intensity and we knew that they were going to come out with a little something extra…but you have to match that.

“I think a lot of times we have gotten off to good starts, so I don’t think it’s something to be all too concerned about. But at the same time, it’s got to be addressed right away. I guess you find out next game if it’s a routine, or a habit or not. We knew that they were going to be desperate, but you got to match that.”

The Bruins probably don’t have to wait until their next game - Thursday in Ottawa - to find out. They’re no longer just a nice little underdog story or a team on the rise.

They’re piling up points with no discernible weakness on their roster and other teams are going to girding up to play the Black and Gold juggernaut. It will be up to the Bruins to be ready to handle all comers in what’s sure to be an intense second half of the season. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Morning Skate: Minnesota has a Massachusetts feel

cp-morning-skate.jpg
NBC Sports Boston illustration

Morning Skate: Minnesota has a Massachusetts feel

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while things play out between the Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 for all the marbles.
 
-- Massachusetts native Charlie Coyle is scheduled to undergo surgery on both wrists. I’ve got to imagine that’s going to make for a few weeks where everything is pretty much impossible to do post –surgery for the Minnesota Wild forward.  

-- Another local hockey product is going to be associated with the Minnesota Wild, as Springfield, Mass., native Paul Fenton has been named the new general manager.
 
-- The Golden Knights tale is one of some very shrewd moves prior to their opening season, and a lot of things that have gone their way since then.

 -- Something tells me Bruins fans aren’t going to get tired of offensive highlights from New York Islanders rookie Mat Barzal. They are a glutton for punishment, after all.
 
-- The Toronto Maple Leafs front office is now completely under the control of Kyle Dubas, as both Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter have exited the organization.
 
 -- Here’s a look at the short-term salary cap picture for the Detroit Red Wings as they continue to build back up toward being a playoff power.
 
*For something completely different: So I’m buying in on Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia talking Star Wars on this podcast. Who knew big CC was a Star Wars guy?

A look at Bruins in free agency: Anton Khudobin

A look at Bruins in free agency: Anton Khudobin

It was a bit eyebrow-raising when Bruins team president Cam Neely last week mentioned backup goaltending as a priority for the Bruins on their offseason shopping list. The assumption was that the Bruins would find common ground with looming free agent Anton Khudobin after a stellar season in which he played 31 games as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

The ability to play well and play relatively often is a mandatory one with the Bruins as the formula for team success includes a plan that gives their No. 1 in Rask ample physical and mental rest in the regular season.

A return for Khudobin, 32, is still the most likely scenario for the Bruins when all things are considered given that he posted a 2.56 goals-against average and .913 save percentage as the perfect backup to Rask, and given that he wants to stick around in Boston.

“I want to be here. I like [it] here. I’ve been in California, I’ve been in Texas, I’ve been in Carolina, I’ve been in Minnesota. I’ve been in a lot of cities and a lot of states, and Boston is my favorite one,” said Khudobin, with the trademark twinkle in his eye as he discussed a city he returned to two years ago after his first stint with the Bruins. “That’s clearly [the truth], and it’s not because I want to give it a shot, or try to say I’m so nice I’m going to just sign here. This is my favorite city. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to sign here, or if I’m going to go away, or if I’m going to sign here. Boston is still going to be my favorite city.

“Don [Sweeney] knows that I love it here. I love the city and everybody knows it. How much is it going to be a factor in signing a new contract, I don’t know? I don’t think it will be a factor. I don’t think it matters. It matters what they can offer and how much I’m willing to take. For me personally, I would love to stay here. I’m 32 right now, and if I’m going to play until 40 I would love to play another eight years here. That’s clear for me. If we will get a deal, today, or tomorrow, or in free agency, I don’t know. But if it will happen in Boston, I will be happy.”

So, the good news is that the B’s and Khudobin are halfway there with the player clearly in love with the city and the team and has already proven he can provide the support Rask clearly needs. Still, it’s also a safe bet that, coming off a strong season, Khudobin is going to want a bit of a raise from the two-year, $2.4 million contract he signed a couple of years ago. Perhaps his season was even good enough to entice a goalie-challenged NHL team into giving him another go-round as a possible No. 1 candidate after mixed reviews in his one and only shot with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The uncertainty of Khudobin as a possible free agent come July 1 and the poor conditioning that factored into an at-times bad opening season in Boston might just be giving the Bruins pause about bringing him back on a multi-year deal. That seems to be bearing out in some of the B’s organizational comments about the backup goaltending headed into the offseason.

“I thought [Khudobin] had a great year for us. He really stepped in when Tuukka was struggling a little bit and gave us an opportunity to win hockey games,” said Neely. “If he we didn’t have that, we certainly have had the year that we did. He’s well-liked in the locker room and starting last year with those two big games against Chicago and the Islanders before he followed it up with a great start this year.

“Obviously it has to make sense for us. When somebody has a really good year headed into UFA they want to see what’s out there, so you can’t blame them for that.”

Certainly, the Bruins could, and should, be willing to go into the two-year, $3-3.5 million range for Khudobin given the stability he helped bring to the goaltending situation. That would be a fair league rate for a backup goalie. The problem for the Bruins is that they don’t have any ready-made alternatives within the organization. Zane McIntyre had a very mixed AHL season with the Providence Bruins and Malcolm Subban was lost to the Vegas Golden Knights via waivers at the beginning of this past season.

“Zane had pushed the previous year. He had an up-and-down year this year. Had some real good pockets of games where he was excellent, and other games where some of the situations, he didn’t necessarily rise up to. He’s in the [backup goalie] mix, certainly, to push for our group. We’re exploring bringing Anton back and see if that might work,” said Sweeney. “If not, we may have to go to an alternative. Daniel Vladar was around, played a lot more games this year. He will be in Providence next year as part of the development process for him.

“[Kyle] Keyser came in at the end of the year, as well, had a good year. He’s part of it. Jeremy Swayman also had a very good year in Maine and took over the starting role there. We feel like we’re starting to make sure we address it appropriately, and hopefully one of these guys emerges as the next number one for the Boston Bruins. It’s an area we have to make sure that we’re spot on. We’ll be looking at [McIntyre] again this summer, and it starts with where our talks with Anton go.”

So let’s be honest about the names mentioned above. The 20-year-old Vladar has played 12 games in the AHL the past two seasons and Swayman is in the middle of his collegiate career with the Black Bears. Keyser was last spotted being taken to the hospital via ambulance after getting hit in the neck with a puck at a Bruins playoff practice. He was expected to be fine afterward, but it’s clear he’s also not ready to be an NHL backup straight out of junior hockey.

So, McIntyre is the only candidate with any qualifications to be an NHL backup next season and his 3.97 GAA and .858 save percentage in eight NHL appearances should give the Bruins a whole lot of pause given the importance of the position. Certainly, there will be some backup goalie candidates in free agency that have experience with the Bruins organization whether it’s Chad Johnson, Michael Hutchinson or Jeremy Smith, or Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen or Jaroslav Halak that might be ready to transition fully into an aging, oft-used backup at a discount in Boston.

The good news is that the Bruins should have a lot of different backup goalie options to choose from if that’s the plan come July 1, but the better news would be if both Khudobin and the B’s come to a sensible agreement to keep Rask and Khudobin intact as a tandem. After all, they finished last season fourth in the NHL in GAA (2.57), tied for ninth in save percentage (.912), and gave the Black and Gold a chance to win just about every night.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE