Improved success on power play keying Bruins' recent win streak
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Improved success on power play keying Bruins' recent win streak

BRIGHTON, Mass. — One of the things that went largely unnoticed during Boston’s losing stretch where they lost eight out of nine games was a weakened power play that wasn’t cranking at its normal dominant efficiency.

The Bruins went 6-for-42 on the power play in the 10 games leading into their back-to-back wins for a 14.3 percent success rate that dropped them to third in the NHL after they had led the league for much of the season on the man advantage.

In the last two wins over the Capitals and the Sabres, things have been back on track for the B’s power play with three goals on 10 tries for a 30 percent success rate that still sees them in third place (26.4 percent success rate), well behind both the Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning at this point.

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One can’t really chalk the power-play slump to injuries and missing personnel as Patrice Bergeron has been healthy and scoring a boatload of goals over the last nine games, and other key players like Torey Krug and David Pastrnak were healthy for pretty much all that stretch. It appeared that many penalty kills were crowding David Pastrnak at the face-off dot to stifle his ability for one-timers while No. 88 also went into a little bit of a shooting slump.

The B’s power play seemed slow to adjust to all these things while simply not outworking the opposing penalty kills during a general malaise up and down the lineup, but that appears to have been cleared up around the three-day holiday break.

The adjustment clearly has been made with Bergeron and Jake DeBrusk scoring PP goals in each of those last two games and the five-man unit adjusting to teams shadowing Pastrnak at the face-off dot.

“We’ve been together for a while on these power plays. Obviously we’re missing Torey [now], but sometimes we just go from the gut,” said Pastrnak, who leads the NHL with 13 power-play goals this season but has just one in December after scoring 12 in October and November. “You can be rolling and then the next game you can’t even get it into the zone. We’re just trying not to overthink it. We know our plays and we know how good we are when we don’t overthink stuff on the power play.

“It’s [keeping with] the simple plays, the plays that we know work. We definitely don’t want to overthink it and then we score a lot of goals on the power play. You remember in October when you knew you were going to score. Obviously kills are getting ready for you and you know it, and that’s when it becomes about making things more simple and recover pucks after the shots so you’re not breaking pucks out for two minutes.”

A lot of it comes down to simply getting the puck to the open man if teams are overplaying Pastrnak, and then winning battles in front of the net to make sure that pressure stays on the penalty kill in the offensive zone.

The Bruins have stepped things up in both of those areas, and not-so-coincidentally the B’s are again scoring PP goals and again winning hockey games after an extended lull in the month of December.

NHL Power Rankings: Bruins, Lightning a clear top two

NHL Power Rankings: Bruins, Lightning a clear top two

It took nearly five months into the regular season for it to happen, but the Bruins and Lightning have separated from everybody else in the NHL.

The two Atlantic Division powerhouses are just one point apart in the division, but they are both more than five points ahead of everybody else in the league. That includes a Pittsburgh team that’s been hot recently and a Washington club that’s back to their deep, dangerous selves after taking a season off last year after celebrating their Stanley Cup title.

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The Lightning have won 11 games in a row and lost two regulation games since Christmas, and they are finally living up to the massive potential within their roster. And now they’ve added the speedy, gritty Blake Coleman in an impressive deal to make them even tougher to play against.

Through it all, the Bruins have managed to stay on top of Tampa Bay, and keep one step ahead of them. That’s just as impressive as the Lightning’s scorching hot run over the last two months.

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Bruins needs are no secret ahead of NHL trade deadline

Bruins needs are no secret ahead of NHL trade deadline

There are few secrets about the Bruins or the strengths and weaknesses that face them heading into the stretch run and Stanley Cup Playoffs that follow.

The Bruins rely on the NHL’s best line — the Perfection Line — superior special teams play, and the NHL’s top goaltending duo along with a strong defensemen group for their winning formula, and it’s proven plenty good enough during the regular season in recent years. The B’s currently sit at an NHL-best 86 points on the season and have a six-point lead on everybody else in the NHL aside from their hard-charging divisional rivals in Tampa Bay.

The Bruins have won nine of their last 10 games after a ragged stretch of play in December/January and have been rolling since the NHL All-Star break while understandably feeling good about their game right now.

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“We’re taking a lot more value in [the defensive] part of the game, and some of it is getting the balance in the lines so that they’re fresh, getting everyone involved,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I think most of our minutes now you’ll see, our forwards are typically at the least amount is 10 minutes sometimes for the lower guys if they’re not killing too many penalties, so I think that helps everyone stay in the game as well.”

When the Bruins are going well as they are right now, they are getting balanced play from their roster. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case and it’s something that gets exposed when they play high-quality competition.

The weaknesses on the Bruins roster are equally clear and easy to diagnose because it’s been the same old thing for the last handful of years.

The Bruins have tried multiple times to acquire top-6 wingers who can produce offense, whether it’s been band-aid deadline solutions like Marcus Johansson and Drew Stafford, or a stab at an attempted long-term fix when they traded for Rangers power forward Rick Nash. They couldn’t predict the abrupt, concussion-influenced retirement from the NHL for Nash following a few months in Black and Gold, and so a top-6 winger continues to be Don Sweeney’s "white whale" on the Bruins roster.

Once the playoffs begin and the Bruins face deeper, bigger and stronger defensive groups, the prolific Perfection Line routinely goes through stretches where they are held in check by opponents. It’s a prominent factor when the Bruins lost to the Lightning in the second round two years ago, and one of the prime reasons the B’s fell in seven games to the St. Louis Blues last June in the Stanley Cup Final.

When it happens, the Bruins become almost completely reliant on their power play to provide offensive punch while the other forward lines haven’t been able to effectively fill the scoring void.

The only way that’s going to change is for the Bruins to bring in a top-6 forward who can play the role of game-breaker and finish off the offensive chances set up by linemates David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. The Bruins need another forward line that can put a scare in opponents offensively and they simply don’t have it consistently right now, just as they haven’t had it in the last handful of seasons.  

With names like Tyler Toffoli, Blake Coleman and Jason Zucker now off the trade deadline board, the Bruins are down to some of their top big-name trade choices in Chris Kreider, Kyle Palmieri and Josh Anderson.

Kreider would be the optimal choice because of his skating speed, consistency and the size and occasional mean streak that the Bruins could surely use among their top-6 group. But there are options out there provided Sweeney doesn’t get hung up waiting for Kreider to be made available to teams.

The other need for the Bruins at this point?

With Kevan Miller out for the entire season to this point with a fractured kneecap that sidelined him for last spring’s entire Stanley Cup Final run as well, the Bruins are a little light on the back end. The B’s could use a big, strong, hardnosed and physical defenseman capable of holding other teams accountable and doling out physical punishment in the D-zone.

The Bruins may have found an in-house solution in 22-year-old Jeremy Lauzon, who most recently served a two-game suspension for drilling Derek Stepan with a big, high hit against the side boards in a home win over the Coyotes. But that particular roster need is the reason they were linked to defenseman Brenden Dillon in trade rumors before he was eventually shipped from the San Jose Sharks to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday for a couple draft picks.

It’s also less than ideal to rely on a rookie like Lauzon as a rugged, grizzled enforcer on the back end when it comes to playoff time. That’s something else to consider when Don Sweeney goes shopping over the next five days ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline, a date that’s quickly becoming anticlimactic given all the trades getting consummated well ahead of time.

Sweeney knows the team’s greatest needs, he’s on the clock and the pressure is on the Bruins general manager to adequately address them ahead of next Monday’s deadline.