Bruins

Not the best of nights for Cassidy in another B’s loss to Caps

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Not the best of nights for Cassidy in another B’s loss to Caps

Here’s what we learned in the Bruins’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals at the Capital One Center on Thursday night:

1)  Bruce Cassidy and his staff on the bench aren’t perfect  
Clearly, Cassidy and Co. have done an excellent job this season and provided way more good than bad in getting the B’s into a playoff spot despite the injuries and youth in the lineup. Still, the Bruins bench staff had a rough outing on Thursday night on a number of different fronts and certainly didn’t help matters during some key moments. 

Things were good early when the Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, but Washington made their push in the second when Lars Eller scored from the slot on a loose puck in front of the net. It appeared that Washington winger Brett Connolly was clearly off-side on the zone entry prior to the Eller goal and that the Bruins had grounds for a successful coach’s challenge. Clearly, it would have carried some risk if the challenge went against the Bruins because the Caps would have cut the lead to 2-1 and would have immediately been granted a power-play chance. But a successful challenge would have been a momentum-killer for a Capitals team that hadn’t scored a goal in more than 170 minutes. 

In the split-second needed for a decision, Cassidy and his video coordinator opted not to challenge the Capitals goal and instead played it conservatively. That led to the Capitals tying the score in the second period. The Bruins opted to unsuccessfully challenge a Capitals goal in the third period where they were clearly trying to compensate for their error earlier in the game. Unfortunately, for the Bruins bench, the play was clearly on-side and the Capitals got a power play out of the failed challenge. 

The challenge flap was further compounded in the shootout when Cassidy opted for Riley Nash as his third and final shooter after Alex Ovechkin scored for the Capitals. That left Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy, who has already won a pair of shootouts for the Bruins this season, among others on the bench when a valuable point was on the line. 

Predictably, Nash went high and wide with a shot and completely missed the net and that was it for the Bruins basing their fate on the shootout abilities a bottom-six forward. Clearly, Nash has enjoyed some level of success in the shootout with a 6-for-14 career mark headed into the game, but most of that was with the Carolina Hurricanes rather than the Bruins. 

Those numbers are fine and dandy in theory, but it hasn’t worked out when the Bruins have tried to force Nash into some kind of shootout option the past two seasons. It’s even worse when you consider the kind of offensive firepower sitting on the bench when you try to re-invent the wheel with Nash. Put it all together and the Bruins coaching staff and support staff had an uncharacteristically tough night in Washington and should simply learn from it and move on. No need to dwell on an aberration in what’s been a very positive season for the coaching staff.

2) One move Cassidy made that was spot-on was sitting Torey Krug in the 3-on-3 OT session
Krug some tough mistakes in the latter 40 minutes of the game. It was Krug that was caught completely flat-footed by Jakub Vrana on an eventual slashing penalty that led to Washington’s tying power-play goal. Krug also fell down on the power play that led to a shorthanded chance that could have been really damaging for the Bruins, but instead, Anton Khudobin was able to bail out his teammates and make the stop on Eller. 

After that, Krug didn’t play in the final few minutes of regulation with both teams hanging on for the 3-all tie and then didn’t take a single shift in the 3-on-3 overtime, where Krug has usually been a staple with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. In all, Krug had five shots blocked in his 18-plus minutes of ice time, had a single shot on net and had the one giveaway on the PP leading to the Washington shorthanded chance. That was part of a Bruins power play unit that went a rough 0-for-5 on a night when they could have extended the lead. It wasn’t Krug’s night this time around and perhaps the puck management and defense for Krug will get reined in a little bit Saturday night in Ottawa.

 
3)  David Backes is enjoying the best stretch since signing with the Bruins
That continued with a pair of goals in the shootout loss to the Capitals. Backes has seven goals and 12 points in 13 games in December and has been incredibly effective on the third line with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash since they came together. Both Backes goals were vintage stuff. He got in front of the net to receive a Nash dish from below the goal line for the first goal, then Backes fired past Braden Holtby from the slot off a heady Heinen dish from the side boards.

In all, Backes finished with the two goals, a plus-1 rating, five shots on net, a couple of hits and 15:47 of rugged, competitive play in a big game against a team that has bullied the B’s over the years. If Backes can stay healthy and play close to this level for the rest of the season, you can begin to see what the Bruins envisioned when they brought him in as a free agent two summers ago. He turns the B’s into a speedy, multi-faceted group capable of beating teams with multiple lines and in different ways, and really transforms them into a much more dangerous team. Nobody is complaining about that contract right now and that’s a very good thing.

PLUS
*Backes was Boston’s best player with the two goals and five shots on net while consistently getting position around the front of the net. He’s been one of the B’s best players in December with seven goals thus far.
 

*Danton finished with a pair of assists and has been a point-per-game player in December with five goals and 14 points in 13 games with a plus-4 rating. In fact, Heinen has cracked the NHL’s top-five rookie scorers and only Clayton Keller, Mat Barzal and Brock Boeser have more points than him this season. That’s impressive and it’s amazing how quietly he’s done it.

*Great play by Sean Kuraly to step up after Brooks Orpik had drilled Tim Schaller when his head was down, and challenge Orpik to a quick bout that ended almost before it started. The Bruins continue to stand up for their teammates and that is a very admirable team-wide trait that shows some great chemistry in their dressing room.

MINUS
*Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins bench staff had a tough night. They didn’t challenge a Washington goal that could have been overturned, then challenged a Capitals goal that clearly wasn’t offside. Cassidy then opted for Nash in the shootout and left Patrice Bergeron and McAvoy on the bench with a point on the line. That’s a move that will always be second-guessed if and when it doesn’t work out.

*Krug took a slashing penalty that led to a Capitals tying power-play goal in the second period and he simply fell down on a PP in the third that led to Eller’s shorthanded breakaway. Krug wound up being benched in the final minutes of the third and the entire 3-on-3 overtime on a night that was clearly pretty frustrating for him.

*No goals or points from the Bruins top line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak for the second game in a row. Some of the questionable puck management from Pastrnak reared its ugly head. The Bruins third line has made up for top line’s lack of production the past few games, but they need their top players contributing again pronto.  
 

Morning Skate: Kovalchuk thinks there's still plenty left in the tank

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Morning Skate: Kovalchuk thinks there's still plenty left in the tank

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while heading into late July where nothing at all happens in the hockey world. 
 
-- Ilya Kovalchuk thinks he’s still got some prime NHL years ahead as he readies for his return with the Los Angeles Kings. Maybe so, but would he ever admit he thinks he’s lost a step and won’t be a game-breaker in his late 30s?

 -- Larry Brooks says history shows the Rangers have picked the wrong man for their enforcer role in Cody MacLeod. 
 
-- A couple of pieces memorializing retired NHL goalie Ray Emery, who tragically lost his life at age 35 in a drowning accident last weekend. He was one of the toughest goaltenders in the history of the NHL.  
 
-- Pro Hockey Talk asks what the right contract extension is going to be for Washington Capitals rabble-rouser Tom Wilson. 
 
-- A nearly 20-minute video of NHL players mic’d up during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is always high entertainment. 
 
-- For something completely different: This teaser for Stranger Things season 3 shows it was inevitable they were going to the mall
 

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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