Should Bruce Cassidy be sticking with the Bruins' 'Perfection Line'?

Should Bruce Cassidy be sticking with the Bruins' 'Perfection Line'?

TORONTO – After accounting for one 5-on-5 goal during the first three games of the playoff series against the Maple Leafs, one might be tempted to think about breaking up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Certainly they were kept intact headed into the series vs. Toronto based on the offensive damage they inflicted in the recent past, like the five goals and 13 points Pastrnak piled up in last spring’s playoff series.

But this postseason series vs. the Leafs is proving different on a number of coinciding fronts. The Leafs are a year older, mature and battle-hardened to be sure, and the additions of Jake Muzzin and John Tavares have brought experienced, two-way players capable of checking Boston’s top line much more regularly.

Given those developments, it would make all kinds of sense to move Pastrnak down to the Krejci line in place of a mostly quiet Karson Kuhlman, and perhaps elevate Danton Heinen to the trio with No. 63 and No. 37. Perhaps that may happen as soon as midgame tomorrow night at Scotiabank Arena during Game 4, but Bruce Cassidy vowed to keep his top line together to kick things off in an important game down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

“Yes. It could change quickly. We met with them today and went over a few things and I think they recognize where they’ve left some offense on the table. It hasn’t been much of a line rush, offensive series,” said Cassidy. “It’s been a bit of a battle of two offensive lines playing good defensively where they can’t get it going offensively.

“They need to make more plays from below the goal line, protect pucks, and have more O-zone time. They’re so good reading off each other when it’s a shot/rebound, recovery and then separate and make a play. Most teams come back into their own zone, they have a plan, they practice it and they know where they’re going. Once the puck comes to the net all bets are off, and they’re so good if a team isn’t right on cue then they’ll make a play. I think we need to be a little more of that mentality of second-shot, second-chance opportunities that will break their defense down. If they can do that then I think you’ll see them getting more opportunities.”

Clearly there is a track record with the line given back-to-back 30 goal seasons for each of the three forwards, and given their track record against the Maple Leafs. But it’s also a little scary when you look at the postseason numbers: The Perfection Line has produced a grand total of one goal in the five playoff losses to the Leafs over the last two seasons, courtesy of NBC Sports Boston stats maven Dave Green.

There’s a time when a head coach might be showing too much loyalty to certain players and certain combinations of players and that can cause stagnation for a hockey team when it gets to this point in the year.

It’s also dangerous to be that boom-or-bust with your top players considering that the Bruins are 5-5 in those 10 playoff games against Toronto over the last two seasons and there’s virtually no chance to win if those three are together and not producing.

Perhaps it’s time for Pastrnak to move elsewhere in the lineup and for Cassidy to shake things up with his forwards while forcing Mike Babcock to decide how he’s going to deploy the Tavares line and Jake Muzzin with a diversified attack. It's a way to put the Leafs on the defensive a little bit more as they've been largely dictating how the series has played out, match-ups and all, to this point. 

If the head coach waits too long to do it then it might be too late in the series against a Toronto team that’s clearly better than last season, and — just like the B’s — knows how wide open the Eastern Conference might be with the Tampa Bay Lightning one game away from being eliminated altogether.  

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Are Bruins just one top-six power forward away from greatness?

Are Bruins just one top-six power forward away from greatness?

A little more than a year ago the Bruins fell in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in part because their forwards couldn’t fight through the big, strong Tampa Bay defensemen corps in a five-game playoff series.

The Perfection Line was held in check in 5-on-5 play and the Bruins forwards really didn’t do much of anything offensively after the opening game of the series.

This postseason, the B’s obviously pushed a lot further into the Stanley Cup playoffs while making it all the way to the Cup Final. Some of that was by the circumstance of the way the postseason played out with the early exits of many of the top seeds, of course, but some of it was also Boston’s ability to play different styles against Toronto, Columbus and Carolina.

Still, the Bruins again sealed their fate when their forwards couldn’t do enough 5-on-5 against a St. Louis Blues team that featured a massive, committed D-corps that didn’t let the B’s anywhere near the front of the net. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were banged up while combining for exactly zero even-strength goals in the series and David Pastrnak was battling a crisis of confidence that saw him finish with a team-worst minus-7 in the series.

Similarly, David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk and whoever was manning the right wing for the B’s second line didn’t do much damage either against the Blues back-enders.

The Bruins had great depth all-around among their forwards this postseason and that helped them make it to the final round of the postseason. Again, it seemed as if the Bruins were short in the size and strength department among their top-six forwards when it came to net-front presence and getting to some of the rebounds left around the net by rookie goalie Jordan Binnington.

“It’s really a blend of your hockey club. We played sort of four different teams throughout the playoffs, and we matched up pretty well in all of them," Bruins GM Don Sweeney said this week at his end-of-the-season press conference. "When you come down to the margins that you have of losing a Game 7, I don’t know whether or not you necessarily say now did we score enough 5v5? No, but everybody would say that throughout our lineup, if we had just chipped in. To St. Louis’ credit, it wasn’t just the defensemen that were doing that. They make it hard on you, the same way that Tampa did.

“We had more depth this year to be able to withstand some of those things and take the matchups in other places in the lineup that I think helped our hockey club, and it showed. That’s why I think we went further. We gave ourselves a chance to win right until the very end. If you’re telling me there’s a perfect player to solve some of those, what every team would be looking for, yeah. Yeah, I’ll put that guy right in there, but sometimes you just have to allow other players to get better in their own right. We have players that will hopefully continue to do that.”

There may not be a perfect player out there for the Bruins unless they start putting more of a premium on drafting the next great, young power forward. Chris Kreider is an intriguing name that brings size, scoring and a little bit of nasty to the table.  He's coming off 28 goals and 52 points for the Rangers this past season.

Former fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi is 6-foot-4, 211 pounds and wants out of Edmonton so badly he’s willing to play in Europe this season if the Oilers don’t move him. Forwards James Neal and Michael Frolik will be mentioned in trade talks around July 1 and hard-hitting, nasty winger Michael Ferland, a free agent, might be exactly what the Bruins are looking for.

Maybe it will be Charlie Coyle bumping up to the right wing on one of the top two lines, or perhaps a younger, big-bodied Peter Cehlarik or Trent Frederic can bring some of that power forward game internally.

“Does Charlie Coyle move up in the right side? Again, putting Charlie in a consistent spot is I think when he plays his best hockey,” wondered Sweeney aloud. “He referenced that when he was in Minnesota, a production role. He could slide up and play right wing if another player emerged from within.

“I could go through the guys. Trent Frederic would be the obvious [third-line center candidate] if he inserts himself, Sean [Kuraly] plays up, maybe you move Charlie to the right. For right now, I think the balance of our group, what Coyle presents is mismatch is at times for other teams gives us balance.”

Still, it was apparent this postseason as it was last postseason that the Bruins are in need of a power forward winger among their top-six forwards. The Perfection Line is just a little too much undersized when push comes to shove and spent too much time on the perimeter against the Blues.

What the Bruins could really use is a time machine to send 35-year-old David Backes back 10 years to the player he was in his prime with the Blues. That isn’t going to happen, so they need to go out and find the next best thing, whatever that may be.

Part of the problem seems to be that the Bruins aren’t identifying this as the biggest issue facing their forwards. Sure, Bruins President Cam Neely said they want to get another top-six forward, but it sounds as if he simply wants a player that’s going to shoot the puck with an itchy trigger finger.

“I mean, if they can skate,” said Neely with a smile when asked if the B’s top-six needs a little more size and snarl. “You have to be able to skate nowadays, as you know in this game. I thought that we could’ve put more pucks on the net to give their defensemen a turn, and look to where the pucks are as opposed to trying to beat guys one-on-one.

“I felt we should’ve shot the puck a little more to try to create, whether it’s rebound opportunities or at least get them scrambling around a little bit. Give [the Blues] credit. They played well. They kept us on the outside, but I felt like we passed on too many opportunities to put pucks on the net and then see what we could’ve done from there.”

Certainly, that sounds like an indictment of Marchand and Pastrnak passing up clean looks to shoot in the Stanley Cup Final. It also wasn’t a ringing endorsement of a search mission for the next great power forward, but there’s no getting around it as the element that’s feels missing when you look at the strengths and weaknesses among the B's top six.

A dynamic big body that can get to the front of the net, bang home loose pucks and win battles against big boy D-men was sorely lacking against the Blues. 

It feels funny to have to make the case to a former player such as Neely that the Bruins are one top-six power forward away from greatness, but here we are with the Black and Gold after falling a little short in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

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Blues' Ryan O'Reilly beats out Bruins' Patrice Bergeron for Selke Trophy

Blues' Ryan O'Reilly beats out Bruins' Patrice Bergeron for Selke Trophy

Once again, the Blues get the better of the Bruins.

Blues center Ryan O'Reilly earned the Frank J. Selke Trophy over Patrice Bergeron at Wednesday night's NHL Awards. It was O'Reilly's first time winning the award in his career.

O'Reilly has had a month to remember, of course leading St. Louis to a Stanley Cup victory over Boston and earning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process.

Bergeron finished third in the voting behind O'Reilly and Vegas Golden Knights winger Mark Stone.

On the bright side, B's fans did earn one victory over St. Louis on Wednesday night as general manager Don Sweeney earned NHL GM of the Year honors over Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

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