Bruins drew first blood thanks to Halak

Halak

That’s the way (uh huh uh huh) Halak it (uh huh uh huh)

With apologies to 70’s disco icon Harry Casey aka KC (and his Sunshine Band), Jaroslav Halak was the difference in a 3-2 Boston Bruins victory in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series against the second-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.

He shut out the ‘Bolts for nearly 50 minutes, putting up a especially impressive second period whitewash with the Bruins up by a pair of goals by Charlie Coyle (late in the 1st) and David Pastrnak, allowing the Black and Gold to go up by three on Brad Marchand’s early third period tally.

A pair of Victor Hedman goals, the first of which was certainly stoppable, weren’t enough for Tampa to complete a comeback, giving the B’s a crucial win to bolster their confidence.

Halak, thrust into the spotlight after Tuukka Rask left the team and Toronto bubble to attend to important family matters, is showing just how valuable he is by providing the Bruins with a 1a-caliber starting backup. With a lesser No. 2 on the roster, Rask’s sudden departure would have been a death sentence. Instead, Halak is reminding everyone of his first NHL playoff foray a decade ago, when he was integral in helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the conference final, upsetting the heavily-favored Washington Capitals that spring, the 2009-10 President’s Trophy-winning squad.

Halak won’t win many contests on style points, but he gets the job done. A throwback type netminder who is well below the NHL’s height average, Halak is a pure battler who uses his instincts to square up, set his feet and let pucks hit him. He might not operate with the cool, Ice Man-like demeanor of Rask, but he’s been lights-out since stepping into the starter’s crease in Game 3 of the B’s-Carolina series, winning 4 straight contests.

Halak is just the fourth goalie over age 35 to post four straight playoff dubs for the B’s, joining esteemed company in Gerry Cheevers, Eddie Johnston and Tim Thomas.

The B’s didn’t execute a textbook gameplan on Sunday; they were in control and cruising but sagged in the last 10 minutes and opened the door for their opponent. They’ve got to tighten up defensively, and for the love of Pete- work on hitting an empty net!

But, in this case at least, their goalie was the difference- the x factor. Halak bent but didn’t break- and if not for him, Boston would not have had a strong lead to protect.

Not since the days of Andy Moog and Reggie Lemelin has the team enjoyed a one-two punch of veteran goalies who can deliver the wins at crunch time.

There’s room for improvement, but for now, Halak is getting it done. The rest of the team has an opportunity to follow suit, as we have yet to see the best hockey from this group, who were the NHL’s top team when the league got paused in March.

Bruins move on with 2-1 win to close out series over Carolina

Halak

The Boston Bruins needed just two goals and a much better performance in net from Jaroslav Halak to close out the upstart Carolina Hurricanes Wednesday in Toronto, winning the first-round playoff series 4 games to 1.

Veteran core forwards David Krejci (who leads the B’s with 3 goals and 9 points) and Patrice Bergeron tallied second period power play goals, and the team weathered a back-and-forth third period including three minutes of 6-on-5 play to hold on and secure a bit of a rest for what is expected a second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The game marked the return to action for David Pastrnak, who had several quality scoring chances but couldn’t finish (he did post helpers on both goals, however).

Halak wasn’t tested a ton, but after giving up the game’s first goal on a rising shot by defenseman Hayden Fleury, which hit the upper post near the crossbar then bounced into the back of the net and out, he settled in and was perfect the rest of the way.

At the other end, Petr Mrazek was outstanding, robbing Krejci with a mid-air paddle save, and also snagging a Torey Krug laser that would have given the Bruins three goals with the man advantage. His lone miscue was on the Bergeron goal, which the wily veteran scored from below the goal line by banking the puck off of Mrazek’s left skate and into the net.

Carolina has a good team and the series certainly could have gone in a different direction- Boston wasn’t particularly sharp in Games 4 and 5, but the reality is- they were the league’s top regular season team, and sometimes, simply being better means that the Hockey Gods will give you the breaks. In Carolina’s case, they are trending in the right direction and with their mix of veteran and impressive young talent, they will be heard from again.

Zdeno Chara was better defensively than he had in the previous contest, but near the end of the game, got caught out on the ice for an extended shift and instead of making an easy clear, hesitated just enough for Carolina to force a turnover and maintain possession in the offensive zone. The decisions have to come quicker for the captain- he can no longer rely on his enormous reach and experience- opponents will coach their teams to forecheck relentlessly and close the gap instantly. Chara has to make faster decisions and the team would be better served managing his minutes. In defense of Big Z- he made a critical goal-line clear earlier in the game when a puck squirted behind Halak and could have easily been knocked home. Those are the kinds of plays the 43-year-old future Hall of Famer keeps making, and he bailed out his team big time.

Tampa is going to prove a tough opponent- Brayden Point is white hot and the Lightning have plenty of scoring punch, defensive prowess and depth, plus some hard, heavy playoff types like Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

On paper, Andrei Vasilevskiy holds a significant advantage over Halak, but the B’s are starting to get their lineup going at the right time. And if we’ve learned anything about Halak, he’s got a record of playing above his head at crunch time and against superior opponents. We haven’t seen close to his best, but against a higher seed, he’s capable of delivering more.

We’d like to see more Anders Bjork and less Joakim Nordstrom in the Boston lineup going forward, but for now, the top lines are producing offense and the B’s are getting production from depth players.

We’ll have more as we learn whether Tampa will be the opponent, as it will take major comebacks by Washington or Montreal (who beat Philly last night to make it a series), but for now, the B’s will watch and wait.

Stars of the series:

  1. David Krejci, C- Playoff Krejci is back- he torched the ‘Canes all series and his 9 points moved him into second place all-time in Bruins postseason scoring 112 points- just 49 behind Ray Bourque. Yep, he’s ahead of Boston icons like Esposito, Bucyk, Orr, Neely and Middleton. The guy just finds another gear when the games matter, and after a four-month rest to preserve his lighter-than-average frame, he looks primed for another memorable run.
  2. Charlie McAvoy, D- He’s turning into the top 2-way guy he was projected as, scoring at a .5 points-per-game clip and laying a thundering hit on Jordan Staal in Game 4 to set the tone for a Boston comeback. The B’s dealt Dougie Hamilton one year before drafting McAvoy, and after watching the two go head-to-head in the series- it isn’t close. Hamilton has plenty of skill, but no real push to speak of. McAvoy took his game up a notch- and that’s why he’s on the verge of becoming one of the NHL’s top blueliners.
  3. Brad Marchand, LW- The guy just finds ways to make plays at the highest pace and is a gamer. The Bruins need Marchand at his best, and he gave it a solid performance with room for improvement.

Bruins playoff roster quick hits: Goalies

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

NHL hockey is on the verge of being back, and the Boston Bruins hit the ice today for the team’s first practice since March 10.

With Phase III training camp underway today at Warrior Ice Arena, we figured it was time to do some breakdowns of the Bruins by position. Watch for some insights from the Amigos during this 3-post series, but we’ll kick off with the look at the goaltenders.

Tuukka Rask: If goaltending in hockey is the ultimate X factor, Boston’s longtime No. 1 could be the biggest beneficiary of the COVID-induced time away from the game.

After nearly taking the B’s the distance a year ago, Rask turned 33 in March, so there was going to be some concern going into the playoffs about fatigue as it related to his 2019-20 workload and the run to the Stanley Cup final a year earlier. Well, throw that completely out of the window, as all NHL playoff goalies are as rested as ever. No excuses- it will come down to pure performance as the NHL returns to action early next month.

Rask is one of the most polarizing players in B’s history. His supporters love him and are fanatical in their belief that he is every bit as elite as the very best goaltenders in the game, not to mention the franchise. The statistics favor the fans: Rask has a proven track record in both the regular season and playoffs, with only a Stanley Cup championship ring (as a starter) preventing a definitive spiking of his NHL resume. The veteran was on his way to being a favorite for a second Vezina Trophy as the league’s top ‘tender when the NHL went on pause, but he and partner Jaroslav Halak locked up the 2019-20 William Jennings Trophy.

The detractors will always hang on the idea that he’s not a big-game goalie, pointing to the fact that Rask is 0-2 in the Stanley Cup final series of 2013 and 2019, while also coming up short in 2014, when the B’s won the President’s Trophy as regular season champs, but bowed out in the second round against Montreal.

Bottom line: Rask is still young enough and has ample experience to put this team on his back after another sensational campaign, going 26-8-6 with a 2.12 GAA and .929 save percentage. With ample rest and reset, there is no reason to think that Rask will be anything less than at his best when the games resume in early August. He’ll need to take care of himself in practice and ease his way in, but you couldn’t ask for a better scenario given Rask’s age and reputation for needing more of a balanced workload to keep him fresh for the playoffs. None of that is a factor now.

There is no debate about who the team is going forward with, and the situation in net has never been more favorable for Rask than it is now.

Advantage: Bruins

Jaroslav Halak: The B’s re-signed their veteran backup who can be an effective 1A were anything to happen to their starter at any time, so he’ll be back for the 2021-22 season.

He just turned 35 in May, but brings a wealth of regular season experience, along with another solid season with the B’s after he signed in the summer of 2018.

As for the playoffs, he hasn’t seen a minute of postseason action since 2015, a seven-game series with the NY Islanders. He’s not bereft of playoff experience, but the only real indicator of his abilities happened in 2010, when he led the Canadiens to an upset of the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, and took the Habs to the Eastern Conference final, where they bowed out to the Philadelphia Flyers.

With a 18-6-6 record with 2.39 GAA and .919 save percentage, he’s as good an option for worst-case scenarios as there is, which speaks to the Bruins getting him to sign on for another year rather than lose him to the open market.

Max Lagace: The first of Boston’s two black ace goalies, Lagace has been a pro since 2014 and bounced around between the AHL and ECHL before earning some NHL time with Las Vegas when goaltending woes hit them hard two years ago. He provided solid depth in Providence this past season, going 22-7-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.37 GAA, but gave way with playing time to Dan Vladar, who posted outstanding numbers in the AHL, but has no NHL experience.

Dan Vladar: Starting out as Lagace’s backup, Vladar (pronounced Vlad-ash) played so well that he cut into the rotation towards the end of the season. Boston’s third-rounder in 2015 is finally establishing himself as the top prospect NHL scouts viewed him as in his draft season. He posted a .936 save percentage against a 14-7-1 record and 1.79 GAA. He’s massive and agile in the net. He still needs to prove he can perform at a high level over a bigger sample size, but he boosted his stock within the organization with the kind of season he had and his reward is to be around the team, getting a chance to practice, work out and be immersed in the NHL culture.

NHL making its way back

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

We’re not a straight-NHL news blog, so we’re leaving the reporting of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s announcement of the league’s way ahead yesterday to others.

We can’t compete with the news sites/blogs who generate far more traffic than this blog does, but here’s the nuts and bolts as far as the Bruins are concerned based on what came out.

  1. They get a bye and will play the other three bye teams in the East (Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia) to determine first-round seeding. Games to be played while the play-in series are ongoing, meaning the bye teams get their needed tuneup.
  2.  Hockey will phase back slowly with training camps not opening up until beginning of July at the earliest, assuming all goes well with the reopening. There will be a brief exhibition contest window before the play-in and seeding games crank up.
  3.  The NHL is figuring out the hub city model where the games will be played. Boston isn’t one of ’em, so where the B’s will end up playing is TBD.
  4.  Because they are not one of the 7 non-playoff teams (Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose/Ottawa, New Jersey, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Buffalo) nor are they one of the 8 losing play-in teams (TBD in terms of lottery winning percentages) not to mention the fact that Anaheim owns Boston’s 1st-round pick as a result of the Ondrej Kases trade, the B’s have zero shot at winning the 2020 NHL draft lottery, which will take place on June 26. The B’s won’t be picking first until the end of the 2nd round at the earliest, barring any trades that happen between now and whenever the NHL actually has the draft, so there’s not much point in speculating about any of this if you’re a B’s fan.

Overall, it’s good that the NHL is putting the plan in place to get things going. It’s a separate debate altogether about whether you believe the plan is going to work and/or it is worth it to go through all of this to crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion or not- no matter what the league came up with, you weren’t going to get 100% agreement and acceptance. We’d rather have hockey than not, so that’s where we’ll leave it.

On another note- the statistical awards were made official yesterday too: The Bruins won their third President’s Trophy (1990, 2014) in franchise history with 100 points to lead the NHL when everything shut down. David Pastrnak was named co-recipient of the Rocket Richard Trophy as NHL’s top goal scorer along with Alex Ovechkin (48).  He just missed out on becoming the first Bruins 50-goal man since Cam Neely in 1994. Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak took home the William Jennings Trophy, given to the goaltender(s) (25 games minium) with the fewest goals allowed, which used to be the Vezina Trophy criteria before the creation of the Jennings in 1982 as a necessity for the split of duties between two goalies and to allow for a subjective vote of one goaltender each year to receive top goalie honors. This is the third time a Bruins tandem has won the Jennings, joining Andy Moog-Reggie Lemelin (1990) and Tim Thomas-Manny Fernandez (2009). Rask and Chad Johnson just missed out on the Jennings to Jonathan Quick in 2014, but Rask did take home the Vezina hardware that year.

It’s a very superficial take on the news of the past 24 hours, but there it is.

 

Dominic Tiano: Evan Gold- the Man Behind the Bruins Cap Wizardry

Here’s an insightful post from Dom Tiano about Evan Gold, who is instrumental in Boston’s ability to manage the ever-complex salary cap management reality of the modern NHL. Enjoy!-KL

Most of the credit when it comes to the Boston Bruins and their ability to sign players to cap friendly deals and the way they manage the cap goes to General Manager Don Sweeney. It is the GM’s responsibility to bring in the best possible minds to put a management team together, so in that sense, Sweeney has done his job.

But let’s give credit where credit is due: Evan Gold is a master when it comes to the cap.

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What, us worry?

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Zdeno Chara (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

You mean to tell us that since two critical veterans went down with significant injuries, the Bruins are 3-0-2 with 8 points out of 10?

And that, dear readers, is why they play the games.

Given the Boston Bruins’ recent run of wins, welcome news despite not having two of the franchise’s faces out for at least 4 weeks or longer: captain Zdeno Chara and defacto captain Patrice Bergeron. The duo of future Hockey Hall of Famers are more than likely at the top of a short list of players that if you polled fans before the season, were the guys the team could least afford to lose for extended stretches of the 2018-19 campaign.

And yet, as the Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, the B’s pulled out two close wins, a 2-1 OT contest against the underachieving Pittsburgh Penguins at home on Friday and then Saturday night’s 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, helping Boston secure the sixth-best record in the NHL to date. Of course, few would have guessed that the Jeff Skinner-led Buffalo Sabres would be sitting atop the league standings as November comes to a close, but that’s a story for another day.

In the meantime, let us focus on the Bruins and how they’ve put themselves in position to remain competitive despite suffering through some personnel setbacks that would cripple many teams in any league.

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