Bruins Even Series- 5 More Observations

Down 3-2 late and with their backs against the proverbial wall to avoid falling into an even deeper 0-2 hole in their playoff series against the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins got a late equalizer from Taylor Hall and then Brad Marchand ended it in OT with a one-timer to set a franchise record for fastest postseason goal in the extra session just 39 seconds in. With the 4-3 victory it’s now a best-of-five, with the next two game on home ice.

Taylor Hall: Are You Not Entertained???!!!

1. Bruins didn’t get a faster start in Game 2, but Tuukka Rask held them in it. Washington came out of the gate on fire, at one point outshooting the Bruins 8-2 and again owning the physical advantage and dictating the tempo, but Boston’s goaltender was sharp and met the challenge. At one point, he made a breakaway save on Nic Dowd, keeping the score at zeroes, and some might say- no big deal, Dowd is a fourth-liner- but he made a scorer’s move, forcing Rask to com up with an even better stop. With the Capitals in control early (and we’ve seen this before from the Bruins who have earned the decisive edge early in territorial play), Jake DeBrusk stepped up once again, by driving to the top of the paint and converting a Charlie Coyle pass after Craig Anderson left his net to try and poke the puck off of Coyle’s stick. Although T.J. Oshie tied it on the power play off an Alexander Ovechkin blast, the DeBrusk goal was an important swing moment that allowed the B’s to gain their footing and then surge ahead in the shot count. Rask was sharp throughout the game, and even though the team was behind for much of the third period, he made the stops to keep it a one-goal game to set the stage for Hall and Marchand’s heroics.

2. Give Rask his due in this one. With 5 of 6 goals allowed on tips or deflections in the first two games, Rask got the job done last night. He wasn’t perfect and critics can quibble about whether he should have given up the late first period goal to Maine native Garnet Hathaway, but the reality is- it wasn’t how many he gave up but how and when. Even though Hathaway beat him with a laser on a 2-on-1 later, Rask locked it down. Again, we go back to what he did in the opening minutes of the game, when a shaky start could have put the Bruins in a crushing hole by two, maybe three goals, but he was dialed-in and ready to play. With the victory, Rask posted the 52nd ‘W’ of his career to move him within one of franchise leader Gerry Cheevers. When he was named to start the round 1 playoff series against Buffalo in 2010 and pulled off the upset at age 23, that seemed a lifetime ago. No player in recent Bruins history is more polarizing than Rask, but when the rubber meets the road, there aren’t many goalies in the league right now we’d rather have in net with a tight game on the line. Now, he must keep it going and take his play up a notch to keep Anderson from stealing the big Mo- momentum- back on TD Garden ice. He’s moving well and showing no signs of the injury that hampered him in March and April, so he’ll need to continue to track pucks and work even harder to locate and set himself for the shots because the Capitals are coming and they’ll being going at him hard.

3. Ovechkin…no goals through 2 games. Yes, it is true. The Boston defense has done an excellent job of neutralizing the man who may one day sit alone atop the NHL’s goal scoring ledger. It is only two games, and the series is tied largely because the Caps have gotten scoring from unexpected secondary sources like Hathaway, Dowd and Brenden Dillon. But, if you knew going in that the B’s would keep Ovechkin at bay in both home tilts, you would definitely have taken it. Last night, none other than Connor Clifton gave No. 8 a big hit in open ice, turning the tables on the future Hall of Famer, who through the first two games had been flying around hitting Boston players with real abandon. That’s much of the balance of Ovechkin’s greatness by the way- not just the goals, but the pure power and physicality he brings to give himself time and space, so one of the keys to keeping him in check is to prevent him from generating momentum and space for his ferocious shot that way. With Jeremy Lauzon out of the lineup, Clifton stepped in and did a good job of using his speed to get on pucks quickly, while also using the physical element he’s known for that belies his smaller stature by NHL defenseman standards. Clifton did a good job on Ovechkin because he’s fast and fearless. One example of why he was successful last night- No. 75 made an shot block on Ovechkin later in the third period because he was able to use his speed to close faster than the Washington superstar realized and took the shot into his body, then cleared it out of the zone. Little plays like that one add up, and through two games, the ‘Great Eight’ has yet to break through. It will be tough to contain Ovechkin over the entire series, but so far, so good. The onus is now on Peter Laviolette and his staff to figure out how to get him going- Bruce Cassidy and Co. have put him in check. Chess, not checkers- the best in the game play it. Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk both had standout performances in Game 2 for Boston.

4. The Rat is back. Overtime lamp-lighter aside, Marchand got back to some of his abrasive shenanigans last night. There’s a good and bad side to it. On the good, his antics tend to enrage the opposition and Marchand managed to goad Anthony Mantha off his game, even taking him to the box with him after putting his stick in the Caps forward’s face. It was a dangerous line Marchand was on, because he just as easily could have given the NHL’s top regular season PP another chance. He got away with one. But, if we’re going to kill him for being abrasive and putting himself and his club at risk, we also have to acknowledge that at the right time and in the right situations, that is the stuff that has always made Marchand so effective in Boston (and so hated by every other team and their fans around the league). To his credit, he stepped up when his team needed him most, wiring the Grzelcyk pass in the wheelhouse with a laser 1-T to end the game. Also to his credit, he mentioned long time teammate, friend and mentor Patrice Bergeron in the postgame media availability, as someone who “reeled him in” after the chippy second period. Bergeron, who scored the game’s second goal of the game on an absolute bullet between the hash marks, may have made his most valuable assist- one that didn’t show up in the boxscore- by showing his leadership to get Marchand back to playing productively when his team needed him most. Things like that are why No. 37 is Hall of Fame-bound on the first ballot, while No. 63 could be quietly making a case for himself to land in Toronto himself when all is said and done.

5. Hall-in…Taylor Hall saves the day. With under 15 min remaining in the third period of a 2-2 game and just after the Bruins had to kill an undisciplined Nick Ritchie roughing penalty in the offensive zone that had led to a 6-0 shots advantage in the final frame for Washington, Hall turned the puck over in the neutral zone and then tripped Connor Sheary, to take a seat. The B’s killed Hall’s penalty, but right after it expired, an ill-timed Kevan Miller pinch led to a 2-on-1 for Dmitri Orlov and Hathaway, and the latter smoked a cross-ice pass to give the home team the first lead of the night. It was a lead that held for much of the rest of the period, and the pessimistic doubts of crushing playoff disappointments past began to creep in, but Hall doesn’t know about Boston’s past disappointments, does he? With a little under 3 minutes in regulation, Hall blew past Norris Trophy winner John Carlson on the left wall at the Washington blue line, hurled the puck to the front of net where there was a wild scramble, and then streaked around the back of the cage, located the puck sitting there on the doorstep with Anderson sprawled and a pile-up in the paint and put it home. I said it on Twitter last night- any other year, any other player instead of No. 71 and that puck probably doesn’t go in. Just like that, the game was tied. And it was a huge moment, because while Hall’s earlier penalty didn’t result directly in the go-ahead goal, it did stall momentum and forced Boston to keep killing while letting Washington get into a rhythm and eventually grab the lead. As Hall sat in the box, the look on his face said it all- he knew he screwed up with the NZ turnover and resulting trip. But top players do what Hall did- they go out and get it back. All he did was find a way to tie the game. And it wasn’t his first whack at the puck that did it- he stayed with it with Tom Wilson ineffectively standing there and not able to knock him off his feet or at least tie up his stick. Winning player? Probably too soon to say that about Hall, but man- is he fun to watch. And if he can make more plays like that one, he could get there.

The Agony: Taylor Hall in the penalty box

The Ecstasy: Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall in OT. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop every once in awhile and take a look around, you could miss it.”- Ferris Bueller

Final thoughts:

You can’t say enough about Jake DeBrusk and how his two goals and two games have helped to get his tough season back on the rails at the most important time. He has skated his bag off and is making effort plays all over the ice. He had a chance to be the hero last night in regulation with a late 2-on-1 with Coyle when it was 3-3 that he just wasn’t able to elevate high enough over Anderson’s glove, but it looks like the No. 74 that has excited so many since he broke in with Boston full-time three years ago is back. He’s a great guy off the ice with a bubbly personality, so you’re pulling for him to keep the positive mojo going. A dialed-in, productive DeBrusk presents a matchup problem for opposing defenses. One more thing- what would you rather have? A DeBrusk who went out and scored 15-20 goals only to slump in the postseason, or the guy who is just 3 goals away from his season total in 2 games? Obviously you’d rather have option C, which is a 15-20 goal scorer AND the DeBrusk we’ve seen in Games 1-2, but hey- we’ll take it.

David Pastrnak made a nice play on Bergeron’s goal, but the team needs more from him. He’s playing too much on the perimeter and not doing the things that define him as one of the game’s top young goal scorers: needs to do a better job of driving through contact, finding quiet ice and getting pucks off his stick and on net much, much faster. If he can get going, the B’s offense will take on an entirely new dimension.

The series is tied, but the war is really just beginning. The Capitals aren’t going to roll over, but with the crushing weight of expectations now alleviated a bit, the Bruins can prepare for Game 3 without a lot of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would have come with an 0-2 deficit. That Rask, Marchand and Hall all played such important roles in the win is just the icing on the cake.

Around the League…

The favored Carolina Hurricanes handled business in their first playoff game at home against the Nashville Predators, securing a 5-2 win. It’s a feel-good story for goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who literally came out of left field this season to seize Carolina’s No. 1 job for the playoffs and then did his job. The Ohio native passed on the NCAA route to play in the OHL, and parlayed that into the 37th overall selection in 2014- 12 spots after Pastrnak. He’s bided his time since, seeing spot duty in the NHL while posting back-to-back 30-win seasons in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers. But this year, with a long-term injury to Petr Mrazek, ‘Ned’ grabbed his chance, going 15-5-3 with a .932 save percentage and earned the trust of his teammates and head coach, Rod Brind’Amour. We had his younger brother, Andy, a forward, in the USHL with Omaha briefly a few years ago, and it’s a super family. These Cinderella stories in hockey are hard to beat, but then again, we shouldn’t be too surprised- he was the third goalie taken in the 2014 draft, just one spot after another former Omaha Lancer- Thatcher Demko. Both goalies established themselves in full this season, which just goes to show you- patience and a longer timeline with your goaltenders is often (but not always- Jeremy Swayman) the right approach.

Colorado looks to be the team to beat this postseason after securing the franchise’s first President’s Trophy since 2001- the year Ray Bourque raised his first and only Stanley Cup. Nathan MacKinnon is in playoff mode, going off in the third period. That Avalanche club is so deep and strong at every position. The only weak link could be the goaltending, but Philipp Grubauer had a superb regular season, so it isn’t that he is incapable, it’s just that Devan Dubnyk is the only one between them and oblivion if anything happens to the starter. Of course, with the team Colorado has up front, it may not matter all that much who is in net for them. They are a wagon.

And how about that old-fashioned slobber-knocker of a fight between Gabriel Landeskog and Brayden Schenn? I know fighting is frowned upon in this day and age, and it is even more of a rarity in the postseason than it used to be, but wow! Landeskog showed why the scouting reports on him in 2011 were that he played a decidedly un-European, North American-style of power hockey. The Bruins wanted Landeskog badly that season and were looking at the possibility on Jan 1, when they owned the second of two Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounders acquired for Phil Kessel. At the time of the WJC (where Landeskog was playing for Sweden, btw) in Buffalo, the Leafs were in last place. Then, they brought up James Reimer and it changed everything. They ended up finishing closer to 10 than 1, and the B’s missed out on Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele and Sean Couturier, getting Dougie Hamilton instead. Ah, what could have been… That was a pretty good draft class.

For more (free) insights from me on the NHL (mostly Bruins), NCAA and junior hockey, follow me on Twitter: @kluedeke29

Bruins add veteran Drew Stafford for conditional (late) pick

A largely uneventful NHL trade deadline day (the more meaningful adds happened before the Wednesday afternoon cutoff) ended with the Boston Bruins acquiring former 2004 13th overall draft selection and RW Drew Stafford from the Winnipeg JetsĀ for a reported conditional (B’s making the playoffs? unconfirmed) 6th-round pick.

(Here are some YouTube highlights from a Buffalo fan “Topshot Elite 19):

After a year ago, when GM Don Sweeney added a pair of veterans in John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak for a total of four draft picks, only to see the team crater down the stretch and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive spring, this move is a bit more well-received because it represents a low cost/risk to add a solid veteran forward with size and scoring ability, albeit one who’s been hampered by injuries and a poor season.

Some of the rumored trades involving Gabriel Landeskog and Dmitri Kulikov never materialized for Boston, but in all honesty- anything more than Stafford would have likely required a cost that Sweeney and Co. were not willing to take on. The current Bruins team is 7-1 under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, and adding him gives the new bench boss more flexibility at the forward position with a player who starred at the University of North Dakota and was a member of the USA’s first-ever gold medal-winning squad at the World Jr. Championship in 2004.

Here’s a quick look at what Stafford brings to the table for the B’s in the final make-or-break stretch of the season, one that has ended in the final weekend in each of the last two campaigns.

Upside: Four goals in 40 games with the Jets is a stark contrast to the 21 in 78 he scored a year ago (Stafford’s best season was in 2011 when he tallied 31 goals in just 62 games- a 40-goal pace). He’s likely to replace Jimmy Hayes on Boston’s third line and assuming Ryan Spooner stays at the center position, the two are a good fit, with Frank Vatrano over on the left side. Stafford is more of a north-south, crash-the-net kind of player, while Vatrano drifts through layers in defenses to find space to unleash his lethal shot. Spooner is your classic slasher who jitterbugs in and out of traffic to set up plays…if he and Vatrano can get pucks to the net, then Stafford has a better than average chance of banging some of them in. Stafford is a good fit for the way that the Bruins like to play. With more than 700 games of NHL experience and 31 years old, he’s been around enough but is not so long in the tooth that he can’t give the B’s offense a modest jolt.

Downside: The unrestricted free agent to be is having his poorest season to date, so to expect anything but a minimal upgrade to what Hayes gave the B’s this year is probably setting the bar too high. The knock on Stafford has always been a lack of consistency- he can go through long periods where he simply doesn’t accomplish much. That’s near criminal, when you look at the highlights of some of his better scoring plays, where he drives with power into traffic and through would-be checkers to crash the net and score with a quick and sneaky release.

Verdict: For a conditional sixth-round pick, this is a low-risk move that expresses faith in the current roster and lets them try and make the postseason with what they have. Fans sometimes forget that no team wants to have a bad year and tank, and 2017 is certainly not the season to do that- no disrespect intended to top prospects like Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, etc.- it’s just that we’ve been spoiled in recent years with top-2 selections like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine– this year, the bottom feeders aren’t likely to get players with that kind of elite franchise cornerstone cachet.Ā  The benefit of making the playoffs, even if the Bruins aren’t considered by just about everyone to be legitimate championship contenders, is that the younger players get a taste of the intensity of playoff hockey and that helps to develop them. The B’s are not a team that needs to blow everything up, so Stafford is a solid if unspectacular add.

For years, Boston fans saw him score some big goals against the Black and Gold. Now, they’ll get a chance to see if he can help propel the spoked B into the NHL postseason. In a division where every other team added pieces to improve, it might be moot, but Stafford gives his new team a fighting chance at least. And that’s really all most people want.

 

 

3 Amigos Podcast Ep. 8: Everything Claude Julien & Bruins trade rumors

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The 3 Amigos ride again!

Reed Duthie, Dominic Tiano and your TSP founder have reunited for another podcast. It’s been a time of transition, and we’re not a professional outfit, so we appreciate the patience over the time elapsed from our last offering. We’ll do these when we can, but for now- we’re focusing on the dismissal of Claude Julien, new B’s interim bench boss Bruce Cassidy and trade rumors swirling around the team and one name in particular out West.

Enjoy the podcast, and we’ll follow up tomorrow with the debut of our 45- minute supplementary podcast “Ask the Amigos” where we take questions our listeners and TSP readers submitted on Twitter.

Cheers.