By Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter: @BostonDiGiorgio
The Boston Bruins’ first-round playoff matchup has been set. They will face off against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, with puck drop at 7:15 pm. These Capitals look a bit different than the team who has haunted the Bruins for almost seven years. For one, the Capitals have long-time Bruin captain Zdeno Chara deployed on their third-line defensive pairing. The Capitals also no longer have Braden Holtby, who became Dominik Hasek when he faced the Bruins for unknown reasons. This year, the Bruins have made moves of their own that make us feel good heading into the matchup.
The Bruins were at a crossroads at the trade deadline this year, with one-third of the base calling for a rebuild, another third calling for a full send at the trade deadline, and the final third hoping they stay put and wait for the off-season to make moves. General Manager, Don Sweeney, decided to listen to the one-third that wanted a full send and add pieces to the aging core for (maybe) one last playoff run; and boy did it pay off!
I’ll be the first to admit it; I was on record with friends and family saying I did not want Taylor Hall. His career numbers suggested he was too streaky, and he has made me eat my words. It seems Hall’s career numbers have been largely predicated on the teams he’s been a part of. In his 11-year career, Hall has only been to the playoffs twice, once with the New Jersey Devils and the other with the Arizona Coyotes. Both these appearances have come within the last four years too. Hall admitted wanting to play for the Bruins, dating back to last season, but the Bruins’ cap situation was not something Hall wanted to wait for. Hall went to play for the Buffalo Sabres on a one-year deal, and his no-trade clause was his saving grace.
Taylor chose where he wanted to go when the Sabres approached him with potential trade suitors, and he may have made his best career decision thus far. Don Sweeney traded a 2021 second-round pick and Anders Bjork for Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar. Lazar was seen as a throw-in initially, but he has been far from that. Sweeney also acquired Mike Reilly from the Ottawa Senators for a 2022 third-round pick. Reilly has also been a bright spot since his acquisition, as he’s filled a need the Bruins had lacked since allowing Torey Krug to walk. Please make no mistake, I am not comparing the two one-for-one, but Reilly’s skill set and awareness are something the Bruins lacked in their free-agent departures. These two trades have made critical impacts on the Bruins.
The Third Line
A team’s third-line is more important than they’re given credit for. Of course, the first two lines are leaned on for offensive production. The Bruins’ first line has been productive all year, and before the trade deadline, if they didn’t produce, the Bruins more than likely lost the game. Hall’s acquisition is critical for the third-line because a player like Jake DeBrusk can be moved down to the bottom six and work on his game a bit. He’s less in the spotlight next to Krejci to score goals, and Nick Ritchie can help generate some offense for his linemates in a year that he has eclipsed a new career-high in goals (15).
I took a look back at the past four Stanley Cup winners (using Natural Stat Trick’s Linemates Tool) and how each team’s third line fared against the opposition, and the results are not surprising. For this exercise, I used the linemates that most often played with each other at 5v5 in their respective Stanley Cup Finals. I chose the SCF because it is a true representation of a coach’s decision to deploy his best lines.
I chose one player as the constant and compared who he played with each game and the corresponding CF%. CF% measures the impact a player has on the ice with the given linemates. A percentage over 50% shows these players contribute at both ends of the ice and boost their line. Corsi measures shots on goal goals, missed shots, and blocked shots. I only used CF% with linemates who played more than four minutes with one another. Some may say third-line pairings may play against a team’s third line that is weaker, which only makes my point that an effective third line is critical to a long playoff run.
The 2017 Penguins: This SCF was a bit more difficult to quantify, as Nick Bonino got hurt and didn’t play after game two. Chris Kunitz was primarily on the third line when Bonino was in the game but switched around after his injury. I used Phil Kessel as the constant and excluded games where he did not play with the aforementioned linemates. Over the six games, Kessel achieved a 54% CF with Chris Kunitz, 47% with Evgeni Malkin, and 61% with Matt Cullen. The only outlier here is Evgeni Malkin, and Kessel played with him each game. Kessel was most effective with Cullen and Kunitz on the third line. However, he played less with Kunitz and more with Malkin, but the Penguins won back to back for the first time since the Detroit Red Wing in 1997 and 1998. The third line was a major impact on that.
The 2018 Capitals: The constant here will be the Capitals’ third-line center, Lars Eller. Bruins fans know him well from his time in Montreal. Eller primarily played with Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly (yes, Brett Connolly, the former Boston Bruin). The Capitals’ third line achieved an average of 54% CF% with each other and scored 10 points in five games. The Capitals were a buzz saw in 2018, especially after defeating their kryptonite, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Eller’s line was a force and generated several opportunities. Eller filled in for Niklas Backstrom in game two when he was injured and scored a 62% CF% with Jakub Vrana and TJ Oshie. Eller was the conductor of those two lines and an integral part of the Capitals’ victory. This is what we need Charlie Coyle to be, Bruins fans.
The 2019 Blues: Sorry, Bruins fans, this one will sting to read. Tyler Bozak, Pat Maroon, and Sammy Blais were the primary third-liners for the St. Louis Blues. Bozak was the Blues’ swiss-army knife in many ways. He was the constant on the third line, along with Pat Maroon. Their left-wing was switched out quite a bit, but Sammy Blais spent most of his time on their line. The trio eclipsed a 53% average CF% together. The interesting part with this third line, though, is they only scored three assists in seven games. The Bruins did a good job of holding this line from scoring, but the Blues’ third-line were still able to generate scoring opportunities and played a great defensive game. These numbers show it’s possible to score a higher CF% without scoring goals and win a championship.
The 2020 Lightning: The Lighting were bound to win the cup with the team they’ve constructed. Last year’s bubble playoffs were their winning lottery ticket, and they beat the Dallas Stars in six games. Yanni Gourde was the constant in this situation, flanked alongside Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. This trio played the majority of the series together and rarely split up. The trio’s CF% for the series was 56%, and they scored a total of six points in six games. To say this line was a force is an understatement. The Lightning lines were stacked, and the third line relieved the pressure from the top two lines.
So how does all of this and Hall/Lazar’s acquisitions affect the Bruins’ third line? Well, imagine if the Bruins didn’t acquire Taylor Hall. We would probably still be seeing a Nick Ritchie, David Krejci, Craig Smith line, followed by a Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Anders Bjork. The latter trio struggled through much of the year, not only as a unit but as each singular player. DeBrusk has sat several times this season, and Coyle had gone nearly 30 games without a goal. Now, add in Lazar and Hall; the Bruins are currently practicing with the following lines.
Ritchie can continue his best season while Coyle gets back on track and Kuraly takes over the center spot. Kuraly has a better face-off percentage over his five-year career at 50%. Coyle has struggled a bit this year on the dot and lags behind Kuraly in his nine-year career at 46.6%. Face-off winning percentage is key because it shows you’re able to possess the puck in either zone. Even though it is a small sample size, over the past four games that Kuraly and Ritchie have played together, the duo has a 65% CF%. The two are playing tremendously well together.
Meanwhile, DeBrusk can flank Lazar and Wagner, who play heavy and fast games. DeBrusk can work his way back to a 20-goal year on a line known for grinding the opposition. In the most recent four games DeBrusk and Lazar have played with one another, they average 48% in CF%. It is not past 50%, which is considered dominant, but it’s certainly close enough and upward. The duo scored 61% two games ago together.
Of course, other keys to play a long and successful playoff run are goaltending and defense. Your goaltender needs to get hot at the right time (Tim Thomas), and your defense needs to be stellar. Though ridiculed far too often, Tuukka Rask is the Bruins’ best chance at a cup right now. Brandon Carlo will be integral on the back end and alleviate pressure from Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. Head Coach Bruce Cassidy has a large task at hand in creating the best third line, and it’ll be critical if the Bruins want to play into June.