Bruins Could Really Use…Sean Kuraly?

(Photo Credit: Michael Dwyer/AP)

By: Jack McCarthy  |  Follow Me On Twitter @73johnnymac

The Boston Bruins skated off the ice at Scotiabank Arena last night, left to lick their wounds and contemplate what it will take to recapture the momentum in their best-of-7 opening round playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Much of the attention following the loss was focused on the lack of production from the top-line trio, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.   Having opened up last year’s opening round series with a combined 20 points in the first two games at TD Garden, the line has only managed to amass a combined 6 points through three games in the series.

With much of the fan base and media speculating that the answer is now to split up the top line by moving Pastrnak down to David Krejci’s right wing, a close look at some of the indicators through three games suggests the Bruins true woes may be found a lot further down the lineup.  One of the Bruins strengths in the regular season was the relatively effective play of its fourth line, a line that when healthy features Sean Kuraly centering Noel Acciari and Chris Wagner.  Kuraly went down with a hand injury suffered on a blocked shot in a game against the New Jersey Devils on March 21st.  The Bruins had indicated that Kuraly was expected to miss at least 4 weeks with the injury.

As the Bruins made their way through the regular season and skated to the second best record in the Eastern Conference, they were buoyed by the solid play of their fourth line.  Often sent out to match up against the opposition’s top line, the Kuraly line has proven particularly effective at hemming opposing teams into their own zone, being strong on the puck and providing valuable wear and tear on opposing defense corps.  In turn, by spending their shifts 200 feet from their own goal, despite often starting in the defensive zone, they were effective in neutralizing opposing scoring threats while creating favorable matchups for the Bergeron line.

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With Kuraly currently sidelined, that line now finds Acciari centering Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom.  Through three games of the current series against Toronto, the play and effectiveness of the so-called fourth line have been highly effective in Boston’s Game 2 win and far from it in their two losses.

One indicator of a player’s effectiveness (I won’t debate the merits of the metric here, but it is generally accepted as a reasonable measure despite some limitations) is his Shot Attempts Percentage (SAT%, also known as Corsi).  The SAT% is the percentage of shot attempts that the team takes out of total shot attempts.  The calculation of SAT% = SAT For/(SAT For + SAT Against).  As a general indicator players are looking to be above the 50% mark in this metric, considered to be above average.  As mentioned there are limitations but generally speaking, the indicator is reliable.

A look at this analytic through three games in the series tells an interesting story about the Bruins fourth line.

Regular
Season SAT%
Playoff SAT%
Through 3
Games
Game 1 Game 2 Game 3
Acciari 49.96 50.00 36.4 64.3 30.4
Wagner 49.78 48.57 42.3 73.9 27.6
Nordstrom 50.04 45.31 43.5 53.6 22.7
Kuraly 49.74

(Stats courtesy of hockey-reference.com and NHL.com)

Nordstrom’s regular season SAT% is slightly higher than that of Acciari, Wagner, and Kuraly and this is attributable to his having played further up the line up for much of the season and a higher percentage of offensive zone starts.  Nordstrom starts in the offensive zone for 49.17% of draws compared to the others taking only about one-third of their draws in the offensive zone, averaging 34.51% between them.  Starting shifts in the offensive zone gives a greater chance of accumulating shot attempts for, hence their effect on this statistic.

So What Does It All Say? 

In a nutshell, the Bruins success in Game 2 was in direct correlation with the effectiveness of the fourth line.  Coach Cassidy’s decision to start them against the Tavares, Marner, Hyman line had Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock pulling his line from the ice in the opening seconds and setting a tone that would have the game played on the Bruins’ terms all night.  The Corsi numbers for the Boston’s fourth liners was off the charts in Game 2, Acciari at 64.3, Wagner at a mind-boggling 73.9, and Nordstrom at an above average 53.6.  As a result, the Bruins exerted pressure on the Maple Leafs defense all game long, forced turnovers, and forced their best players to play far more in their defensive zone than they would prefer.  By playing with the lead most of the night, all three players were able to log minutes in line with their regular season average.

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In Boston’s two losses in this series, however, the fancy stats are far less glamorous for the fourth line.  In Game 1, Acciari was at 36.4, Wagner at 42.3 and Nordstrom at 43.5.  The result as we all know was a game played very much on Toronto’s terms.  The Maple Leafs were able to overcome an early deficit to play with the lead most of the night and used their highly publicized speed to create several breakaways and odd-man rushes that kept the Bruins chasing the game most of the night.

In game three, the effectiveness of the fourth line was even worse.  Acciari led the line with a SAT% of 30.4, Wagner was 27.6, and Nordstrom was 22.7.  Those numbers are simply not going to get the job done.  If the Bruins are going to be successful, I would argue that the key is not going to be breaking up the top line.  Rather, they need a more effective contribution from the bottom of their forward group.  If the fourth line can re-establish their identity as a hard-working, effective, forechecking group and force the Maple Leafs back into their own zone, effectively helping tilt the ice, the Bruins are going to be just fine in this series.  The middle forward lines have been effective thus far, and you have to feel that the top line is not going to be held in check much longer, they are simply too good.

A return to the line-up of Sean Kuraly would go a long way to getting the fourth line back on track.  Kuraly combines speed and strength and a bull-like tenacity to hunt the puck and contain it.  His energy is infectious and is arguably what has been lacking on the fourth unit in the two losses against Toronto.  If the Bruins are to regain momentum and bring this series back to Boston on even terms, the fourth line needs to lift.  It is unknown when Kuraly may return to the line-up, but he will unquestionably be a welcome addition when he does.  In the meantime, the Bruins are looking for an effort reminiscent of the one provided in Game 2.  Anything less and the return of Kuraly to the fold may be too little, too late.

Has Toronto Overtaken Montreal As The Bruins’ Biggest Rival?

( Photo Credit: Charles Krupa/AP Photo )

By: Jack McCarthy  |  Follow Me On Twitter @73johnnymac

Bruins vs. Canadiens Rivalry

The Boston Bruins have enjoyed a long and storied rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens, long considered their fiercest rival.  The rivalry dates back to December of 1924 and has seen the teams meet in 923 regular season games as well as 177 playoff games.  The animosity that has existed for almost a century including an NHL record 34 playoff meetings has lifted the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry into the upper echelon of the all-time great rivalries in sport.  Think Yankees-Red Sox, Celtics-Lakers, Manchester United-Liverpool.

Montreal has held the upper hand over the Bruins for much of their history.  Bruins fans growing up watching the Bruins in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were particularly frustrated as Montreal won 18 consecutive playoff series over the B’s between 1946 and 1987.  The streak was finally snapped when the Bruins defeated Montreal 4-1 at the Forum on April 26th, 1988.  The records have been much more even since the streak ended, the Bruins winning 7 of the last 12 series between the two clubs.

The rivalry has been fueled by frequency, both regular-season meetings as divisional opponents and through frequent playoff matchups  Classic games such as Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, better known as the Don Cherry, too many men game, to Mats Naslund’s game 5 dagger with 51 seconds remaining to give Montreal a 1-0 victory and a 3-2 series win in their 1985 Adams Division semi-final.  More recently, Nathan Horton’s game 7, overtime, series clinching goal which propelled the Bruins on their path to winning the 2011 Stanley Cup Championship stands out as a game that produced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for the respective fan bases.

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs Rivalry

As the Bruins prepare to do battle with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second consecutive opening round, and third time in 6 seasons, the question begs, has Toronto become a bigger rival than the Canadiens?

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The Bruins and Maple Leafs also have a long history.  The teams first met in the 1924-25 season and have faced off 750 times in the regular season as well as 76 times in the playoffs.  The Bruins and Leafs have not played as frequently as the Bruins and Canadiens, including over a hundred fewer playoff games, as Toronto resided in the Western Conference prior to the 1998-99 season.  In all, the current series marks the 16th all time playoff match-up between the Bruins and Maple Leafs with Toronto holding an 8-7 advantage.  The Bruins however, have won the last 5-playoff meetings. Toronto’s last playoff victory over the Bruins was in the 1958-59 season.

Toronto, as we know, is a hockey mad city, the self-proclaimed centre of the hockey universe.  It is also a city whose beloved Leafs have been deprived of playoff success for more than a generation.  It last paraded Lord Stanley’s silverware in 1967.  There are a few factors that have intensified the Bruins and Leafs rivalry over the past decade.

The first significant event that began to bring this rivalry to life was the Phil Kessel trade on the eve of the 2009-10 season.  Kessel was traded to Toronto for a package of draft picks and then the Maple Leafs proceeded to have a couple of poor seasons allowing the Bruins to draft Tyler Seguin in 2010 and Dougie Hamilton in 2011.  It became obvious fairly early on that the Bruins would benefit from that trade and when the Leafs visited the Bruins in Kessel’s return to Boston in December, 2009, the B’s faithful packed the Garden.  That game marked the beginning of a sell-out streak that is now approaching 10 years for the Bruins.

The next, and perhaps biggest contributing factor was the epic Bruins comeback against the Leafs in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.  Toronto led Boston 4-1 early in the third period of game 7, before Boston staged one of the most memorable comebacks in the history the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The Bruins became the first NHL team to win a game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period, winning 5-4 in overtime.  Combined with last seasons’ seven game opening round series, also going the Bruins way in a third period comeback, the rivalry is alive and well.

The question is, has the rivalry with Toronto overtaken that with Montreal for the Bruins and their fans?  The answer depends entirely on whom you talk to.  Arguably, Boston and Toronto has become the ultimate rivalry for a new generation of hockey fans, those not old enough to recall Joe Thornton in the black and gold or Mats Sundin in the blue and white.  Those of us who are a little longer in the tooth however, likely still hold just a little bit more disdain for the Canadiens than we do the Leafs.  That said, the Canadiens had better hurry up and make their way back into the playoffs, after all, with every new chapter the Bruins and Leafs write, the gap is closing.

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Bruins Clinch Home Ice Advantage-Time To Rest?

( Photo Credit: Canadian Press )

By: Jack McCarthy  |  Follow Me On Twitter @73johnnymac 

By virtue of their 6-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena, the Boston Bruins have secured second place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and more importantly, home ice advantage in their opening round playoff series against their division rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Bruins were led by winger Jake DeBrusk’s three-point game and Brad Marchand’s two-point night, becoming Boston’s first 100-point player since Joe Thornton in the 2002-03 season.  The six-goal outburst was hi-lighted by balanced scoring with goals coming from three of the four lines.

The Bruins victory coupled by Toronto’s 4-1 defeat on home ice to the Carolina Hurricanes wrapped up second place in the Atlantic Division for the Bruins and guarantees they will open at TD Garden against the Leafs when the NHL playoffs begin in just over a week.

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The significance of clinching home ice with two games to spare should not be overlooked.  Coach Bruce Cassidy now has the luxury of resting some of his key players who may be nursing minor injuries that players often deal with having reached game 80 in the regular season schedule.  Look for Cassidy to deploy some unfamiliar looking line-ups over the final two regular-season games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay.  For a change, this is a luxury situation and not a crisis caused by the injury bug.  The question becomes which Bruins are in line for a game off over the last two?  Coach Cassidy will attempt to balance health and rest with keeping players playing well and not disturbing chemistry.

Candidates to receive a night off over the final two games include:

Zdeno Chara:  The 42-year old Chara will be relied upon heavily against the Maple Leafs in a shutdown role most likely against the Auston Matthews line, as well as on the penalty kill.  Having suffered a knee injury in Colorado back in November, Chara has only appeared in 61 games this season, low by his standards, but the opportunity for a night off to refresh and recharge for the playoffs makes perfect sense.

Charlie McAvoy:  McAvoy has had a good season and has been especially solid over the last 25 games or so for the Bruins while earning seen key situational ice time including an increased role on the first power play unit while Torey Krug was out of the lineup.

Brandon Carlo:  The third-year defenseman has blossomed this season and is having the best campaign of his young career.  Carlo has become a key defender and is being deployed in matchup situations as well as on the penalty kill.  Bruins fans are all too familiar with the devastating season-ending injuries Carlo has suffered in each of his first two seasons.  After compiling relatively injury free seasons, Carlo was lost in the final regular-season game two years ago and missed the entire 6-game playoff series against the Ottawa Senators.  Last season, Carlo went down with just over a week remaining in the regular season and missed the entire playoffs yet again.  The Bruins would be wise to sit Carlo for the final regular season game and have him wrapped in cotton balls in the press box for good measure!

The remaining key Bruins defenders, namely Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk, and Kevan Miller have all recently returned from injury.  Provided all are now fully healthy and wouldn’t stand to benefit from a game off, are likely best suited to play the final two games to continue getting back into game fitness heading into the playoffs.

 Patrice Bergeron:  Bergeron is on the cusp of cracking the 80-point mark for the first time in his illustrious career.  Whilst it would be nice to reach that mark, Bergeron being the consummate professional would likely value the opportunity to rest prior to going to battle with their bitter divisional foes next week.

Brad Marchand: Marchand is an interesting option and likely gets a game off as well.  It would have been really interesting to see what approach Coach Cassidy and the Bruins might have taken in the final game of the season if Marchand was sitting on 98 or 99 points.  Whilst the team certainly comes first it would have been difficult to deny a player the opportunity to achieve such a huge personal milestone, one that has only be seen in black and gold twice in the last 25 years.   Needless to day, Marchand reaching the 100-point mark with two games remaining in the regular season makes the decision a much easier one.  There is the slim opportunity to reach 40 goals (Marchand would need 4 over the last 2 games) or 100 penalty minutes (Marchand would also require 4 over the last two games), but milestones aside, sitting one of the final two games is a good bet.

David Pastrnak:  Having missed 16 games in the second half of the season with a broken thumb, Pastrnak should be relatively refreshed heading into the playoffs.  That said, if there are any ill effects of the injury still being felt, the opportunity is there to give Pastrnak a game or two off heading into the weekend.

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David Krejci: Krejci is the only Bruin to have played in all 80 games this season and has probably earned the right to make his own call as to whether he sits a game in the final two or not.  Krejci has had an outstanding season and is expected to be a key contributor against Toronto in round one.  Krejci has an opportunity to establish a career high in points, needing just two in the final two games to match his high of 73 points achieved all the way back in 2008-09.

As for the others, the opportunity is there for Coach Cassidy to sit any players who may be dealing with minor, undisclosed injuries over the final two games of the regular season.  The Bruins have gotten the job done, securing home ice advantage, which has proven pivotal against Toronto in their two previous meetings, both decided in Game 7 on TD Garden ice.  The rest that may be given out over the final two games has certainly been earned.

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Bruins Marchand Closing In On 100-Point Season

( Photo Credit: NHL.com )

By: Jack McCarthy  |  Follow Me On Twitter @73johnnymac

With three assists in Boston’s 6-3 defeat of the New York Rangers at TD Garden on Wednesday night, Bruins winger Brad Marchand has moved to 97 points on the season and now has his sights firmly set on becoming the first Bruins player to hit that milestone since Joe Thornton had 101 points in the 2002-03 season.

With five games remaining it remains to be seen if Marchand will join Joe Thornton as the only 100-point Bruins in the last quarter century.  Prior to Thornton, the last Bruin to eclipse the century mark was Adam Oates in the 1993-94 season with a 112 point effort.

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It would be in Marchand’s best interest to bank the remaining three points he needs as quickly as possible as Head Coach Bruce Cassidy will likely be looking to rest many of his star players in the regular season’s final couple of games.  A look ahead to the Bruins final game of the season, at home against the President Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning on April 6th is one that could see both teams sit a number of regulars in preparation for their respective first-round playoff matchups.   The Bruins are closing in on 2nd place in the Atlantic Division (and home ice advantage in the first round) with a 6-point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs with only 5 games to play for each club.

The evolution of Brad Marchand has been an amazing ride for the Boston Bruins and their fans over the past decade.  A third round (71st overall) draft pick in 2006, Marchand has evolved into one of the elite players in the game.  It hasn’t always been easy, his agitating style and propensity for playing on the edge has meant that it has taken a long time for Marchand to earn the respect of officials, opposing players and coaches, hockey media, and opposition fan bases, the latter of which remains in question.  There is no doubt, however, that his game has reached a level that warrants mention among the elite players in the game today.

( Photo Credit: Joel Auerbach, Getty Images )

As he puts the finishing touches on leading his club in scoring for the third consecutive season and fourth time in his career, the focus will be on continuing to play the game right, remaining fresh and healthy, and avoiding any run-ins with the NHL Department of Player Safety that could de-rail his opportunity to become a 100-point player in the league.  Bruins fans will recall that two seasons ago, Marchand was on the cusp of achieving a significant personal milestone and becoming a 40-goal scorer in the NHL when he speared Tampa Bay’s Jake Dotchin in game 80 of the regular season.  Marchand was suspended for the final two games of the regular season and finished on 39 goals for the campaign.  If anything good has come out of past indiscretions, it may be that Marchand has finally matured into an elite NHL winger who can play on the edge when needed but increasingly has the ability to skate away from the trouble that dogged him so much earlier in his career.

Whether Marchand reaches the 100-point mark or not remains to be seen over the next five games, but there is no question about how valuable a player Marchand has become for the Boston Bruins.   Fans will be cheering hard for one of their favorites to achieve this milestone but at the same time realize that preservation and preparation for the playoffs is going to be paramount over the final week and a half of the regular season.

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Entering the 2018-19 NHL season, just 109 players in league history had scored 100 or more points in a season, and only 9 members of the Bruins had achieved the feat.  Brad Marchand will have the opportunity to join those exclusive lists while eyeing a more significant goal, a deep playoff run and a march toward his second Stanley Cup championship.

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