Do The Bruins Have Enough Coming Down The Middle?

( Photo Credit: Brandon Taylor/OHL Images )

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

The Boston Bruins, via Team President Cam Neely, identified a top-six winger as a position of need heading into the summer of 2019 following a largely successful 2018-19 campaign in which they finished in a tie for second overall in the NHL standings and advanced all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.  While the addition of a top-six winger clearly addresses a current need, should the Bruins be concerned with the long-term outlook at the center position?

The Boston Bruins have been blessed with a rock steady, 1-2 combination down the middle in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci for the better part of the last decade.  Whilst there has been a revolving door of pivots on the third and fourth lines over that time, the Bruins have been led by one of the leagues’ top 1-2 center-ice combinations providing them with consistent scoring, defensive prowess, and abundant leadership.

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Patrice Bergeron is a future Hockey Hall-of-Famer, all but confirmed with the recent selection of Guy Carbonneau to the Hall.  Long regarded as one of, if not the best two-way player in the game, Bergeron is coming off a career season in points production having amassed 79 points in just 65 games played.  He scored an equal-career high 32-goals as he topped the 30-goal mark for the fifth time in his career.  He also garnered an eighth consecutive Selke Trophy nomination and finished third in voting behind winner Ryan O’Reilly and runner-up Mark Stone in a closely contested vote.  Bergeron has previously won the award in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017.

In David Krejci, the Bruins have a center who is also coming off a career season production-wise.  Krejci scored 73 points, equalling his previous career-high set all the way back in the 2008-09 season.   He hit the 20-goal plateau for the fourth time in his career.  Krejci also had 16 points in 24 playoff games during Boston’s Stanley Cup run.  Twice in his career, Krejci had led the NHL in playoff scoring, back in 2011 when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup as well as in 2013 when they fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.  Krejci had a solid all-around season in 2018-19 finishing with a CF % (Corsi for) percentage of 55.98.  Bergeron, as a comparison, finished just slightly better at 56.77.

So we know that the Bruins have enjoyed a decade long luxury at the top of the center depth chart and for the most part have made things work with various options at the center depth positions.    There is a reality that the Bruins and their fans must start to consider here very quickly, however.  Both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are 33 years old.   In fact, Bergeron turns 34 this month.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Reality tells us that both of these career-long Bruins are well into the back nine of their respective careers.  The question for Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney is, what is the succession plan as the end approaches for Bergeron and Krejci?  It’s not something that Bruins fans like to contemplate, but these players won’t be here forever, and that endpoint is now beginning to approach.

If we look at the players’ respective contract statuses, Bergeron is under contract for three more seasons at $6.875M per season.  Krejci has two seasons remaining at $7.25M per season.  There has been much speculation that this off-season is the right time to move Krejci in a salary dump to provide cap relief.  There may be some merit to that argument as his trade value is likely as high as it is going to get.  With the possibility of diminishing returns and production next season, not many 33-year-olds have career-best seasons after-all, the trade Krejci argument is understandable.  On the other hand, if the Bruins believe they are still in a championship-contending window, and most of their fans believe they are, then trading David Krejci likely weakens your team, depending on the return, and puts you further from contending at a time that your two best forwards in Bergeron and winger Brad Marchand continue to progress into their thirties.   If winning now is still the priority, unless you can bring in a top-six center to replace David Krejci, I have to believe you need to keep him.

Getting back to the question of what happens in two and three years when their contracts expire and their play has inevitably tailed off, whom do the Bruins see as their top-six centers of the future?  Have they already acquired those pieces through the draft or via trade?  Or is this an area of need that, although not pressing, will reach out and bite the Bruins if they don’t begin to plan for it now.

Let’s consider the centers already within the organization and see if any project as a Bergeron or Krejci replacement.  For the purpose of this exercise, this will consider prospects whose rights the Bruins currently control, be it under contract or not.

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Beyond Bergeron and Krejci, the current third-line center in Boston is Charlie Coyle.  Coyle is coming off a successful playoff after being acquired in a trade deadline move from the Minnesota Wild.  Coyle has one year remaining on his current contract at a reasonable cap hit of $3.2M.    Bringing good size and skating, the 6’3”, 220-pound Coyle slots well into the third-line center position and has been touted as a possible solution at second-line right wing heading into next season.  Such a move would put further pressure on the Bruins to find in-house options to fill out their center depth positions.    For the time being he gives the Bruins what they need centering the third line but his long-term future in Boston may well be tied to the type of dollars and term he seeks on a new contract as he heads towards unrestricted free agency next summer.

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The Bruins appear set for the foreseeable future at the fourth line center position with Sean Kuraly.  Kuraly is a key bottom-six forward for the Bruins, and his absence was noticeable for the first four games of Boston’s opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Kuraly’s return from injury in game five sparked the Bruins and helped stabilize the line-up as they went on to eliminate the Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes.  Kuraly could be an option to play in the third line center position if required, but his perfect role in the Bruins lineup would appear to be a fourth-line pivot.

The Bruins also appear to boast several depth centermen who appear capable of playing in the bottom six.  Some of their current wingers can also play center including Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, and Karson Kuhlman.  None of these players are likely options to replace Bergeron or Krejci however.  The same applies to David Backes, a player who could fill a role as a center or a winger up or down the Bruins line-up but at this stage in his career, he doesn’t factor into the conversation at hand.

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The next place to look is at the Bruins current prospects who are yet to make an impact at the NHL level but maybe closer to earning that opportunity over the next couple of seasons.  The Bruins managed to get 15 regular-season games into Trent Frederic this past season.  While Frederic is still seeking his first NHL point, he may be the next Bruins prospect in line at the center position and will very likely see more NHL action in the 2019-20 season.    The question is how high in an NHL line-up does Frederic project?  While that remains to be seen, the common opinion seems to be that he projects to be a solid third-line center at the NHL level.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t help solve the issue of replacing Bergeron or Krejci in the top six.

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Jack Studnicka is coming off a successful junior career as a member of the Oshawa Generals and Niagara Ice Dogs.   This past season he scored 83 points in 60 regular-season games and represented Canada in the World Junior Championships where he tallied four points in five games played.  Studnicka has many upsides but again, his ceiling is difficult to project.   The 2017, second-round selection will benefit from the opportunity to develop at the AHL level in Providence but has the potential to grow and develop into an option to challenge for a top-six role one day at the NHL level.

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Boston’s most recent first-round draft pick, John Beecher, selected 30th overall from the US National Development Team in last month’s NHL Amateur Draft, may signal a recognition by the Bruins management that there is a need to address their lack of long-term options at the center position.  Beecher has tremendous size at 6-3” and 209 pounds and impressed onlookers with his speed and skating ability at the Bruins recent development camp.  Bruins fans shouldn’t get too giddy and hopeful of seeing Beecher in the black and gold anytime soon, however, as he has committed to play at Michigan this upcoming season and he should benefit greatly from playing in the NCAA ranks.    Beecher does, however, represent perhaps the glimmer of hope that the Bruins may have a bona fide center prospect who can play a meaningful and successful top-six role one day in the future.   Bruins fans have to temper the expectations on the 18-year-old Beecher however and realize he is likely at least a couple of years away and possibly more from a role in the NHL with the Bruins.

While there is hope that the Bruins may already have prospects that may one day fill the top six roles that have been held down for so long by Bergeron and Krejci, the reality may be that the Bruins may need to look outside their own organization to acquire at least one future top-six center, whether that be via free agency or trade.  It’s no secret that the Bruins’ depth strength is on the back end.  The Bruins may be best served by utilizing their depth on the back end to address their need at center.  This does not have to happen immediately.  The smart play, however, would be to have replacements ready to assume those roles once their existing contracts expire.  The reality is that Bergeron and Krejci can’t play forever, however, and the Bruins need to improve their organizational depth at the center position in order to be prepared for that inevitable day when they are no longer contributing at the level we have been accustomed to for such a long time.

Former Bruins’ Prospect Gabrielle Is Finding His Game In Australia

(Photo Credit: AIHL)

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

 

As the Boston Bruins and their fans begin the process of winding down from the long grind that was the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, most will be turning their attention to summer pursuits.  As the mercury rises in New England and the hockey news becomes all about the NHL Draft, Free Agency and the off-season rumor-mill, there are still meaningful games of hockey being played in a land far, far away.  The Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) has just completed its All-Star weekend, and its’ eight teams continue to jockey for position to compete for one of hockey’s oldest trophies, the Goodall Cup.  Boston Bruins fans would be interested to know that former Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle has found his way to Australia and is having a big impact.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth do I give a darn about the Australian Ice Hockey League?  I didn’t even know they played hockey Down Under!”  You raise a good point.  As a native Canadian and die-hard Bruins fan, I once felt the exact same way.  But that was twenty years ago before I found myself on the other side of the world and the Australian Ice Hockey League was born shortly thereafter, commencing play in 2000.  The league has made tremendous strides over the past two decades, and the quality of play improves each season as well as the professionalism with which the individual clubs operate.

What is the Australian Ice Hockey League exactly?

The AIHL is the top amateur ice hockey league in Australia.  It has been described as a semi-professional league as it does contain several professional players with experience in various leagues around the world including the NHL, AHL, ECHL, as well as various European professional leagues.  AIHL players are not paid, they do however receive other forms of compensation such as the use of a vehicle, free accommodation, and their flights to and from Australia.  Some are also granted employment opportunities through club sponsors in the communities in which they play.  Each team is permitted to ice a maximum of four import players per game though they can have more than that on their roster.

The league began play with three teams in 2000 and is currently an eight-team national competition featuring three teams in New South Wales (Newcastle Northstars, Sydney Bears, and Sydney Ice Dogs), the CBR Brave located in the Australian Capital Territory, two teams in Victoria (Melbourne Ice and Melbourne Mustangs), one team in South Australia (Adelaide Adrenaline), and one team in Western Australia (Perth Thunder).  The teams play a 28-game regular season with the top four teams qualifying to compete in a weekend showdown for the Goodall Cup.  The Goodall Cup Finals feature first vs. fourth and second vs. third semi-finals with the winners meeting in a single game showdown to capture one of the oldest trophies in hockey.

So, the obvious question then is, what does the AIHL have to do with the Boston Bruins?  Why am I reading about it on a site dedicated to the interests of Bruins fans? Are there any Bruins connections to this semi-pro league in the land of kangaroos and that crazy Australian Rules football (see video below for crash course!)?  Well, the short answer is there are a few, namely some ex-Bruins or ex-Bruins prospects who have made the long journey to play hockey in Australia.

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The most recent ex-Bruin to play in the AIHL is currently making his mark on the league in a big way.  Former Bruins prospect and 2015, 4th-round pick, Jesse Gabrielle, has had a major impact since signing last month with the defending AIHL champion, CBR Brave.  Gabrielle has played just six games to date in the AIHL but has made sure the scorers are familiar with him, having tallied 16 goals and 8 assists for 24 points in those six games.  He also represented the North All-Stars in the AIHL All-Star game played in Sydney on Saturday, June 15th.  Gabrielle showed off his speed in taking out the Fastest Skater leg of the All-Star Skills Competition with a winning time of 12.97 seconds.

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The road to the AIHL for a player like 22-year-old Gabrielle is not the one he had planned on taking, to say the least.  Gabrielle skated in pre-season NHL action for the Boston Bruins as recently as this past September, and he likely didn’t envision a stop Down Under as the way he would spend this summer.  As Bruins fans would be aware, Gabrielle had an injury-interrupted season in the East Coast Hockey League with the Atlanta Gladiators and eventually on loan with the Wichita Thunder, before his entry-level contract was terminated in April with a year to run.  Gabrielle is treating the opportunity to play in Australia as a chance to re-establish himself as a capable player in the hopes of landing another contract to play in the professional ranks for the 2019-20 North American season.  Only time will tell if the move will pay dividends for Gabrielle.

One of the biggest names to ever play in the AIHL is another ex-Boston Bruin who finished his playing career in Australia with a five-game stint in the 2006 season.  A veteran of 789 NHL games, including 178 in the black and gold, Rob Zamuner scored 13 points in five games as a member of the Brisbane Blue Tongues.  His stay may have been brief, but he certainly helped lend credibility to the AIHL as a developing league at the time.

There exists a third Bruins connection to the AIHL.  Former Bruins goaltending prospect, Mike Brown, selected by Boston in the fifth round of the NHL Entry Draft in 2003, played a 17-game stint with the Canberra Knights in 2012.  Although he never played for the big club in Boston, Brown did play games at the AHL level for Providence before becoming a journeyman minor league keeper.

It’s all well and good to have a few ties to the Bruins make appearances in the AIHL, but surely nobody from Australia is good enough to play at the highest level in North America, right?  Well, actually, the growth of the game in Australia over the last two decades has seen a marked improvement in the quality of Australian players being produced, and that has stretched all the way to the National Hockey League.   Nathan Walker was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals and became the first Australian player to win the Stanley Cup in 2018.    Walker played in one game on the Caps’ playoff run and contributed an assist.  Nice to be able to say you were a point a game player in the playoffs on a Stanley Cup winner!

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Now I wouldn’t bring up Walker in this forum without a Bruins connection.  For B’s fans who may not be familiar with Walker, he is the player who, back in December, delivered the season-ending hit on Anders Bjork in an AHL tilt between the Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears.

Only time will tell how big hockey may become in Australia, but for now, the league continues to build momentum and grow at a steady rate.  For die-hard hockey fans looking for an off-season hockey fix, AIHL games are, for the most part, played on weekends and live streams are often available through individual team Facebook pages or YouTube channels.  You can also learn more about the AIHL at their website: https://theAIHL.com.   You can also follow me on Twitter @73johnnymac for regular updates on the Perth Thunder.

Check out this week’s Black N’ Gold Hockey Podcast Episode 133 below!!

Bruins’ Fourth Line Look To Lead The Bounce-Back

( Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson, AP )

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

As the Stanley Cup Final shifts back to Boston for Game 5 on Thursday night at TD Garden, the Boston Bruins will be looking to recapture the momentum in what’s been a back-and-forth series through four games.  While the Bruins will need much better performances across the line-up, you can bet the fourth line will be itching to lead the bounce-back as they played nowhere near their usual standard in Game 4’s loss.

The fourth line of Sean Kuraly,  Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari can usually be relied upon to drive possession and help tilt the ice in the Bruins favor.  The line starts the majority of its shifts in the defensive zone and quite often skates to the bench having earned an offensive zone face-off.  That’s exactly what you’re looking for from your fourth line.

There has been an added bonus from the line so far in the Stanley Cup Final-production.  Kuraly (2G-2A-4Pts, 2GWG’s), Nordstrom (1G-3A-4Pts), and Acciari (1G-1A-2Pts) have combined for 10 points in the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final.  The worrying trend for the line, however, is that their 5-vs-5 Corsi percentage has been steadily declining as the series has progressed and culminated with some horrendous numbers in Game 4.

Let’s take a closer look at what the line has produced over the first four games.   As a reminder, Corsi % is a reliable possession metric which measures shot attempts for against shot attempts against, expressed as a percentage and for 5-on-5-play.  A measure of 50% means a team is generating an equal number of shot attempts for and against while that player is on the ice.  Therefore, as a baseline, positive Corsi is viewed as a percentage greater than 50, and more often than not, players and teams generating Corsi percentages greater than 50 are more successful.

Corsi % through four games, stats courtesy of hockeyreference.com:

CF % (5v5) Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4
Kuraly 45.0 28.6 53.8 15.0
Nordstrom 44.4 32.0 31.2 9.5
Acciari 45.5 34.8 34.8 10.5

As the table above shows, the trend has been going the wrong way, and that’s a worry if you’re the Bruins.  Game 4 was a particularly rough night for the trio as they were held off the score sheet for the first time in the series and gave up the game’s opening goal on their first shift at the 0:43 mark.

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St Louis took full advantage of home ice to get the match-ups they were looking for in Game 4.  The Bruins started with the Bergeron line and St Louis interim-Head Coach, Craig Berube, countered with his fourth line.  After a stoppage, 29 seconds in, Bruins Coach, Bruce Cassidy, sent the Kuraly line over the boards for a defensive zone face-off.  The Blues countered with the Ryan O’Reilly line, and they quickly capitalized with an opening minute goal that energized the building and the Blues.  All in all, not the start the Bruins were looking for or needed on the road in a hostile environment.

As the Corsi numbers show, the Bruins fourth line was over-matched all night in Game 4, generating just 2 shot attempts for, while giving up 12 (14.29 CF%) in 7:58 of 5-on-5 ice-time.  The Bruins as a whole were out-attempted 49-30 during 5-on-5-play.  The difference can be somewhat attributed to the negative numbers put up by the Kuraly line, but you can’t hang the loss entirely on them.  The reality is that the Bruins need more across their line-up.  They are yet to receive a goal at 5-on-5-play from anyone in their top two lines.

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There is no question that the Bruins have enjoyed a significant special teams advantage through four games of the Stanley Cup Final.  Boston has gone 6 for 16 with the man-advantage, good for a 37.5% clip, and have added a short-handed goal.  The Blues, on the other hand, are just 1/12 on the man-advantage, translating to an 8.3% rate with a short-handed goal allowed.  The reality is, however, that as the Stanley Cup Final goes deeper and deeper, history has shown that players adjust and as the pressure amps up, discipline is preached, often leading to fewer power play opportunities.  The Bruins are going to need to be better at 5-on-5-play moving forward as they may not be able to count on receiving four or five power plays per game.

All is certainly not lost, and the Kuraly line has proven it’s worth time and time again in the regular season and playoffs and certainly with its contributions in the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final.  Coach Cassidy will be expecting a bounce-back performance from the trio in Game 5, and they will play an important role if the Bruins are to overcome adversity and go on to win the Stanley Cup.  The fourth line is in no way the scape-goat here, the Bruins need the contributions to come from the top.  This is something they are aware of, but if the fourth line can rebound and help tilt the ice Boston’s way, that in itself will be a major contribution.  Helping the top lines get offensive zone starts may be just what the Bruins need to turn this around.

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No one said it was going to be easy.  The Bruins find themselves in an enviable position, heading into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final tied 2-2.  It’s now a best of three, and they have two games at home to get the job done.  A win in Game 5 will go a long, long way to making that happen.   The Bruins’ fourth line has been vital throughout this playoff run, ever since Kuraly returned from injury for Game 5 of the opening round series against Toronto.  A strong performance from Kuraly, Nordstrom, and Acciari will help send this series back to St Louis with a chance to clinch the Bruins’ seventh Stanley Cup championship.

Bruins’ Krug Delivers Crushing Open Ice Hit, But Was It Charging?

(Photo Credit: Jim Davis, Globe Staff)

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

 

The Boston Bruins shook off the inevitable rust that an eleven-day break will bring and skated to a convincing 4-2 victory over the St Louis Blues in game one of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on Monday night.  Despite the highly entertaining game, a major focus of attention in the aftermath was whether or not a thunderous open-ice hit delivered by Bruins’ defenseman Torey Krug on Blues forward Robert Thomas in the third period should have been penalized for charging.

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As the hockey world lost its collective minds over the play and the debate continues to rage on 24 hours later, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at charging in the NHL Rule Book in order to form an opinion once and for all as to who’s right and who’s wrong in this debate.

According to the 2018-19 NHL Rule Book, charging is defined as follows:

Rule 42 – Charging

42.1 Charging – A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into or charges an opponent in any manner.

Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A “charge” may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.

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The argument being made most commonly by those who believe the officials neglected to call a deserved charging penalty is that Krug skated a long distance to deliver the hit and therefore it constitutes a charge.  What those people are failing to consider is that hockey is a game that involves players skating over distance to make various plays, including hits, at speed.

Traditionally, when charging has been called, and the distance traveled argument is made, the play usually involves a player going out of his way, or deviating from the normal course of play to deliver the hit.  In the case of Krug in game one, there is an argument that he traveled some distance prior to making the hit.  This is a fact.  I would pose a counter-argument, however, that Krug was skating hard to get into position following his entanglement in the defensive zone with Blues forward David Perron.  Krug was skating hard to gain position in the offensive zone, which is where the puck was, and the hit he delivered was one that presented itself on his arrival into that position.

Another argument some have made is that Krug left his feet to deliver the hit, another element that is often satisfied on a charging call.  This simply was not the case on this hit.  Krug’s momentum upon impact caused him to leave his feet AFTER delivering the hit, but not before.  The fact to the matter is that Krug did not jump into Thomas, the impact itself caused Krug’s feet to leave the ice, not the other way around.

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A defense of Krug’s hit that has been argued is that Krug was gliding for a considerable distance and not striding into Thomas when the hit was delivered.  This again is a fact.  Krug takes his final stride at the offensive zone blue line and makes contact with Thomas just above the hash marks of the faceoff circle.  Krug was gliding at impact and did not leave his feet, this eliminates two of the elements commonly cited in cases of charging.  It is undeniable that Krug is traveling at great speed, but upon checking, skating fast is not a punishable offense in the NHL Rule Book.

The final argument that has made the rounds is that Krug is a 28-year-old man delivering that hit on a 19-year-old kid.    This holds absolutely no relevance whatsoever.  Thomas is an NHL player participating in the Stanley Cup Final.  End-of-story.  He’s also 6’0”, 192 pounds and was hit by a player who stands 5’9” and is listed at 186 pounds.  The argument that he shouldn’t be hit due to his age simply doesn’t cut it, if his teammates have an issue with that, then they could stand up for him.  They didn’t, and it remains to be seen if they will as the series continues.

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To put a bow on this play, it was a devastating hit delivered by Krug that was not penalized.  Whether or not it was a punishable charge is debatable, but the on-ice officials saw it as a hard, clean hit.  The only thing we can all hope for is that the standard of officiating has been set, and shall remain consistent as this series progresses.  In a season and post-season in which the officials have come under fire all too often, on this occasion, they appear to have gotten it right.

Bruins Return to Stanley Cup Final…This Time As Cup Favorites!

( Photo Credit: NHL.com )

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

The Boston Bruins will open the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on Monday, May 27th against the Western Conference champion St Louis Blues.  The modern Bruins fan has witnessed the 2011 team win the Cup, and now, in 2019, the Bruins’ third Stanley Cup Final appearance in nine seasons.

As everyone waits through the agonizing break until the puck drops to get this series going, I can’t help but notice how things feel a little different this time around.  In stark contrast to both 2011 and 2013, the Bruins enter the 2019 Stanley Cup Final as favorites (-157 currently, according to BetOnline.ag) against the Blues.  In both 2011 and 2013, the Bruins were the underdogs, going up against the NHL’s President Trophy winners from the regular season, upsetting Vancouver in seven games to capture the title in 2011 only to fall to Chicago in six games in 2013.

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Stanley Cup favoritism is not something that the Boston Bruins or their fans are accustomed to.  In fact, the last time the Bruins entered a Stanley Cup Final as the favored team was in 1990 when the Bruins had captured the regular season’s Presidents Trophy and the Eastern Conference championship en route to hosting the Edmonton Oilers for game one at the old Boston Garden.

( Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images )

Boston had finished eleven points ahead of Edmonton in the 1989-90 season and entered the series feeling very confident despite having lost to the Oilers just two seasons prior.  The 1990 Oilers no longer included Wayne Gretzky however, and the Bruins were poised to end their eighteen-year Stanley Cup drought that spring.  Of course, Bruins fans know that Glen Wesley missed an open net in overtime of Game 1, the longest game in Stanley Cup Final history, one that ended off the stick of Petr Klima, late in the third overtime period.  The Bruins would lose the series in five games, but there is no question the result could have been very different had the B’s prevailed in that series-opening game.  The drought would end up reaching 39 years before it ended in Vancouver in 2011.

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There will be no shortage of storylines in this year’s Stanley Cup Final.  From Jordan Binnington’s rookie brilliance and his connection to the Bruins through his loan to Providence last season; to Patrick Maroon trying to win for his hometown Blues; to the Bruins veteran core getting one more crack at Cup glory; to David Backes having the opportunity for a storybook win over his long-time and former team…this rematch of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final should garner plenty of interest and attention from all angles.

The Bruins finished this past regular season ranked third overall in the NHL, effectively tied with second place Calgary on 107 points.  The Blues started 2019 dead last in the NHL on New Year’s Day but banked more points than any other team from that point to the end of the season to not only make the playoffs with 99 points, but to set them up for a deep run that has culminated with their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 49 years.

Once the puck drops at TD Garden on Monday night, all that favoritism counts for nothing.  This series will feature speed, high-end skill, mobile defenseman and two red-hot goalies that have delivered for their respective teams in these playoffs.  The most important aspect of the Bruins so-called favorite status may well be the home ice advantage they will enjoy, having bested the Blues by eight points in the regular season.  In what may be a long, closely contested series, the Bruins can take some solace knowing that if it comes down to a seventh and deciding game, they will have the support of 17,565 raucous supporters at TD Garden!

Bruins Win! Brad Marchand Doesn’t Want To Talk About It

(Photo Credit: Twitter//@hockeyfights)

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

The Boston Bruins defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0 in game six of their Eastern Conference second-round series on Monday night, punching their ticket to a meeting with the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Eastern Conference Final.

Winning a hard fought playoff series on the road, in a hostile building is usually something that would have the victors fired up and wanting to express their joy and satisfaction to the entire world, or at least those that want to listen.  But that clearly was not the case for Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand as he took a completely different approach in a series of post-game interviews.

The first indication that something might have been up with Marchand took place in the moments following the traditional handshake between the two teams.  Marchand skated to the Bruins bench and into a post-series interview with Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet’s rinkside reporter, Kyle Bukauskas.

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Marchand offered Bukauskas a total of ten words in response to his three questions, or just 3.33 words per question, not that the NHL tracks this in its Advanced Stats Metrics.

To say the least, that interview didn’t exactly go as expected, Bukauskas closing with “Well that was worth it, Jim.”  The immediate reaction of Bruins Twitter was to try to determine why the frosty treatment from Marchand to Bukauskas.  It didn’t take long for the astute observers to hone in on an interview between the two during the pre-game warm-up of game two.

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Marchand was not finished just yet, however.  Speaking to reporters in the Bruins locker room post game, he proceeded to continue with the short answers, fielding 19 questions in total and offering a grand total of 39 words in response.  That equates to an impressive 2.05 words in response per question!

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Brad Marchand is the type of player who polarizes fans across the league with his antics.  Marchand, it can be argued, entered this series with his sneaky, back of the head punch on Columbus’ Scott Harrington late in game three.  At the time, the Bruins were about to fall 2-1 down in the series, and Marchand had not recorded a point in four games, something that did not occur at all in the regular season.  On the back of that incident, Marchand responded with four points in the next two games as the Bruins retook the series lead, a lead they would not relinquish as they eliminated the Blue Jackets in six games.

Brad Marchand has demonstrated throughout his career that he plays his best hockey when playing on the edge.  If playing coy with the press in post-game interviews satisfies his need to get people angry and motivates him to bring his A-game as the Bruins enter the upcoming Eastern Conference Final, Bruins fans should be quite ok with that.  After all, we don’t really need the long-winded, cliché ridden, stock standard responses we normally hear…”gotta get pucks deep” anyone?

Bruins’ Special Teams Pave Way To Second Round Appearance

( Photo Credit: NHL.com )

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

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.  The Boston Bruins defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games to win their Stanley Cup Eastern Conference opening round series.  That’s right, for the third time in six seasons, the Bruins have advanced in a do-or-die, series decider on Garden ice over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This series saw its share of ebbs and flows, momentum changes from game to game, but ultimately the difference came down to special teams.  In a hard fought and extremely tight series, a lack of opportunities with the man advantage only worked to increase the importance of special teams’ performance.  After each team opened with a 4-1 victory in the first two games, the last five encounters were all closely contested, with empty net goals in each of the last three Bruins’ victories increasing the margins

When all was said and done there were a number of deciding factors but the difference in this series came down to the performance of special teams.   The Bruins out-performed Toronto on both the power play and the penalty kill, combined with the boost to their bottom 6 provided by the return of Sean Kuraly for the final three games of the series, and there was just enough for Boston to separate in a tight series and punch their ticket to the second round.

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Boston’s special teams outplayed Toronto’s all series long.  The Bruins scored seven power play goals in 16 opportunities for a 43.8% clip.  Toronto, meanwhile, scored just three power play goals in 16 opportunities, good for just an 18.8% success rate.  Toronto also added a short-handed, penalty shot goal by Mitch Marner in the opening game. 

The importance of the power play in a tight, relatively low-scoring series is illustrated by considering the impact that special teams had in deciding a number of the games played in this series.  Special teams were the difference in each of the last five games played.

  • In Game 3, Toronto outscored the Bruins 2-1 on the power play in a game that ended 3-2 in their favor.
  • In Game 4, Boston outscored Toronto 2-1 in a 6-4 victory.
  • In Game 5, Boston’s power play went 0 for 3 in a low scoring affair in which capitalizing on any of their opportunities may have changed the flow and outcome of that game.  The Maple Leafs won 2-1.
  • In Game 6, the Bruins went 2 for 2 while the Maple Leafs went 0 for 3 and the Bruins prevailed 4-2 to stave off elimination and force Game 7.
  • In Game 7, the Bruins were not given any power play opportunities but they did kill both of the power plays the Maple Leafs had, including one in the second period with the Leafs pressing in a one-goal game. They also killed off a too-many-men on the ice call midway through the third period that could have allowed Toronto to pull within a goal.

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The expectation going into Game 7 was that there wouldn’t be many power play opportunities.  Given what was at stake, we expected to see disciplined play from both teams in the finale.  There is, after all, no margin for error in a win-and-move-on, lose-and-go-home decider.  That was exactly how it played out. The referees ‘let them play’ and in the end there were only two minor penalties called, both against Boston. The Bruins came up big on the penalty kill and were able to leverage that into the series clinching victory.

Both the Maple Leafs and Bruins struggled to carry the momentum of a victory from one game to the next in this series. The Bruins were finally able to buck that trend and grab the necessary consecutive wins in games 6 and 7 to capture the series.  Boston clearly established a special teams advantage and at the end of the day in a seven-game series that went right down to the wire, yet again, it was superior special teams play that propelled the Bruins into an Eastern Conference Semi-Final match-up with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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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