By Joe Russo
Hockey’s triumphant return has taken on a form more like that of March Madness than the traditional spring tournament fans are accustom to. By noon eastern, you are treated to upwards of a half-day’ worth of hockey, which depending on who you are watching, feels like a weird combination of playoffs and a Saturday morning mite tournament in Marlboro. Aside from Ranger fans, I imagine only the equipment managers and arena staff are the only ones groaning by this point.
Yet if you include the tune-up against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the President’s Trophy-winning Boston Bruins had, up until yesterday, played six periods and managed just a meager two goals. During which they were as enjoyable a viewing experience as the fabled “your cousin from Boston” commercials. Last Sunday, against the Philadelphia Flyers, they appeared lethargic and unconfident in their game, all the makings of a team comprised mainly of grizzled veterans. The latter played deep into June last summer.
With more questions than answers, time was not on Boston’s side as their next opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, was waiting.
Blink and you probably missed it; the Lightning constructed an early 2-0 lead with goals at even strength and on the power play. This allowed Tampa to press their boot on the Boston Bruins throat firmly. The neutral zone became extremely congested, and the Bruins zone entries were often stifled at Tampa’s blue line. When they did manage to get settled offensively, Tampa hovered tightly around Boston’s defense, making it impossible to cycle the puck to the point of generating offense, which is key to their success throughout the regular season.
Charlie McAvoy was able to cut Boston deficit to one with just over three minutes left in the second period. Interestingly enough, the entire play took seconds to come together. A faceoff win from Bergeron finds Krug, who goes D to D with McAvoy ripping a slapshot through traffic and past Vasilevskiy. It comes as no surprise that Boston is a possession team, appearing far more comfortable when not having to chase the puck and the lead as well.
However, this goal held more importance than just cutting Tampa’s lead in half before the end of the period. Doing so forced the Lightning back on their heels, and they couldn’t be nearly as aggressive on Boston’s forwards in the neutral zone and defensemen when setting up shop in the offensive zone. As a result, Chara had the time and space in the third period to get a shot off from the point which squeaked through Vasilevskiy and was deposited by Wagner, tying the game.
Tyler Johnson’s backbreaking goal with 1:27 remaining in the third period secured a 3-2 victory for Tampa in extremely mixed results for Boston. For starters, a woeful effort in the first period, which bled into the second virtually sank the ship before it even left port. Worthy to note, Charlie Coyle found himself on a 2 on 1 on his strong side about five minutes into a scoreless first period. He Painfully elected to pass, which was defended away instead of getting a much needed early shot on Vasilevskiy, which could have produced a rebound on the back door. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has preached that due to less than ideal ice conditions, the Bruins have to embody a pass-first mentality.
A rather obvious area of improvement is Boston’s power play, which was leaned on heavily during the regular season for clutch goals, yet to take pure form since the return to play going 0-4 last night alone. That said, McAvoy’s goal seemed to be a shot of adrenaline as Boston was able to set up and do all but score while a man up in the latter stages of the game.
Jake DeBrusk’s struggles have been notable so far this season, the youngster has undeniable offensive upside, but it comes in flashes catching the ire of Bruce Cassidy. The latter placed DeBrusk on Boston’s third line against Tampa. Despite that, DeBrusk managed to gobble up 4:37 of power-play time while Kuhlman and Bjork accounted for no extra man minutes. Understanding the idea is to visualize the round-robin as a pre-season of sorts. Why not at a minimum slot DeBrusk’s second line replacement, Kuhlman on a power play which at times appears to be doing the penalty killing on behalf of its opposition.
Becoming the first team in NHL history to win the President’s Trophy just to locking themselves out of the top two spots in their conference is a trivia question only 2020 could produce. A final tool up game against the Washington Capitals is all that separates Boston from the start of the 2020 playoffs.