The elephant is back – for the fourth straight season in the Hub of Hockey.
“We’re aware of the stats and the data, but it can’t run the show,” Bruce Cassidy said last week as the Bruins were about to depart on their most important road trip of the season.
Those stats and that data landing in many NHL locker rooms this week – teams out of the playoffs on Thanksgiving Day. Some 70 percent will also be out after Game 82 of the regular season.
Cassidy and his gang headed west last week with a 6-6-4 record. Anything less than four points in the four-game set and their next home game on Black Friday against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins would, indeed, be a dark cloud enveloping that elephant in the room.
“We gotta stick with the process,” Cassidy said. “If you trust the process and play the right way, then we believe we’ll get enough points. It may not be by November 24. Given the amount of adversity we’ve dealt with I don’t think it’s fair to use that benchmark. It matters but the process matters equally.”
That process in Game 1 in Anaheim was a bust in a 4-2 loss, resulting in a significant and appropriate verbal whipping by the B’s bench boss.
That, along with the return of David Krejci – and the benching of Tuukka Rask – for Games 2 and 3 in Los Angeles and San Jose with Anton Khudobin in net brought two much-needed wins. Better, the Black and Gold held both up-tempo offenses to a goal apiece.
No shortage of Cassidy references the past few weeks about Bruin outcomes having to be 2-1 and 3-1 wins with the lengthy list of absentees and long necessary learning curves for the new kids on the Cassidy pine. Testament to that: Cassidy has dressed 29 players already this season; six Bruins have scored their first NHL goal.
Wednesday is Game 4 against the most improved team in the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils, who sit atop the Metropolitan Division. A win will keep the T’Day Rolaids away, and give the local band of brothers a resounding welcome home in Friday’s matinee. One game, however, a season impact will not bring.
Here’s a look at five key factors only 19 games in that will keep that elephant in sight for quite awhile.
The Eastern Conference
The Bruins enter Wednesday night three points out of the last wild card. Raise your hand if you think Pittsburgh, Columbus, Tampa Bay and Washington make the playoffs? That’s four. How about Toronto and New Jersey? That’s six. The Bruins have to outpoint all but one among the Islanders, Detroit, Ottawa, Philly, Carolina and the Rangers. Note: Claude Julien’s Habs aren’t even mentioned.
Rask and Khudobin
If not for Khudobin’s play late in the regular season, the Bruins do NOT make the playoffs last season. If not for Khudobin’s play last week, the Bruins likely do NOT make the playoffs this season. At the very least, Cassidy and GM Don Sweeney need to consider alternating their two goaltenders – for a long time.
The rookies over 82 games
The x-factor for Boston the next four months is how well the new kids can handle 82 NHL games. Boys playing against men is a real challenge in the NHL. Anders Bjork came out flying until he was flattened a few times. Danton Heinen, Jake Debrusk, and Bjork will have to be up for that challenge. Only Charlie McAvoy has shown that mettle thus far.
Targeting Marchand and Pastrnak
To paraphrase Cassidy: “They will be targeted. It comes with being the best in this league.” So far, neither has shown they can handle that for the next 65 games – and put up 70-80 necessary points. Marchand (day to day, upper body) has missed five games so far; Pastrnak with a head-scratching minus-7 and too many gaffes in key situations.
Managing minutes for Bergeron and Chara
“We gotta be careful with it,” Cassidy said about managing Bergeron minutes. “How do you juggle that? That’s what’s in front of us.” Add No. 33 to that challenge. Chara turns 41 in March.
The health and production of David Backes, Ryan Spooner and Adam McQuaid
All should return over the next several weeks. Will each produce? Backes is the biggest concern. With $24 million still due him over four years, a return from diverticulitis is not an easy rehab for NHL play. Spooner (groin) has the incentive of must-produce with a one-year deal – at $2.8 million – and free agency coming. McQuaid (broken right fibula) will be the under-the-radar reliable McQuaid.
Ok, one more
When will Torey Krug (day-to-day, upper body) find his game – consistently? He’s at a minus-7 as the No. 2, left-shot defenseman.
Thursday, it’s about the bird. Friday and beyond, something quite bigger.