“At the end of the day, that’s the lineup we chose,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said hours before Game 1 against the Maple Leafs. “Game 2, we’ll see how it plays out, hopefully it plays out very well.”
It played out very well, indeed, Thursday night at TD Garden, thanks mainly to the return of Rick Nash, out since March 19 on concussion protocol and missing 12 games.
Few players assume a bigger role in keeping Cassidy’s lines intact more than Nash, whose reunion on the second-line right wing with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk takes pressure off the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio to carry the offense, not to mention Nash’s presence on the power play and overall skill set in marquee games.
“With the exception of Riley Nash, we’re a pretty healthy group,” Cassidy said about the other Nash still sidelined with a 40-stitch right-ear injury. That prompted Cassidy’s juggling act, moving fourth-line center Noel Acciari into that slot between Danton Heinen and David Backes, and Sean Kuraly – returning after a 5-game absence – centering Tim Schaller and Tommy Wingels on the fourth unit.
That Nash skill set also includes game-impacting non-stats like drawing penalties. It impacted Thursday’s outcome in a big, big way within his 23 shifts and 17:01 of playing time.
Nash’s very first shift was a scoring-bid break-in on Frederik Andersen; the second one, he dominated play in the Leafs end and drew a penalty at 5:04. Twenty-six seconds later, Brad Marchand put Boston up, 1-0. Nash’s first-period log read 4:33 with seven shifts and tied with Backes for most hits with three.
Nash drew another Leafs’ penalty with six minutes left in the second 20, and Backes converted at 15:43 for a 2-1 lead. With 32 ticks remaining, that first line went to work with David Pastrnak rifling a 15-footer past Andersen for a 3-1 lead.
“Felt good,” Nash said about his return after four weeks. “It’s huge,” he said about the Backes’ goal that proved the game winner. “When teams take penalties on you, you have to come through on your power play. It was a difference maker tonight. I’ve always tried to draw as many penalties as I can.”
“He might have drawn a third [penalty] as well that I thought he could have,” Cassidy said after. “At the end of the day, he’s an important player for us. That deal was made for a reason. He’s an elite player, so, unfortunately, we lost him for a stretch there, but we saw it before he got hurt. Makes us more of a threat of a team.”
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Kuraly got into the Nash act with a chest-high, bunt-type rebound of a Pastrnak sweep-in on Andersen for a 4-1 lead at 7:41. The former Miami RedHawk ended with 13:40 ice time on 18 shifts and a plus-1 in the 5-1 final.
“If you’re playing with the puck and the right way, it’s more likely you’ll draw them,” Kuraly said. “It’s not a direct game plan but an output of how you play. It’s also about hits. You make a couple and they retaliate with ones that put them in the box.”
Ryan Donato, Nick Holden and Brian Gionta were healthy scratches. The Donato decision was Cassidy’s toughest.
“Ryan Donato’s not going to play tonight,” he said. “Very [difficult]. It’s just a decision we made best fit for our lineup right now.”
The Donato decision didn’t come back to haunt them thanks to the impactful returns of Nash and Kuraly.