“Zero, which is what we were looking for,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said about Charlie McAvoy’s hesitation level since returning to the Bruins’ lineup.
Seeing an engaged McAvoy in his five games back following his first career concussion is certainly an encouraging sign for the injury-plagued Bruins. But the young and talented defenseman had a few close calls that nearly put him back on the shelf.
With the Bruins well in control of their tilt with the Maple Leafs, a late, high hit from Zach Hyman — who earned a two-game suspension for his actions — sent McAvoy to the locker room during the third period of Boston’s 6-3 victory on Dec. 8. Bruins fans held their breath for a little bit, but McAvoy returned to the TD Garden ice in the closing moments to celebrate with his teammates.
McAvoy went unscathed in Ottawa during the Bruins’ 2-1 overtime victory. That didn’t hold up for long. A mere 48 hours later — and a few hours following Cassidy’s aforementioned pregame comments — McAvoy was on the receiving end of a high-stick from former Boston University teammate Clayton Keller in the opening moments of Tuesday’s Bruins-Coyotes tilt on Causeway Street.
The injuries and cuts are a microcosm of the Bruins’ season 30 games in. McAvoy was on both ends of that spectrum, as was David Backes, who took a skate blade to the face in Boston’s 4-3 victory over Arizona. But McAvoy and the Bruins soldier on, and the soon to be 21-year-old hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the lineup on Dec. 6 against the Lightning.
“I feel fine. Fortunate that he missed my eye by a bit and the other one he missed my head,” McAvoy said about his close calls following Thursday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena. “So, fortunately, I feel fine and I’m in good health, but I can’t really catch a break right now. But nonetheless, my spirits are high.”
“We were hoping that he’d come back and just play hockey, and I think he’s been really good in that regard,” Cassidy added about McAvoy’s play. “I think the first night there was rust from not playing in terms of handling the puck and quickly got out of that. He took a big hit from Hyman, obviously suspendable, and he was suspended so he bounced back from that. But no, I think he’s been playing really well.”
Quite frankly, the Bruins need those performances from their talented young defenseman. He only has one assist in his five games back. That came during the Bruins’ 5-3 loss to the Penguins Friday night. But having another solid two-way defender to transition the puck up ice is giving the Bruins a much-needed offensive boost with their 17 goals in the last five games.
The Bruins are 3-2 in that five-game span, but they’ve come a long way offensively. McAvoy, while only having that one assist, is getting comfortable moving the puck while playing stout defense in clutch moments.
“That first period in that first game against Tampa, I had a little bit of rust there. But I think since then I’ve been kind of taking off a little bit,” McAvoy said. “I think I’ve been playing well in my own zone and trying to contribute while I can. Fortunately, our offense has been doing fairly well.
“Just trying to play simple. I think just being efficient and being smart — and not trying to look for anything more than the next right play — has allowed me to come back and feel like that I haven’t really missed a beat.”
Having familiarity with a fellow former Terrier doesn’t hurt either.
The injuries on the back end forced Cassidy’s hand into finding unique defensive pairings. McAvoy and Brandon Carlo’s return gives the Bruins a little more stability in the top-four. McAvoy’s pairing with Matt Grzelcyk, in particular, gives Boston an up-tempo pairing.
McAvoy usually finds himself on the puck-moving end of the spectrum when he’s paired with Zdeno Chara. He’s a little more defensive minded than Grzelcyk, but the Charlestown native, who came to McAvoy’s aid in a bout with Hyman following the late hit, can also hold his own.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I didn’t really [expect it]. I came back and played with Mooresy [John Moore] the first game and then I was thinking that anything was going to change. And then sure enough [Grzelcyk] and me were paired up for the morning skate a couple of games ago,” said McAvoy, who has a plus-four rating since returning.
“So it just kind of took off and now we’ve been playing for a little bit. I love playing with Grizzy. He’s such a great playmaker. He thinks the game so well, so he makes it very easy for those around him. As long as you’re open, he can find you. He can put it through a skate or a stick or anything. His footwork is very good so he can open up lanes for himself. So we don’t spend too much time in our own zone. Just like me, he takes a lot of pride in defending…So as long as things are going well, hopefully we can continue to produce and not get scored on.”
Through all the injuries, the Bruins are still keeping the pucks out of the net. They enter Sunday’s game against the resurgent Sabres having allowed the second fewest goals in the league at 84. Slowly, but surely, Boston’s offense is starting to come around with a more up-tempo blueline since McAvoy’s return.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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