What we learned: Bruins stay hot, earn sixth straight win
In spurts, the Boston Bruins looked like a charitable hockey club against the lowly Buffalo Sabres. But for every ill-timed penalty and failed power-play attempts, they countered those rare brain lulls with another terrific outing by Jeremy Swayman and an opportunistic attack in 5v5 play.
Twelve of the 18 skaters from Bruce Cassidy’s squad tallied at least one point in their 5-1 victory over the Sabres Thursday night at KeyBank Center. Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Matt Grzelcyk each notched multi-point nights and provided timely goals beginning with Marchand’s 25th of the season 12:36 into the opening stanza.
The Bruins encountered one of their lulls during the second stanza. Rasmus Ristolaninen evened things up at 1-1 at 5:27. A parade of Bruins found their way to the penalty box in the middle 20 with Pastrnak, Steven Kampfer, Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy — returning after briefly spending time in the hallway shaking off a blocked shot during the opening period — all serving minor penalties.
But the Bruins marched on. Grzelcyk put the team ahead for good at 12:50 of the second as he caught Dustin Tokarski by surprise with a routine shot from the point.
Pastrnak extended Boston’s cushion to two with a nifty tally on a self pass 4:55 into the final 20. Nick Ritchie quickly extended the lead to three with his first goal in 13 games a mere 1:06 later. David Krejci capped off the night banking home a rebound off Jeremy Lauzon’s point shot for his fourth tally since the trade deadline.
Here’s what we learned as the Bruins stay hot following their sixth straight win since the trade deadline.
Third line slowly forming chemistry
Taylor Hall’s arrival to Boston provided a significant spark to Boston’s top-six. With a potent top two lines, the trickle-down effect provided the Bruins with four balanced lines for the first time this season.
Yet, even as the versatile Curtis Lazar lit the lamp during his time with Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly, the new third line of Ritchie, Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk couldn’t find the back of the net during their first six games together. It wasn’t for lack of effort from the Ritchie-Coyle-DeBrusk trio, but rather lack of execution.
The scoring drought ended Thursday as Ritchie providing the Bruins with another insurance tally following his 11th goal of the season at 6:01 of the final stanza. DeBrusk and Coyle snapped five-game point droughts assisting on Ritchie’s first marker since March 30.
“Obviously, it’s not easy to play with new guys right away, but I think all three of us can adjust pretty fast,” Ritchie said of his new line. “There’s been some progress, but it’s about getting on the same page and knowing each other’s tendencies and knowing where the puck is here or there. And when we get that, we’re going to be a good line.”
Ritchie bounced back from a disappointing performance inside the Toronto playoff bubble. Both Coyle, fresh off tallying his 300th career point on Thursday, and DeBrusk provided the Bruins with timely offense in pivotal postseason tilts over the last two years. Together, the trio would like nothing more than to find their offensive touch during this late-season run.
5-on-5 scoring and power play trending in opposite directions
The Bruins found themselves near the bottom of the league in 5v5 scoring before Hall, Lazar and Mike Reilly arrived. Cassidy’s coaching staff relied heavily on the power play for their offensive production over the past few years.
Lately, it appears Boston’s power-play traveled back in time to 2011. And it wasn’t to celebrate a Stanley Cup win, either.
Even with Hall and Reilly on the secondary unit, Boston’s man-advantage hardly looks powerful. The Bruins are 1-for-18 on the power play in the last six games following Thursday’s 0-for-2 showing.
More often than not, the Bruins tend to force scoring chances into the middle of the ice. Even in the rare clean entry, they hardly generate quality secondary scoring chances, frequently settling for one-and-done scenarios.
“The issues on the power play are our entries,” Cassidy said. “I think we’re too individualistic. Buffalo, for example, they play a 2-2 [penalty kill setup] — they give you the outside lanes, they don’t want you to go through the middle, and we get stubborn trying to go through the middle. As a result, we turn pucks over, not getting through and regrouping.”
“We’re going through a stretch where it doesn’t look good,” Cassidy added. “We’re going to have to address it.”
Easier said than done given the decreased practice time during their busy slate. But, at least the Bruins have a promising offensive trend going for them.
The Bruins have outscored their opponents 23-7 during their six-game win streak. All but two of their tallies came in 5v5 play.
What’s led to this output? For starters, the back-end added some reinforcements with two of their skilled puck-movers in McAvoy and Grzelcyk returning during this stretch. Reilly’s addition fulfilled the secondary left-shot puck-moving need, adding another offensive element to the blue-line.
Adding personnel like Reilly, Hall and Lazar provided an important piece. Combine that with the four lines rolling out a healthy forecheck, an aggressive puck-pursuit in all three zones and a healthy transition game, and you have a productive formula.
“I think I’ve said it before; it’s in the room,” Cassidy said of the 5v5 scoring output of late. “When we’re healthy and we get the puck moving from the back end and some clean exits we’re going to score, and it showed tonight. We got some of that. Our D was involved in some of those transition plays, and it helps get the forwards through the neutral zone with some pace. And we have the skill to generate [offense].”
It took a little while for Don Sweeney to address the glaring need, but the Bruins finally have a well-rounded lineup for timely even-strength production. Now if only the power play can turn on the proverbial switch…
Goaltending decision ahead following Swayman’s run
Barring injury, the Bruins will turn the net over to Tuukka Rask come playoff time. Who they’ll slot in behind him is anyone’s guess.
Both Dan Vladar and Swayman provided timely goaltending with Rask nursing an upper-body ailment and Jaroslav Halak entering COVID protocol. The former went back to Providence following Rask’s return during last Thursday’s win over the Islanders. The latter continues to impress with every start.
As Halak inches closer to returning, the Bruins now face an interesting conundrum in goal. Do they continue riding the hot hand in Swayman after another brilliant performance? Or will they ease Halak back into the crease once he’s cleared for game action?
This isn’t an asterisk on Halak either. He encountered some rough starts at times, but when healthy he’s backed up his end of Boston’s dynamic goalie tandem with Rask.
Rather, it’s an indication of an upbeat Swayman providing the Bruins with quality goaltending during the playoff push in the early days of his NHL career.
“I think it’s a great opportunity and great experience,” Swayman said after earning his fifth career win following his 29-save outing against the Sabres. “All I want to do is help the team win. And when my name is called, I want to give them my best. So it’s really fun to be a part of this upward momentum. And again, it’s a team game, and it’s so fun to be a part of.”
Loyal Bruins supporters have enjoyed Swayman blossoming into an NHL-caliber netminder at a young age. He’s certainly a keeper regardless of Boston’s interim goaltending plans once Halak returns.