As Bill Belichick pondered over his draft-day decisions, the Boston Bruins made sure to score in all three phases — power play, even strength and on the penalty kill — before the legendary Patriots coach made his selection.
The Bruins notched one tally on both ends of the special teams’ spectrum with David Krejci’s power-play buzzer-beater and Brad Marchand’s 122-foot top-shelf shorthanded empty-netter. But most of their damage came at even strength against the Buffalo Sabres.
David Pastrnak kicked off the even-strength barrage with his 199th career goal a mere 1:16 into Thursday’s contest at TD Garden. Another struggling player in Charlie Coyle notched his first goal since Feb. 28 to put the Bruins ahead for good with his breakaway tally 7:58 into the final stanza.
Holding onto a 3-2 lead late, Krejci connected with former Sabre Taylor Hall for a highlight-reel back-breaking marker at 16:43 of the final stanza.
The Bruins had their hands full against an improved, but lowly Sabres bunch. But, behind the timely scoring and another stellar outing by Tuukka Rask, they bounced back from a pair of defensive miscues leading to separate equalizers by Casey Mittledstadt (at 14:09 of the first) and Sam Reinhart (1:43 into the third) en route to their 5-2 victory.
Here’s what we learned as the Bruins stay within a point of the third-place Islanders and move six points ahead of the Rangers for the East’s final playoff spot.
A long time coming for Coyle
Coyle last lit the lamp in a two-goal outing against the Broadway Blueshirts over two months ago. In his second game moving from center to wing following Bruce Cassidy’s bottom-six shakeup, the Weymouth product snapped a 28-game goal drought with his go-ahead breakaway tally in the final stanza.
Surely, any player might feel the weight coming off their shoulders after finally lighting the lamp. But Coyle kept things in perspective regarding his drought and bottom-six role during his postgame Zoom conference with the media.
“It’s not about me and scoring goals; it’s about the team winning,” Coyle said. “I realized I hadn’t scored in a little bit, yeah, but you just have to make sure you play your game. I don’t go into every game saying, ‘I got to score, I got to score.’ It’s just about me bringing what I’m capable of bringing and what I need for the team to play well. They need a lot more than scoring goals. Is scoring goals great? Yeah, it is, and I want to do more of it. But it’s not something that was weighing on me because then it’s just about me. And it’s not about me; it’s about the team.”
Cassidy needed to see more energy out of Coyle and the rest of his bottom-six as they found themselves in catchup mode. Their struggles hit a low point in Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the Penguins as Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, Sean Kuraly, Nick Ritchie, Chris Wagner and Curtis Lazar rarely found themselves generating quality scoring chances in the dirty areas and found themselves on the losing end of 1-on-1 battles along the boards.
Trent Frederic replaced DeBrusk for Tuesday’s tilt in Pittsburgh. Cassidy could’ve easily benched Coyle, Wagner, or Kuraly. Yet, the bottom-six needed to take Cassidy’s message to heart. Part of his to-do list for the third and fourth liners relied on establishing inside positioning in the defending and attacking zones.
Coyle appeared to take Cassidy’s message in stride. His hard-nosed effort on the breakaway tally provided exactly what Cassidy was looking for.
“His type of goal where he took it to the net is something we’ve encouraged him to do a lot more of late,” Cassidy said of the 6-foot-3 Coyle. “Hopefully, he builds off of that. That’s how he scored in New York, I believe — he took it in kind of backhand forehand and top-shelf. He’s a big man. I think you’ll see a lot more of those goals if he’s willing to do that. Maybe this will give him some confidence and he can get going from there.”
Coyle’s play set things up for a confident trio to deliver the proverbial dagger.
Hall forming unrivaled chemistry on the second line
All Krejci needed was a bonafide top-six winger after all.
“He’s re-energized in terms of attacking,” Cassidy said of the Czech playmaker, who’s notched 10 points in 10 games since the trade deadline. “The biggest thing is that he’s playing with a little more pace, and I think his wingers are forcing him to do that.”
Krejci now has a healthy toolset of wingers with Hall and Craig Smith. Together the trio formed one of the better second scoring lines in recent Bruins memory.
With a fresh start following a horrific brief tenure in Buffalo, Hall wasted little time developing chemistry with Krejci and Smith. The trio all came played a role in a pivotal moment late in regulation.
After receiving an outlet feed from Smith in the neutral zone, Krejci wasted little time transitioning the puck up ice. The ever-patient Krejci promptly delivered a beautiful pass to Hall off a toe drag to extend Boston’s lead to 4-2 with 3:17 remaining.
“There was nothing much to it,” Krejci said regarding his stellar assist to Hall. “I knew Halls was going to be there. Things happen really quickly on the ice, so I’m glad it worked out.”
For a while, the Bruins relied heavily on the potent top line of Marchand, Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron to carry the offensive load. That’s no longer the case.
The Bruins produced a league-leading 30 even-strength goals since Hall’s arrival. Their 5v5 scoring woes plagued them twice in second-round exits against the Lightning in 2018 and 2020 and again in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final with the Blues. Their even-strength production of late — especially within the top-six — eases some of the previous concerns in their push for another postseason appearance.
Rask stayed hot in second straight start
Cassidy and goaltending coach Bob Essenssa remained consistent rotating Rask and Jaroslav Halak into their schedule during an unusual season. As the former recovered from a lingering upper-body ailment and the latter spent time in COVID protocol, Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar filled in admirably, keeping a healthy schedule intact.
With little practice time after arriving from Pittsburgh early Wednesday morning, Cassidy tabbed Rask for back-to-back starts for the fourth time this season. The Finn picked up right where he left off, making timely positional stops against an aggressive Sabres bunch en route to a 29-save outing.
“I thought Tuukka was solid,” Cassidy said. “He was really good in Pittsburgh the other night, but I thought he was obviously busier tonight.”
The Bruins have a luxury carrying three quality netminders in this pandemic-shortened season. Swayman earned significant playing time with a stellar start to his NHL career. Halak, while struggling at times this year, also provided quality appearances more often than not in his third season in Boston.
Swayman or Halak will serve as the backup come playoff time. But the Bruins won’t have to worry about who they’ll ride in the postseason. Aside from an early exit in last Friday’s loss to the Sabres, Rask’s performances since returning from his upper-body injury provides a healthy dose of confidence as Cassidy and company inch closer toward another playoff berth.
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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