What we learned: Bruins, Smith, ‘trick’ lowly Sabres
Through all the ups and downs of their 2021 campaign, the Boston Bruins found themselves in an ideal spot facing the lowly Buffalo Sabres in a handful of tilts for the home stretch. And now Bruce Cassidy’s rejuvenated bunch is on the cusp of another postseason appearance.
The Bruins rarely took their foot off the proverbial pedal. Their keen assertiveness and puck pursuit in all three zones overwhelmed the Sabres, resulting in a 6-2 victory Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.
Here’s what we learned as the Bruins will enter a playoff clinching scenario come Monday in New Jersey.
Hats off to Craig Smith and the second line
The Bruins possess one of the more potent trios in the league in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. They now have arguably the hottest line and the best top-six in the National Hockey League.
It didn’t take long for the speedy Taylor Hall, the crafty David Krejci and the hard-nosed Craig Smith to pick up where they left off. The trio connected on a tic-tac-goal sequence a mere 1:21 in, beginning with Hall’s feed to Krejci at the face-off dot. Fresh off an assist of the year candidate two nights ago, Krejci promptly delivered another stellar feed to Smith as he notched the first of his three-goal afternoon.
With his blue-collar work ethic, the former Nashville Predator notched several quality scoring chances in front of the Buffalo net. All three of Smith’s tallies came in the dirty areas, including his second of the game on a tap in from Mike Reilly’s net-drive feed to extend Boston’s lead to 5-1 at 5:31 of the final stanza.
“I think it’s great. He’s a very popular guy in the room,” Cassidy said of Smith in his first season with the Bruins. “With COVID it’s a litle tougher to know [new] guys, but obviously over time I think they appreciate his kind of lunchpail approach, getting in on the forecheck, creating some turnovers for them and digging around in front of the net. He’s got a great shot, and I’m happy for them.”
Smith isn’t shy shooting the puck. His second-line centerman, Krejci, loves to use his creativity to set up scoring chances for his linemates.
Yet, as Smith remained on the cusp of his second career hat trick, Krejci provided his off-winger with a small, but a helpful piece of advice.
“Get your stick down. I’m going to try to shoot it every time,” Smith said regarding Krejci’s message.
Smith listened. With a 5-2 lead late in the third, Smith deflected Krejci’s feed to secure his hat trick on Boston’s fourth power play attempt.
The socially distanced Bruins supporters at TD Garden promptly celebrated throwing their caps onto the ice surface.
“It was cool seeing the hats fly,” Smith said. “I don’t get to see that very often for myself.”
Smith, Krejci and Hall have all showcased their scoring touch since Cassidy formed the trio following the trade deadline. They had something to celebrate again with Smith’s hat trick. But that wasn’t the only joyous occasion from Saturday’s matinee.
Bottom-six finding its groove again as Sean Kuraly snaps drought
Charlie Coyle kept things in perspective after snapping his 18-game goal drought in Thursday’s 5-2 win. Kuraly expressed a little more emotion two days later, snapping a 31-game goal skid with his third goal of the season and first since Feb. 5 to put the Bruins ahead for good late in the opening stanza.
“I think the reaction says it all there,” Kuraly said after celebrating his first tally in nearly three months with his trademark leap into the glass. “It feels good. That’s the name of the game, I guess, and there’s a lot of other things you take pride in. But, at the end of the day, putting the puck in the net feels pretty good. And you can tell by my reaction how that one felt.”
Kuraly, Coyle and the rest of Boston’s bottom-six don’t necessarily need to celebrate a goal to make their efforts worthwhile. Checking off their supportive role duties — staying aggressive on pucks, establishing a good checking presence and remaining assertive along the walls — will usually lead to a good day in the office for the third and fourth lines.
Cassidy hardly saw a hard-nosed effort out of the third and fourth lines entering the week. Jake DeBrusk took the brunt of that as Boston’s fifth-year bench boss scratched the 2015 first-round selection for the second time this year ahead of Tuesday’s tilt with the Penguins.
DeBrusk returned on Saturday as a fourth-line left-winger, a spot held by Trent Frederic over the last two games. The speedy Karson Kuhlman filled in for Chris Wagner at the opposite wing with Curtis Lazar in the middle. Like the third line of Coyle, Kuraly and Nick Ritchie — who notched his 13th goal of the season at the 3:08 mark of the final stanza — the fourth line played their supporting role to a T.
“We’re trying to get people — the so-called bottom of the lineup forwards — to give us some juice and put stress on the other team,” Cassidy said of the bottom-six. “And I thought they were able to do that tonight.”
Bruins building momentum in the home stretch
Cassidy’s bunch appeared ripe for another deep playoff run last season. But the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to postpone its 2019-20 campaign before returning in August for postseason play.
After the long layoff, the Bruins struggled to carry over the momentum generated from their Presidents’ Trophy campaign into the Toronto bubble. Barring another catastrophic development, this year’s red-hot Bruins bunch won’t have to worry about any lengthy layoffs between the end of this pandemic-shortened season and the playoffs.
In a year full of twists and turns, the Bruins put themselves in prime position to secure another playoff berth with a win over the Devils on Monday. They’ve arguably become the hottest team since the trade deadline with a 9-2 mark in their last 11 games.
The battle-tested Bruins transitioned from a fringe playoff squad into potentially holding one of the top two seeds in the East Division. Barring a mind-boggling collapse, they hope to overcome the bitter eliminations from the likes of the Blues and Lightning and finally hoist Lord Stanley for the first time in 10 years.
“This year, we’re trying to build our game, and we know what our ultimate goal is,” Kuraly said. “The last four years, we’ve seen different things happen — we’ve been all the way to the end, we win a Presidents’ Trophy. You realize that there’s not one way to do this thing, but you just try to play your best hockey at the right time and I think we’re heading in the right direction. We’ve got some work to do, but I think we have a locker room that’s starting to get pretty excited.”