The Boston Bruins encountered a similar situation from Thursday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers during Saturday’s matinee against a fellow red-hot team in the Nashville Predators at TD Garden.
The Preds came back from a 2-0 deficit after evening things up in the middle stanza. The Bruins again responded with Brad Marchand and his damaged nose — busted open again Saturday following an inadvertent Roman Josi — elbow in the third only to see that lead relinquished with Josi’s equalizer 2:24 later.
Bruce Cassidy’s bunch never wavered amidst the physicality and in-game adversity. They reached overtime after killing off another late-game penalty — this time on Urho Vaakanainen — against Nashville’s fourth-ranked power play. It didn’t take long for the Bruins to head down their hallway and return to the locker room following the 3-on-3 extra session, either.
An assertive transition feed from Vaakaninen set David Pastrnak up for a scoring opportunity down the other end of the ice. A crashing Taylor Hall found a loose puck following Juusse Saros’ initial stop on Pastrnak, promptly giving the Bruins a bruising 4-3 victory.
Here’s what we learned following Boston’s eighth win in nine games.
Vaakanainen’s recent play providing a tough decision ahead for Boston’s coaching staff
Another tough decision awaits Boston’s coaching staff once Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton return from COVID-19 protocol.
Boston’s blue-line witnessed 2015 first-round selection Jakub Zboril take a significant step forward in his professional hockey development before a torn ACL ended his season. With injuries and COVID, the Bruins recalled Vaakanainen from Providence, hoping he’d provide another injection of youth to the back end.
In Charlie McAvoy’s absence, the Bruins inserted Vaakanainen into the lineup a week ago at Tampa Bay in a top-pairing role with Derek Forbort. He’s split time between the first and third defensive duos, skating with Forbort, a returning McAvoy and fellow recent call-up Tyler Lewington during his stint. He thrived in whatever role the Bruins gave him, providing a steady hand in the defensive end and transition game.
“He’s going to make difficult decisions [for the staff] when we’re 100 percent healthy,” Cassidy said of Vaakanainen’s recent run. “That’s what we want as an organization and you need that circle of life when those young guys come in.”
Vaakaninen showcased his on-ice growth with each shift. But Saturday’s tilt provided a significant turning point after the 2017 first-rounder committed a late tripping penalty on Matt Duchene.
Boston’s shorthanded unit bailed Vaakaninen out with another clutch penalty kill late in regulation. Vaakaninen settled right back into a comfort zone in the final four minutes and change, forcing overtime. The 23-year-old made the most of his lone 3-on-3 shift in the extra session, creating a turnover and setting up Pastrnak in transition en route to Hall’s clincher.
“He’s a good player,” Cassidy added of Vaakanainen. “He’s just got to understand it’s an every night business at this level. We certainly will allow guys to make mistakes and understand his youth…but it’s nice to see him step in and do well.
“It’s really good to see a guy come in and play like he belongs at this level,” Hall said. “That probably speaks to his off-season training and his development coming in. A guy that comes into the lineup and plays to the best of his abilities, that’s all you can really ask for.”
Vaakaninen’s maturity and confidence provide a welcomed sight inside Boston’s tight-knit dressing room. With four assists in his five games since his latest call-up, Vaakaninen provided a healthy two-way presence with his shot-blocking prowess, steady play along the walls and transition skillset.
A potential longer run for Vaakanien would likely result in Forbort or Clifton sitting, especially with another encouraging development for a Bruins blue-liner who found himself in a similar fringe spot earlier in the season.
Mike Reilly adding another element to his offensive skillset
It took Reilly 33 games to surpass his eight-point performance with the Bruins following last year’s trade deadline. But the former Ottawa Senator added another trait to his puck-moving skillset that he hardly displayed in his 15 regular-season outings with the big club late last season.
Reilly became more assertive this season whenever he encounters time and space with or without the puck. He showcased a prime example of that with the Bruins 1-0 — behind Craig Smith’s tally against his former team — toward the midway point of the opening stanza.
A patient Erik Haula drew Nashville’s D toward the blue-line, providing Reilly with an opening in the slot. Reilly hesitated for a split second as he corraled the slick feed from Haula, getting Saros down before delivering a nifty backhand tally to give the B’s a 2-0 cushion 4:17 after Smith’s marker.
“He sure had his legs offensively,” Cassidy said of Reilly. “Nice play all around on the goal against a type of defense Nashville plays in the neutral zone. We got behind them, recovered a puck and found time and space, and Mike sees an ally and away he goes.
Reilly provided another layer of scoring depth during this run. The Bruins received offensive contributions from almost everyone during this nine-game run. Indeed, they’ve come a long way upon their return from the COVID pause.
The Bruins continue to find various ways to win
Even as an interim coach in 2017, Cassidy’s teams frequently find themselves encountering lengthy multi-game runs at various points of a campaign. But this latest January stretch came at a pivotal time.
The Bruins have come a long way since trotting out a 17-man lineup in their final game before the COVID break against the New York Islanders on Dec. 16. They faced various challenges against some of the teams at the bottom of the standings, like the Sabres, Devils and Flyers. They thrived against the teams ahead of them in the playoff picture, including the Lightning and Capitals.
More importantly, the contributions from all four lines helped the Bruins pile up victories through various means, from blowouts to tightly-contested physical tilts.
“We’ve been doing the right things out there on the ice,” Smith said after the Bruins tallied more hits (45) than shots on net (44) in a playoff-like tilt on Saturday. “It was a matter of time before we got a couple of bounces. We have a lot of guys who are playing really well right now on all four lines, and I think that’s been huge for us.”
Smith arrived in Boston last season as mainstays like Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara departed for new homes in the 2020 off-season. The locker-room transition continued this past summer with David Krejci returning to his native Czech Republic as the Bruins welcomed Haula, Forbort, Linus Ullmark, Nick Foligno and Tomas Nosek to their new home.
With more familiarity with each other’s tendencies, the Bruins have found a rhythm. That, and the mental and physical benefits from the break, provided a new and improved perspective amid their turnaround.
“Early on, there was a lot of work to do in terms of getting to know everyone and meshing together and finding chemistry and whatnot,” captain Patrice Bergeron said after tallying a pair of helpers. “It maybe took a little longer than expected. But at the same time, I think it’s not a bad thing to go through adversity when it’s early in the year and learn from it. I think the time off was good for a lot of the guys around Christmas time, and you can see that right now.”
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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