By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Chew on this for a moment, if you don't mind: The Boston Bruins have played their last 17 games without some combination of the following... their No. 1 defenseman, No. 2 defenseman, No. 3 defenseman (and top power-play puck-mover), No. 4 defenseman, No. 5 defenseman, and No. 1 center. They also lost one of their bottom-six right wings for an extended stretch due to a concussion, and even their first P-Bruins recall of a defenseman landed on the shelf with a concussion. Oh, and their $7 million goaltender recently required a four-day absence from the team to sort out some personal issues.
In fact, the Bruins have yet to play a regular-season game with what everybody would consider their optimal lineup.
Rather than plunge to the cellar, though, the Bruins have willed their way to points, with Monday's 4-2 loss in Toronto just the fifth game over that 17-game stretch that's left the Bruins without a point (they're 9-5-3 over that span, grabbing 21 of a possible 34 points, or a 61.8 point percentage). That's the ninth-most points in the league over that span, and it's worth mentioning that three of the eight teams ahead of have played at least one more game over that timeframe.
This. Is. Ridiculous.
And it honestly may feature some of Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy's best -- and most decisive -- work to date.
When Patrice Bergeron went down, the easiest call would have been to simply stay with the 'loaded' first line method and plug in David Krejci between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The rest of Boston's depth would have suffered greatly, sure, but it would have given the Bruins one crazy-powerful line that could generate almost all of their scoring.
After all, that's kinda how the Bruins have won the majority of their games this season.
Instead, Cassidy has relied on the Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk combo to help Krejci generate offense on line two.
This has truly brought the best out of Krejci's game, as he has been the B's most impactful forward of late, with three assists and nine shots on goal over his last four games. The points don't feel 'empty' as Krejci's points sometimes have a tendency to, either, as he's had a tangible impact on the game every single night. The Heinen-Krejci-DeBrusk combo has really emerged as a driver for the Bruins, too, with a 57.50 Corsi-For percentage and 16 scoring chances generated in over 37 minutes of action together in the last week alone. The Bruins have also outshot teams 23-15 at five-on-five when this trio is on the ice together.
Considering the Bruins' weaknesses below that star-studded top line (as well as the year-long carousel on that second line), this line getting hot and proving it can work will do wonders for the Bruins across the board. And it starts with Krejci, really.
"That’s part of being a leader, a guy recognizing what goes on in this league, so I would like to think that that would be part of his motivation to play, or even be even more focused," Cassidy said of Krejci stepping up in Bergeron's absence. "Listen, no matter who’s in the lineup, he’s going to want to play well every night – I’m stating the obvious, but we need him to be better than average every night. We’ve got some young kids in behind him that are going to have to find their way, so he’s going to have to carry a bit more water than maybe he normally would."
Above the Krejci line, Cassidy has essentially challenged both Marchand and Pastrnak to lead on their talents and experience.
You saw Marchand do this in a survivalist win over the Coyotes in the immediate aftermath of the Bergeron injury, and Pastrnak finally looked comfortable playing without Bergeron in Monday's 4-2 loss, scoring both Boston goals.
That challenge has also made its way to the fill-in talents between No. 63 and No. 88, though, be it Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson or Colby Cave. And in the case of Forsbacka Karlsson, Cassidy has been brutally honest when assessing his play.
When first asked about JFK receiving some sort of promotion in the lineup, Cassidy shot it down and said that Forsbacka Karlsson already had his hands full with the minutes he was being given. Forsbacka Karlsson eventually got a boost up the Boston lineup, and it was then that Cassidy let him go against the Penguins' Sidney Crosby. Forsbacka Karlsson struggled in such a matchup, but the B's coach knew that he had to do this at some point, at least if the Bruins were going to truly find out what they had in the third-line center hopeful. When Forsbacka Karlsson's struggles made their way to Toronto, though, Cassidy was quick to give him the hook and promote Cave to the first line. Asked about the switch, Cassidy outright said that he didn't like Forsbacka Karlsson's jump and decided to make a change. (Again, he's nothing if not honest.)
But when handling a still-malleable talent like JFK, these are the kind of lessons that help everybody involved figure out exactly what he can be for the Bruins now, a month from now, or come the postseason in the event of injuries. And rewarding Cave with continued appearances -- as well as the aforementioned in-game promotion -- speaks to the rest of the room.
It puts everybody notice that even with a press box full of injured bodies, minutes and roles can be (and are) earned.
It's why Cassidy wasn't afraid to sit speedy bottom-six staple Sean Kuraly (for the first time all season) on Monday. Why the talented-yet-underperforming Anders Bjork was cursing at himself and looking skyward after his penalty (and subsequent Leafs power-play goal) in the losing effort, as if he knew what it'd meant for him. And why goalies Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask, both playing at or near the top of their game in recent weeks, have been in a constant rotation since Rask's return.
Even without the bodies to 'justify' it, and in a time where comforts and reliable known commodities can be overused simply because they're safer bets than the alternatives, Cassidy has shown his willingness to reward players earning their keep.
No player's current situation speaks to this more than that of first-month NHLer Connor Clifton.
I mean, let's be honest: Clifton has been a complete revelation on the backend. Think about where Clifton's year started -- in Providence's defensive logjam, and likely as the organization's 13th or 14th defenseman. He finished Monday's loss against a high-powered divisional rival -- on the road, no less -- with 24:36 of time on ice and as their top possession defenseman.
Among Boston defenders with at least 100 minutes of even-strength playing time this season, Clifton ranks at or near the top in almost every possession metric, and has taken plenty of chances per the eye-test. He's also developed some strangely strong chemistry with his pairing partners, no matter the lack of playing time together. Carrying the swagger of anything but a No. 13 or 14 d-man, Clifton also straight-up outlasted 2015 first-round Jakub Zboril in a battle for NHL playing time (Zboril looked like every moment was too big for him, while Clifton looked like a natural, even smoking Jason Spezza with a few rights).
Simply put, opportunity knocked, and it's in Boston that Clifton's begun to carve out a role for himself and establish potential 'keeper' status for Sweeney and the B's. And now, with Kevan Miller out for another five weeks with a larynx injury, the Bruins will need Clifton to continue to build on a small-but-impressive sample size of forced top-four play.
He's not the first, and he won't be the last. David Backes has seemingly regained some semblance of an offensive touch, and is getting reps on the top power-play unit in Bergeron's absence. Matt Grzelcyk has been utilized as a top-pairing d-man. And even Ryan Donato has been called back up to the NHL and may get another chance to stick in Cassidy's lineup. Who that bumps out or down the roster, though, is based entirely on Donato and the opportunity he'll be given.
For Cassidy and the Bruins, who continue to pull wins out of thin air, competition remains the name of the game.
Even when injuries should take them out of just that.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.