By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
If there's one thing you have to love about Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, it's his honesty. That honesty came to light after Peter Cehlarik welcomed himself to the 2018-19 NHL season with two goals in less than 18 minutes in Wednesday's loss to the Flyers.
"[Cehlarik] was excellent, makes us wonder why we didn’t call him up a long time ago," Cassidy said.
It's probably the thought every B's fan has had since Cehlarik was recalled and summoned to second-line duty alongside Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci, and was only (positively) reinforced by another Cehlarik point in Thursday's 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues.
A thought centered around a hope that Cehlarik is indeed the answer to a season-long problem.
I mean, the Bruins, though not dropped out of the playoff picture as a result of it, have essentially wasted their second line from the jump. It's been a revolving door of Ryan Donato (not ready), Danton Heinen (confidence is not only out the window but is stuck in 2017-18), Joakim Nordstrom (a player whose best value comes on your bottom six), and David Backes (woof). Just hundreds and hundreds of minutes wasted on bandaid fixes. All while Krejci by all means begged to have David Pastrnak (27 goals and 55 points in 48 games this year) dropped down to his line with DeBrusk.
But Cehlarik, while still entirely too inexperienced to view as a long-term solution on line two, clearly works.
In 21:19 of five-on-five play together over the last two games, the Cehlarik-Krejci-DeBrusk trio has simply dominated. They've controlled possession at 77.1 percent, they've outshot opponents 15-5, out-chanced them 11-4, and outscored them 2-0. And though I have to preface everything about this with an 'it's early,' these are the kind of numbers that rival the post-deadline DeBrusk-Krejci-Rick Nash trio last spring.
In fact, Cehlarik has a little Nash to his game.
That's great news for the Bruins.
When watching Cehlarik this year, I often find myself coming back to a simple point: When he's on the ice, the Bruins are on the attack and making things happen. A 6-foot-2 skater with the ability to extend plays with his reach and body, it feels as if Cehlarik has been involved in only positives this year. He won a puck-battle along the walls to create Boston's power-play goal on Thursday, is clearly comfortable parking himself in front of the net and absorbing the abuse needed to create home-plate chances, and has physically and mentally matured to properly handle NHL pace.
"Winning the battles is the first thing you have to do to be able to stay and get the pucks and then try to make a play," Cehlarik noted after Thursday's victory. "So, if you want a puck, you have to win it."
Cehlarik has demonstrated his patience and smarts through the neutral zone, which he displayed on his first goal of the season Wednesday night Philadelphia which has been a definite need for a Black and Gold group that's been forced into one-and-done chances far too often for their liking this season.
"He’s making lots of good play out there," Krejci said. "Not only that, it helps me as well. He’s strong on the puck. He’s good on breakouts in the neutral zone. A lot of give and go. So, it’s been good but hopefully we can keep it going."
In essence, Cehlarik received the message from the B's coaching staff when told what to work on upon his last demotion.
"Elated, enthusiastic," Cassidy said when asked to give a word describing Cehlarik's game. "He’s done what we’ve asked and more. He finished the other night, a couple times, so we know he’s capable of offense. I just think he’s winning – even the Backes goal; it’s a 50-50 puck against a big body. He gets there first. Ties up, Krejci follows, so now you’re winning puck battles. It’s a big part of hockey, to me. You can go through all of the x’s and o’s of every team in the system, but when you win puck battles, assuming you have good players, which we do, you’re going to make plays when you have it more.
"I give him a lot of credit for that," Cassidy continued. "He’s at the top of the crease when that shot comes from [Zdeno Chara]. We’ve been trying to instill some of those habits into some of our younger guys for a long time, to get there and stay there. He’s a bigger body and little more mature, so he can hold his ground."
This skill is something the Bruins have lacked and missed since Nash's decision to sit out free agency (and eventually retire due to lingering concussion woes). And something that their prospect pool -- at the NHL level and below -- is not exactly blessed with in the now.
"Ryan Donato is trying to get there. He’s just not as strong on his skates as Peter right now, so we’re trying to encourage [Danton] Heinen when he’s in that role to get there. Jake [DeBrusk] gets there all the time with his footspeed. He’s got so much speed that sometimes he doesn’t stop there, like his tip chance," Cassidy said when comparing Cehlarik's strengths to the others the B's have utilized in similar spots this year. "Those are all things we’re trying to encourage. Those are power forward qualities, and [Anders] Bjork and them are not 6-foot-3 guys, but that’s the new NHL. We’re trying to get them to hang around there as much as possible. And Peter has that, scored from the top of the crease [Wednesday] night."
That impacts the Bruins beyond the now, too.
With a confirmation that Cehlarik can indeed play with this team, perhaps the Bruins are not as hellbent on hoarding their wealth of mid-tier redundancies on the wings, and entertain the idea of packaging them for a greater need.
And perhaps Cehlarik's contributions are enough for the Bruins to successfully avoid paying a premium on the elusive hard-to-play-against winger with size and puck-protection skills to bring Krejci back to life in the postseason a la Horton and Iginla. The latter point is especially important, too, as nobody wants to part with a player of that ilk for less than a first-round pick and/or top prospect.
"It’s two games, so you try to temper it, but my biggest concern with Peter was did he learn what was required to stay in the NHL level when he’s not playing to his strengths: managing pucks, winning pucks, defensively," Cassidy revealed. "He’s done, he’s hit all those checklists, and he’s rewarding us offensively. So, real nice to see."
For Cassidy and B's general manager Don Sweeney's potential deadline plans, you'd have to think.