By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins are ready to go.
Well, they’ll have about three practice days to get fully prepared for their first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But for Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, the roster seems relatively set. He has an idea as to who he wants to skate with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on Boston’s second line, and his optimal defensive pairings are (somehow) intact entering this postseason.
“I like our team,” Cassidy said after Saturday’s regular season finale. “We play hard. We’re one of the better teams from start to finish I think in the National Hockey League, specifically the second half of the year. We’ve played well at the right times. We’ve earned our way. Got Toronto, I think it’s a great matchup, great rivalry. Guys should be excited to play.
“You know, obviously this week hopefully we don’t get any bad news health wise. That’s obviously always a concern, but at the end of the day we’ve played through a lot of different things. Hopefully, we get some good news on guys like [Sean] Kuraly and [John] Moore. Sometimes they’re ahead of schedule, so those are the things that I’ll look at this week, but I like where we’re at as a team. Ready to go.”
So here’s your first look at what the Bruins are likely going to roll with when Game 1 kicks off on Thursday…
Line 1: Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
I know there’s been a lot of talk about breaking this group up to balance Boston’s offensive attack, but there’s legitimately no way you can separate these guys in this series. They have simply dominated the Maple Leafs over the last two years, and were especially devastating in last year’s seven-game series. The Maple Leafs have no answer for this line in the d-zone.
Line 2: Jake DeBrusk – David Krejci – Marcus Johansson
The right-side rotation on the right side of Boston’s second line should stop on Marcus Johansson. After all, this is pretty much why the Bruins parted with two draft picks to acquire the veteran Johansson. The trio has been relatively effective, too, as Johansson’s smooth skating and soft hands undoubtedly complement this line’s possession skill-set.
But by now, Krejci is prepared to play with anybody.
“DeBrusk was on my line the last couple years and we developed some chemistry and on the right side it’s been a little more challenging,” Krejci admitted. “But we’ve played with a lot of players, so no matter who’s on my line now we know we have some chemistry, we know what to expect. We’re in good shape here.”
Line 3: Danton Heinen – Charlie Coyle – Chris Wagner
Although he hasn’t wasted time putting him on the right side when necessary, Cassidy believes that Heinen’s best work comes when he’s playing his natural left side. That’s definitely true if we go back to Heinen’s breakout 2017-18 season, too, where he skated as the left-side presence on a line with Riley Nash and David Backes. Considering Charlie Coyle and Chris Wagner this year’s Nash-Backes combo isn’t a stretch. You could even the make the case that it’s more effective as an offensive group.
I think there’s also something to be said for this line’s matchup. Given the balanced attack of Toronto’s offense, this line is likely going to be more of a shutdown grouping than it is a scoring line, which makes sense to put Heinen there, as Cassidy appreciates the subtle things Heinen does along the walls and in the defensive zone.
This trio played almost 45 five-on-five minutes together during the regular season, and while they were anything but an offensive dynamo (they scored just one goal on 14 shots on net), they did allow just two goals in their time together.
Line 4: Joakim Nordstrom – Noel Acciari – David Backes
One of Cassidy’s late-season Frankenstein lines, the Nordstrom-Acciari-Backes trio has been surprisingly effective as a fourth line option. In 107:33 of five-on-five play together, the group has scored five goals on 48 shots, and has limited the opposition to just two strikes against. They’ve also controlled possession at over 55 percent. They will have limited deployment in this series given the speed of the Leafs, of course, but Cassidy could and will use them as a tone-setter of sorts following goals.
Pairing 1: Zdeno Chara – Charlie McAvoy
Together for almost 600 minutes this season, the Bruins have outshot the opposition 314-246 (a plus-68 shot differential) at five-on-five when the Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy has been on the ice. The duo has only been together for one 2018-19 game against the Maple Leafs, but they made it count, as the Bruins surrendered just two shots on goal in 12:37 of five-on-five play with this group on the ice. (This could be a series where McAvoy’s o-zone movement off set plays absolutely shines, too.)
Pairing 2: Torey Krug – Brandon Carlo
After suffering season-ending injuries in the final week of the regular season in back-to-back seasons, Brandon Carlo finally gets to make his Stanley Cup Playoff debut. The Bruins are going to need him, too, given some of the defensive-zone and pairing-partner problems Torey Krug had on Boston’s second-pairing during last year’s postseason.
Also: Don’t sleep on Torey Krug. The 5-foot-9 puckmover has been a big game player throughout his NHL career, and comes into this postseason with nine goals and 28 points in 38 career playoff games. His 0.74 points per game in the postseason ranks as the third-best among defensemen with at least 30 playoff games played since 2013, trailing only Kris Letang and Erik Karlsson. His power-play quarterbacking will be a massive key for the Black and Gold in this one.
Pairing 3: Matt Grzelcyk – Kevan Miller
Is this pairing, whose Year 2 progression has been incredibly stop-and-start due to injuries to each player, back in rhythm? It’s perhaps the biggest issue facing this team, and will be a big question for their road games.
Starting goaltender: Tuukka Rask
Whether you like it or not, Tuukka Rask is going to begin the postseason as the B’s starting netminder.
The 32-year-old Rask does enter the postseason in the midst of an undeniable cold streak, with six wins and an .881 save percentage in 11 games since Mar. 1. That save percentage is the second-worst among goaltenders with at least 11 appearances over that span. But Cassidy seems fairly confident that his goaltender will sort it all out in time for Game 1.
“I believe he’ll be ready to go Thursday and in good form,” Cassidy said. “But that’s why we play the games. We’ll find out.”
Rask enters the postseason with a 35-30 record and .924 save percentage in his postseason career.
Backup goaltender: Jaroslav Halak
And while Rask is the starter, don’t think for a second Cassidy will hesitate to turn to Jaroslav Halak if things go south.
Halak has been tremendous for the Bruins this season, with 22 wins and a .922 save percentage (seventh-best among goaltenders with at least 40 games played this season). Halak also has postseason play to his name, with a 13-15 record and .924 save percentage in 30 postseason appearances between the Canadiens, Blues, and Islanders.
Scratches: Karson Kuhlman, Steven Kampfer, Connor Clifton
You could argue that Karson Kuhlman has earned a spot in Boston’s postseason lineup. But it seems more likely that the Bruins will begin this playoff run by giving their deadline add (Johansson) and regulars dating back to last year (Heinen, Backes) a chance to show what they can do before plugging him into action.
Steven Kampfer will be in the press box when this postseason begins.
But if an injury strikes on the blue line, it could be Connor Clifton’s time to shine.
“The growth in his game has been very good,” Cassidy said of Clifton. “He’s a very competitive guy, so this time of year that’s one of the most important things and certainly an identity of our club. I think he’s more comfortable moving the puck, when to make a play, when to join the rush. Certainly physical, will take an opportunity to finish his checks, and this time of year that becomes, that increases with every team. So, I like where he’s at with his game.”
Injuries: Sean Kuraly, John Moore
If there’s one player the Bruins are definitely going to miss for the first half of this series, it’s Sean Kuraly. Knocked out of commission on a blocked shot on Mar. 21, Kuraly’s absence leaves the Bruins down their only left-handed centerman. That was a big part of Cassidy’s matchup plan against a deep-at-center Toronto squad and their loaded power play. The good news, though, is that Kuraly has started skating on his own and his timeline should see him return by Game 4 or 5 of this series.
Injured in Boston’s Mar. 25 loss to Lightning, Moore missed the final six games of the regular season, and still out with the ‘week-to-week’ designation. Perhaps the B’s best skating defenseman, Moore’s absence could hurt the Bruins should they go through a 2017-esque rash of injuries on the backend.