By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
RALEIGH, N.C. — There’s one thing in life that I’m certain of, and it’s that you gotta absolutely be feeling it if you’re going to throw on “Pony” by Ginuwine.
Nobody in life has ever put that song on without a supreme, borderline-untouchable level of confidence. Seriously. Think about the last time you played that song. Try to remember your feeling. If you’re living life the way it’s meant to be lived, it’s never been played at anything short of your life’s top five — maybe even top three — moments.
That was the Black and Gold’s Wednesday, as it blared through the hallways of Raleigh’s PNC Arena while the Bruins warmed up before hitting the ice for a practice just one day after taking a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Hurricanes.
And confidence, as you can imagine, is not hard to find among Boston skaters these days.
Since falling into a 3-2 series deficit in round one against the Maple Leafs, the Bruins have by all means dismantled the competition, with wins in nine of their last 11 games overall and a plus-20 goal differential over that stretch. Even when they don’t look like they’re bringing their A-Game, their B- and C-Games have been enough, largely due to late-game heroics in the defensive zone or the timely goal from a role-player at the other end of the rink.
But this surge undoubtedly starts at the top with head coach Bruce Cassidy.
The third-year bench boss truly believes that there’s not a team in this league that can touch the Bruins when their skating game is there. His trust in rolling four lines and three pairings at all times has been rewarded with goals across the board, with a team-record 19 scorers this spring, and with names like Connor Clifton and Chris Wagner scoring massive goals. Cassidy has also hammered home the idea of “on time” starts and “being the storm” instead of weathering it. Game 3 tested such philosophies with a 20-shot barrage thrown Tuukka Rask’s way in the first period, but the Bruins still came out on the right side of things by the night’s end by way of a 2-1 final, because why wouldn’t they with this apparent Midas touch?
And though it’s easy to say it’s a Midas touch and simply move on, there’s so much more to Cassidy’s work to maximize this group, and truly keep everybody pushing one another at all times. His top-nine forward group, while settled thanks to some big-time performances from each line, has been shuffled throughout the postseason. Postseason calls to first-year NHLer Connor Clifton went so well that the 5-foot-11 defender has carved out a legitimate role for himself, giving the Bruins three defenders under six feet tall, though it’s a trio that “causes havoc” all the same, according to Torey Krug.
“Internal competition is the best way for your team to get better,” Cassidy said of his team. “We’ve done it in a lot of different areas. We’ve moved people up and down the lineup; power-play responsibilities, penalty-kill responsibilities. I think our guys have responded very well. We have that kind of group.
“Other teams might not embrace [internal competition], but ours has.”
That competition started back in October, too, when Jaroslav Halak provided legitimate competition for Tuukka Rask. It was enough of a duel between goaltenders to keep Rask focused and fully charged for a postseason run that’s come with some downright ridiculous figures for the 32-year-old, and is beginning to leave the team speechless when describing his play.
“Not much to say, man,” Krug said when asked about Rask’s play. “He’s incredible. He’s been our best player.”
Through 16 playoff games— Ty Anderson (@_TyAnderson) May 15, 2019
Rask '19: 11-5, .939, 1.96
Rask '13: 12-4, .943, 1.75
Quick '12: 14-2, .947, 1.44
Thomas '11: 11-5, .931, 2.27
Rask’s confident swagger in net — he hasn’t looked rattled by the rare soft goal or thrown his hands up after a breakdown — has been nothing short of incredible. Even as a proud member of the Boo-Hoo Tuukka Crew, I must admit that I’ve never seen Rask play with the poise he’s shown this spring. It’s just a simply remarkable level of focus that’s made the net look like it’s the size of a postage stamp for baffled Carolina shooters. Rask has also brushed all the praise off with his usual shrugs and easygoing attitude, joking that “nobody actually knows what in the zone means” when discussing his play.
But Rask’s obvious confidence (and upbeat demeanor off it) has spread throughout the roster, too, as the Bruins completely embody a 20-man unit that knows that their goaltender does and will have their back at all times.
And it’s remarkable to see how all the pieces have fit into the puzzle to this point.
Both Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson have raved about the rumors of Boston’s tight-knit but competitive locker room being true, and that duo has formed their own connection as a competitive one-two on Boston’s third line. The aforementioned Wagner, while likely done for the remainder of the postseason, completed a brilliant tic-tac-toe play with Joakim Nordstrom and Sean Kuraly to get the Bruins on the board in Game 3. Wagner later came through with the key shot block that prevented a real look at a game-tying goal for the ‘Canes, even if it cost him playing time for his hometown team.
“The guys that get traded here, they say there’s something special about this group,” Brandon Carlo noted.
And there’s not a single player on this B’s roster that isn’t pulling their weight right now.
“You need all four lines to contribute to win playoff games and to win playoff series,” Krug acknowledged after their Game 3 victory. “We have the confidence to throw anybody out at any situation within the game, and that’s huge for a team and probably makes the coach’s life a lot easier. We have all the confidence in the world in every single line.”
It’s made the Bruins a ridiculously difficult challenge for any team. I mean, you have fiery Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour just happy that his team “gave the Bruins a game” in Game 3. Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, who has simply become unhinged the deeper this series has gone, seems like he’s legitimately lost for words.
The Bruins have become soul-devourers. Not because of one line or one pairing — the Bergeron Line has just one point at five-on-five play this series and the B’s have balanced their defensive pairings better than they ever have before in this series — but because their entire time seems to never quite slow down enough for the opposition to take advantage.
“We have guys one through six contributing and making big plays,” Krug said of Boston’s defense (and forwards). “[We’re] doing whatever it takes within that game, within that shift. We talk about knowing what the game needs and guys are bringing it right now.”