By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Injuries, or even slumps for that matter, can often lead you back to old formulas.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy experienced as much on Friday night, as injuries to Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy left the B’s down half of their top four defensive group, and led to the reunion of Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo on his top pairing.
The pairing was straight-up fantastic, too, and the night featured what was perhaps Carlo’s best game of the season. Playing a more aggressive style — and matched up against legitimate Hart Trophy candidate Jack Eichel throughout the night — Carlo repeatedly made confident and decisive plays in his own end, and tallied the empty-net goal to make it a 3-0 final.
It was enough to get me thinking, is this how it should be for the Bruins?
It may feel like ancient history now, but Carlo spent almost his entire rookie season to Chara’s right. That pairing was Boston’s only duo to finish the 2016-17 year with at least 1,000 minutes of five-on-five play together, and was one of just 12 pairings around the league to hit that mark. Among that group of 12, the Chara-Carlo pairing had the fifth-best possession percentage, surrendered the third-fewest scoring chances and the sixth-fewest high-danger chances. They also had a plus-3 goal differential. It, for the most part, worked just fine for the Bruins, and would’ve been together for Boston’s first-round playoff series with the Senators had it not been for the season-ending concussion Carlo was dealt by Alex Ovechkin in Game 82.
But then came Charlie McAvoy, and Carlo moved down the right defense depth chart and to the right of Torey Krug. That move hasn’t been the worst for Carlo by any stretch; the Krug-Carlo duo has been a frequent go-to with Boston’s first line, bolstering their offensive-end numbers and percentages, and was a dominant second pairing at times in last year’s postseason run.
At the same time, however, Friday was just a reminder at what Carlo can do when skating with Chara. When paired with Krug, Carlo is really looked at as a GTFB talent for the adventurous, offensive wizardry of the 5-foot-9 Krug. That’s not to say that Carlo isn’t allowed to take chances, it’s just that it’s not what’s expected out of him. With Chara, however (and like McAvoy), Carlo is more of the pairing’s driver and chief decision-maker, while No. 33 seems to be the sturdy, ol’ reliable presence.
“You lose a little bit of the puck-moving ability when [Chara and Carlo] are together, but I thought Brandon was actually moving the puck well and making the plays he was supposed to,” Cassidy admitted after Friday’s win.
This also creates that definitive role that the B’s happily utilized on Friday, as this pair was out there for every key defensive-zone situation, and really stifled the Sabres’ first and second options. I mean, you’re basically erasing the ice between the reach of the 6-foot-9 Chara and 6-foot-5 Carlo. It’s just an utterly absurd radius to work with in an already-crowded area.
But it also opens the door for the tantalizing option of pairing McAvoy with either Krug or Matt Grzelcyk.
When we talk about what the Bruins want to see out of McAvoy, it often tends to come back to offensive responsibilities; McAvoy needs to shoot more, he needs to be confident with his offensive decision-making, and it needs to translate to power-play success. When he’s on an offense-heavy pairing, the o-zone starts are there, and the B’s dominate the puck. Together for just 107 minutes of even-strength action this season, the Krug-McAvoy pairing has dominated possession at over 62 percent, outshot opponents by 25, and outscored them 11-6. This pairing is something the Bruins have tinkered with in the past, of course, and typically when they’re goal-hunting late in games they’ve trailed. The Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing, meanwhile, has controlled possession at over 58 percent and outshot the opposition by 17, but have a negative goal differential, at minus-2. That negative goal differential seems more unlucky than anything else, really, as this pairing has been on ice for the team’s worst shooting percentage and worst save percentage among pairings with at least 100 minutes of play at evens.
It would leave the Bruins with options, at the very least, too, knowing that they can certainly trust the Chara-Carlo pairing to do its job in the defensive zone, thus freeing the rest of the B’s defense up for mouthwatering matchups in the o-zone.
The idea is a simple but potentially fate-changing one, as going with two shutdowns and two puckmovers on separate pairings could force teams to gameplan for two just plain disgusting mismatches at both ends of the rink. And that’s when you talk about creating additional advantages via the Bergeron Line or nullifying roster weaknesses in your middle six.
And with Krug and McAvoy expected to miss Sunday’s rematch, Cassidy will get another definite look at this duo.
Here are some other thoughts and notes from a shutout victory in Buffalo…
‘Perfection Line’ returns to early-season form in winning effort
The Bergeron Line was back in form on Friday night, and they straight-up carried the Bruins at times throughout the win.
On the ice for just under 11 minutes of five-on-five play in the win, Bergeron’s line posted a 69.6% Corsi-For percentage, outshot the Sabres 8-3, and generated nine scoring chances. They also made Jimmy Vesey look like an absolute fool for Boston’s second goal, stripping the puck off the local kid and then turning it into a tic-tac goal that had Linus Ullmark lost.
“It’s about moving our feet,” Bergeron said. “That’s how we created that space is by reading each other well and knowing where we’re at, but also by moving our feet and being good on the forecheck and getting the puck back and creating the offense.”
Jaroslav Halak has bounce back effort
Bruins netminder Jaroslav Halak had himself a bit of an adventure last Saturday.
It was in that game, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Predators, that the 34-year-old surrendered four goals on 29 shots, and with more than a couple of them seeming like obvious should-be stops. Cassidy said as much following the loss, calling all of the goals ‘savable’ and saying that the team needed stops from their goaltenders while they worked their way out of their funk.
After all, Cassidy believes that his team has two No. 1 goaltenders, meaning either Halak or Tuukka Rask can hold the key to the team working its way back to normalcy as one of the league’s undeniable juggernauts.
And Halak delivered on Friday, as he was great early and great again late in the third period, in what finished as a 26-save shutout good for his third of the season (and the 50th of his NHL career). Halak made a great stop right off the bat, and came through with a fantastic glove save on Marcus Johansson in what finished as an 11-save opening frame. Halak also kept the Sabres off the board in what was an abbreviated third-period power play to keep the B’s multi-goal lead intact.
The Bruins got both big and timely saves from No. 41, and it certainly made a difference.
“We needed points and we got the points,” Halak said after the win. “It wouldn’t have mattered if it was 3-2 or 3-1, whatever.
“It makes it more special when it’s a shutout, but it’s a team game and we got the win.”
Halak is now 9-3-4 with a 2.22 goals against average and .928 save percentage.
Marcus Johansson goes against B’s for first time since leaving town
Friday also featured Marcus Johansson’s first head-to-head with the Bruins since leaving Boston as a free agent this past summer. Acquired from the Devils in exchange for a pair of draft picks, the 29-year-old Johansson certainly made the most of his Boston run, with four goals and 11 points in 22 postseason contests for the Bruins. There were times where Johansson was undoubtedly the Black and Gold’s best forward, and his connection with Charlie Coyle on the third line was just fantastic.
He turned that into a two-year, $9 million deal with the Sabres, while the Bruins are still searching for a middle-six winger to maximize their roster and prevent the Bruins from being hit with the ‘one line team’ designation.
Now, should the Bruins have spent on keeping Johansson around for another run or two? Watching him last night, it’s clear he can still make plays with the puck. But when you look at their summer logjam — the Bruins went with bridge deals for Carlo and McAvoy, and also re-upped Danton Heinen to a new two-year deal worth $2.8 million per season — it’s hard to see how the Bruins were ever going to make it work (especially with David Backes not traded, as many fans either hoped or expected).
And keeping MoJo, another left-shot winger, likely would have held Anders Bjork from getting his shot with the Big B’s, and it’s worth wondering that the two have similar production to date, with Bjork totaling six goals and 11 points averaging 13:01 in 31 games while Johansson has five goals and 15 points while averaging over 17 minutes of ice-time per night in 32 games.