By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Night one of life after Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug went about as well as the Bruins could have hoped, as they held the Devils to just 22 shots and did enough to squeak out a 3-2 shootout win.
“For the most part, I thought we did a good job defensively,” Bruce Cassidy offered. “All in all, a good night from the backend.”
That good night was led by the Bruins’ Charlie McAvoy, the now-official heir to Chara’s throne as Boston’s leader on the backend, and his team-leading 25:33 of work. It was a night of three-zone work for the fourth-year pro, too, as McAvoy played a pivotal role in both the defensive tone-setting and sparked countless second-chance looks with his strides into action in the offensive zone.
The offensive game was led by Matt Grzelcyk, however, and his defense-best six shots on goal in 24:07 of work. The minutes were a bit high for Cassidy’s liking (though nearly six minutes of power-play time on ice and a three-on-three overtime had a large hand in that), but the on-ice results were pretty much exactly what the Bruins want (and need) from the man tasked with replacing Torey Krug.
“Grzelcyk moved the puck well,” Cassidy said of the Charlestown, Mass. native. “Power play, O-zone stuff was very good. Couple of breakout passes he could’ve been cleaner on.”
Cassidy’s lone ‘complaint’ with each seemed to come down to their activations in the attacking zone. And even then, Cassidy’s ‘issues’ were a simple reminder that getting involved in a high-danger area comes with the idea that you’re there to score, not defer.
The latter led to some high-quality looks going the other way.
But Thursday wasn’t about players the Bruins are relying on to be their constants.
It was instead about Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon.
“I thought Zboril had a pretty good game. He’s moving the puck well, he’s clean, he sees the ice well,” said Cassidy before shifting his focus to Boston’s other young left-shot defender. “Jeremy got beat inside on the second goal, so we’ll talk to him about that.”
Out there for over 19 minutes of work, Zboril saw a ton of action against the Devils’ Travis Zajac and Miles Wood combination, while the Bruins finished with a 10-2 shot advantage with Zboril on the ice at five-on-five. This is more than fine when considering Zboril’s current role as your third-pairing defenseman, though the quality of competition will certainly be the true test when the B’s go against some of the East’s deeper groupings.
Lauzon, meanwhile, had a bit of a rough start with McAvoy beyond the issue brought up by Cassidy.
The fit with McAvoy just didn’t seem to be there out of the gate. In 11:51 of five-on-five play together, the Lauzon-McAvoy pairing posted a 35.29 Corse-For percentage, and surrendered five scoring chances and three high-danger chances. Against more potent clubs, and if Tuukka Rask is off his game, that could be ugly.
And this is where things can get tricky for the Bruins.
The B’s have been relatively open about their preference not to force McAvoy into a spot where he’s carrying a defensive partner, and if this first impression means anything, this pairing may force him into such a role.
Lauzon was effective on the kill, however, and finished with a team-leading 5:15 of shorthanded time on ice.
It’s a start that the Bruins will take given what they’re trying to replace with a deck of purely internal options.
Here are some other thoughts, notes, and takeaways from a 3-2 shootout win in Newark…
Another ‘special’ victory for the Bruins
One thing I thought would take a massive dip without Chara and Krug? The Bruins’ special teams dominance.
With Krug quarterbacking Boston’s top unit, the Bruins posted a 25.2 power-play percentage a year ago (second-best in hockey), and a 24.9 percent success rate over the last three seasons (also the second-best in hockey). On the kill, and led by Chara, the Bruins’ killers ranked as the third-most effective unit in hockey at 84.3 percent, and their 82.6 percent rolling over the previous three seasons was the fourth-best in the NHL.
It’d only be natural if those took a hit.
A potentially significant one, too.
But Thursday was not the night for that to happen, as the Bruins went 2-for-5 on the man advantage and killed off all five of New Jersey’s power-play opportunities in the win.
“We rely on it and clearly we needed it,” Cassidy said of his team’s power play.
One thing you’ll notice with this Pastrnak-less power play out of the gate: The first unit is loaded with centers. You have Patrice Bergeron in his normal bumper, Charlie Coyle serving as the net-front option, and David Krejci playing as a roaming pointman.
That really takes a lot of juice away from the Bruins’ second unit, which featured Ritchie, Jake DeBrusk, and Ondrej Kase up front and McAvoy and Zboril on the backend. (It’s also worth noting that Craig Smith, who was scratched from this game due to injury, had spent all of training camp as that second unit’s center, which certainly didn’t help their potential ice-time Thursday.)
It played out to the first unit eating up about 1:30 of their power-play chances on each full opportunity, and with Ritchie logging the most action out of that second unit, at 2:00 on the nose. And Ritchie only hit that marker thanks to the split power-play that took Coyle out of the mix after a taxing four-on-four shift.
In essence, the Bruins weren’t throwing that second unit out there until they absolutely had to. This may remain the case until we see No. 88 back on the ice to re-establish the Bruins’ two-unit threat.
On the kill, the Bruins really diversified their forward mix, with seven forwards logging at least one full minute of shorthanded action, and with Anders Bjork coming just three seconds short of making it an even eight. One look that really intrigued me: Jack Studnicka and Sean Kuraly. Talk about a potential shorthanded goal dream team.
A shootout win? A shootout win.
2021 is truly different.
Need proof? The Bruins actually won a shootout.
It’s felt like forever since we’ve written that, and it’s practically true, as Thursday marked the Bruins’ first shootout victory since Feb. 20, 2019. And if that doesn’t sound that long ago, consider this: David Backes scored the game-winning goal in that shootout and Charlie Coyle had received word that he was being traded to Boston.
And in case you’re wondering, it had been eight straight shootout defeats for the Black and Gold before Brad Marchand won Thursday’s extra extra session in the bottom of the third round.
It was a straight-up miserable experience for the Bruins over that stretch, too, scoring just five goals on 36 shootout attempts over that eight-game losing streak. That 13.9 percent success rate ranking as the worst in the entire league over that span, trailing the Sens’ 15 percent success rate. (You never want to trail the Ottawa Senators in anything relating to offense, to be honest.)
“The shootout was a problem for us last year,” Cassidy said. “Hopefully we can be better. We were tonight.”
The Bruins may have something with this fourth line
I wrote this during camp and I stand by it: Hook this potential Frederic-Kuraly-Wagner into my veins. Together for 6:30 of five-on-five play Thursday, this trio outshot the Devils 6-0, generated four scoring chances, and it was Frederic who was seemingly involved with somebody after every whistle.
Energy on energy, and Frederic could easily play the part of Noel Acciari when this line was at its best in 2019.
Frederic will have competition for his minutes, however, as Anders Bjork, who was originally penciled into that spot before the Craig Smith injury, was a relentless puck-hound during his 13:56 showing in the win.
Craig Smith misses Opening Night, uncertain for Saturday
After a strong training camp, Thursday did not come with free agent addition Craig Smith’s Bruins debut.
Considered a game-time decision, the 31-year-old Smith is dealing with a lower-body injury that didn’t feel any better when he woke up in Jersey on Thursday morning, and his status for Saturday’s rematch with the Devils remains up in the air.
“I don’t know about Smith,” Cassidy admitted. “He’ll be day-to-day. Quick turnaround Saturday afternoon, so we’ll how he is [Friday].”
Reading between the lines, and given how Frederic played and the quality of the B’s opponent compared to the rest of the rapid-fire schedule, it shouldn’t be a shock if the Bruins hold Smith out of Saturday and ice him when he’s truly 100 percent.
Listen to Ty Anderson and Matt Dolloff preview the 2020-21 Bruins season in the newest episode of the SideLines podcast.