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by: Ty Anderson on Thu, 04/20/2017 - 7:23pm
After 86 games between the regular season and playoffs, the Bruins are what they are.
And on the point, they’re one battered, barely standing collection of veterans already hitting the point of overexposure and youngsters still getting fitted for their first Stanley Cup Playoffs decaled gear. Without three members of what was their top two defensive pairings throughout the year -- both Brandon Carlo (upper-body) and Torey Krug (lower-body) have yet to play in this series, Adam McQuaid (upper-body) was injured in the first period of Game 2 and has not played since, and all three are expected to miss the club’s do-or-die Game 5 on Friday in Ottawa -- the B’s have done their best to simply survive.
They’ve done just that, too, despite the 3-1 hole they’re in.
That realization should leave you in utter amazement, too.
And if you don’t believe it, just look at their current top four.
The 40-year-old Zdeno Chara remains the club’s No. 1 defenseman. Chara has been solid in this series, especially given the amount of minutes that have been thrown his way, with two half-hour nights in Games 2 and 3 before a mild 24-minute night on Wednesday. The 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy has been the club’s No. 2 defenseman, and may be the B’s best player in this series, even after just four games pro experience (all with the P-Bruins) before the start of the playoffs. His increased comfort level with each passing game has been a sight to behold, and Game 4 seemed to have the Full Charlie.
"Well, he’s a heck of a talent. He wants the puck. He wants to be out there in big moments. I think the Boston Bruins fans are seeing something right now that they’re going to truly appreciate for years," Bruins interim head coach Bruce Cassidy said of the former 14th overall pick. "Just his composure and ability to play in three zones. We can’t ask for much more from him. He’s come in and moved the puck and he’s pushing the pace and trying to make things happen, and those are special talents when, in situations like this, they want to be a difference maker. They can’t teach that. We can teach him some things system wise that he’ll pick up in a hurry. But, the stuff that he has - natural talents and abilities that you’re seeing – I think they’re getting a little bit better every time we see them."
On their second pairing, Kevan Miller is playing the most consistent hockey of his career and has become the team’s third-most deployed defender in this series. Miller, by the way, started the year on the team’s third pairing. And Joe Morrow has emerged as his partner. Morrow, by the way, was the team’s eighth defenseman for the majority of the regular season and jumped into this series after having not played since Jan. 22.
So, a 40-year-old, a kid who began the year in the NCAA, a reliable depth presence, and a player that stood behind seven other defensemen for the majority of your season make up your top four defense corps. Behind them, John-Michael Liles, Tommy Cross, and Colin Miller have played supporting roles.
It’s the start of a joke that should have probably ended with a series sweep.
But their efforts have proven to be anything but a punchline against a speedy, counter-heavy Ottawa group, and Game 4 may have been their best effort to date. The only problem, however, is that the Boston offense did not come up with a single goal of support for them in what ended as a 1-0 final.
“I thought that we skated well, we moved the puck well, we created a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities, we just obviously needed a goal,” Chara said. “We got one but it was obviously a hair short of being onside but that’s hockey. We needed a goal.”
“A night like [Wednesday], I thought we defended fairly well,” Cassidy said of his defensive group. “We gave up some chances early with their foot speed. We wanted good gaps, we wanted to keep plays alive in the offensive zone, and part of the risk in that is if some chances separate, a guy like [Mike] Hoffman can do it. I can go down the list of their players; they’ve got some team speed.”
The Bruins did all that quite well, too, but were burned when the Sens got inside positioning on their top pairing of Chara and McAvoy in the third period, as Bobby Ryan torched them once again.
Still, it has not been the reason why the Black and Gold have lost control of this series.
“I thought what we’ve asked our defensemen to do, I think they’ve done a pretty good job for guys that got thrown into the situation,” Cassidy, whose team has allowed 10 goals through the first four games of this series, admitted. “But, part of what we talk about for our guys is to own your moments. You’re getting an opportunity, and one that you probably wanted more of during the year. So, you’re asking a lot. But, by the same token, that’s what’s in front of them. So, there’s opportunity to contribute and they’ve done that for the most part. At the end of the day, we need a play or two more out of them. That’s just speaking to the defense. There are a lot of other players on the team.”
And in case you can’t pick up on what Cassidy is alluding to, he’s most definitely talking about a Boston offense that went without a shot on goal for extended stretches down a goal in the third period of a must-win game (they went almost 10 full minutes without a shot before they were mercifully penalized for a too many men on the ice call), and one that’s yet to score in the first period of this series, and with just two third period tallies over the first four games of this series.
“They’re a good shot blocking team, they like to get in lanes, they like to come up to the point and make it hard for you to get a direct shot, and their D like to step in front of pucks,” McAvoy said of the offensive struggles and woes when it comes simply getting shots on net. “It’s not going to be easy to get pucks to the net but you try and we did there on one and it gets called back, but we’ve got to do a lot more of that to find some success and find the back of the net against this team.”
Those woes have hit many of the B’s best hard and often, too.
When they’re not busy getting their shots blocked (the Sens have blocked 69 shots through the first four games), the Bruins have missed pucks like crazy. David Pastrnak, who has just two shots on goal in this series, leads all NHL forwards with 11 missed shots this spring. He has missed nine of those shots wide, too, which is tied with Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk for the most wide misses this spring. Brad Marchand, who scored 39 goals in the regular season and could have hit 40 had it not been for a two-game suspension to end the year, has one goal through the first four games of the first round, and could not deliver despite a Game 4 effort that 10 shot attempts, six of which landed on net.
“You’ve got to give [Craig] Anderson credit. He made some real good saves on Marsh [Brad Marchand], on-net chances, one with [Ryan] Spooner on a three-on-one, and then on the flip side of that, there are some off-net chances that we’ve got to start hitting the net on, plain and simple,” Cassidy acknowledged on Wednesday. “There are some guys that are just missing the net more often and it doesn’t allow you to get those second chances and stay inside and get those second chances. So, you kind of know that’s what’s going to happen in the third when they get a lead. So, that’s why we had our opportunities early, we’ve got to bear down on those. It didn’t happen."
It's the detailed version of Cassidy telling you that the perceived weakness of this team (the lack of healthy, ready bodies on defense) and the perceived strength of this team (accomplished scorers and a litany of past playoff performers) have reversed roles into this hole.
“In a 1-0 game, you can’t be that critical of your D-men," Cassidy said.
And down in a 3-1 series, the Bruins can’t be that critical of their (undeniably overperforming) D-men, either.
They are who they are.