BOSTON, MA -- After defeating the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 12 for the Boston Bruins’ third consecutive win under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, I asked Bruins forward David Backes if there had been a shift in the defense-first mentality of the team to a more offensive-minded club with the coaching change from Claude Julien to Cassidy.
“There have been maybe small tweaks, system-wise,” Backes said. “I don’t really have the answer for you why it’s a ton different. I feel like it’s a lot different on the ice but maybe it’s just a different voice or, all of a sudden, a different vernacular coming out of their (coaches) mouths that’s setting better on guys’ brains, or preparations, or the reset, or it’s a mirror check, you know when you get a coach that spent 10 years in one city, it’s not taken lightly when he’s dismissed and someone else takes his job. Maybe from that, it was a little bit of a clue in that the status quo wasn’t good enough and I think guys have raised their levels up and down the lineup.”
After taking their bye week, the Bruins picked up where they left off with a 2-1 overtime win over the San Jose Sharks in northern California Sunday night, improving their record to 4-0-0 under Cassidy.
It is becoming very apparent that the players in Boston’s dressing room needed the new voice that Backes alluded to and it came just when it was needed most.
This is not to say that Julien was no longer appreciated nor respected in the Bruins room. He is not the most successful coach in Bruins history without reason. He is one of the greatest coaches in NHL history and highly-respected by his players in Boston. The team and the city were very fortunate to have him for a decade but even Julien, himself, said it was time to “move on” when he addressed his being relieved of his duties in Boston.
When one looks at the numbers, who could argue with him.
The Bruins, who have spent a majority of the season struggling to score goals, have scored 16 (6, 4, 4, 2) goals in four games while defensively, the club that has been criticized for more than one season has seen seven pucks (3, 3, 0,1) land in the back of its net.
Boston has picked up four power play goals during that span and also added one shorthanded goal.
With a 20-percent success rate, the power play is ranked 13th in the League after struggling for most of the season.
The penalty killing units has been successful during 86.4-percent of the club’s shorthanded situations and is second-best in the NHL.
The most visible differences since Cassidy assumed the reigns from Julien are the pace at which the team is playing and being more creative in the offensive zone.
On the first day of training camp, Julien said Boston would play at a faster pace with the defensemen moving the puck up to the forwards faster resulting in the forwards attacking the opponent's zone with more speed. Setting the pace of the game at a high level.
Julien also said those same defensemen would join the rush to create more odd-man rushes and scoring chances.
We saw the team employing those new systems at the start of the season but they seemed to dissipate as the year progressed. Under Cassidy, the Bruins have returned to that style of play and the results can be seen on the scoreboard.
A third difference, is one where the forwards are not carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone then continuously feeding it back to the defensemen on the blue line while going to the net for rebounds of the shots coming from the rearguards. It is a good tactic and worked very well during Julien’s years in Boston but the over the last two seasons, the forwards got away from driving to the front of opponent’s nets to set up screens and pounce on rebounds. The ultimate result was fewer goals being scored from that area of the ice known as a “dirty area.”
To rectify that situation, Cassidy employed a new game-plan, one which has the forwards still carrying the puck down low into the zone but instead of looking to make that pass up high to the defensemen, they are looking to make plays from behind the net and in the corners. This gives the forwards more opportunities to be creative and use all options in getting pucks to the net. Again, the results are showing on the scoreboard.
Cassidy has also made some tweaks with the forward lines.
He moved Backes from the second line up onto the club’s top unit with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The three North American trained players combine speed, skill, and grit, to create offense by playing, for the most part, a physical style that creates turnovers which the line takes advantage of by using speed and deft puck movement to get shots on goal.
Taking Backes’ spot with David Krejci is David Pastrnak. Pastrnak (Czech Republic), Krejci (Czech Republic), and rookie Peter Cehlarik (Slovakia) play the skill and speed game that they were taught to play in Europe. They force opposing players to make quicker decisions with the puck in all three zones which has routinely forced them into giving up the puck. Once one of the members of the Bruins trio takes possession of the puck, it’s off to the races with a fast attack, making them a difficult line to defend.
Cassidy’s third line of Frank Vatrano, Ryan Spooner, and Jimmy Hayes, has been a pleasant surprise during the four-game win streak. In Vatrano, the team has a speedy winger who loves nothing more than to shoot the puck. Spooner brings strong skating skills and acceleration that creates separation from opposing backcheckers and defensemen. He also sees the ice extremely well which allows him to find teammates with creative passes that can set up goal scoring opportunities. Hayes, who has been in just about everyone’s dog house since coming to Boston in a trade from Florida before last season, has been rejuvenated under Cassidy. Although not fleet of foot, Hayes can be an effective physical player on the forecheck and at 6-foot-5, 215-pounds, his game is necessary to open up space for the smaller Spooner and Vatrano.
The fourth unit is more fluid but has seen veterans Tim Schaller, Dominic Moore, and Riley Nash, use speed combined with a physical presence to shut down some of the top lines in the League. Make no mistake about it, Bergeron’s line usually is charged with shutting down the top opposing trios while supplying offense which makes them a dangerous combination but when called upon, Boston’s fourth line can do the job while contributing offensively as well.
Matt Beleskey has become the odd-man out of the equation but it is only a matter of time before his hard-hitting, playmaking style returns to the lineup.
Austin Czarnik is on the injured-reserved list with a lower-body injury.
For the most part, the defense pairings have remained the same throughout the season with captain Zdeno Chara partnered with rookie Brandon Carlo. Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid serve as the second set of blue liners followed by Colin Miller and Kevan Miller (no relation). When called upon John Michael Liles and Joe Morrow have been very effective.
In the crease, Tuukka Rask is Tuukka Rask. The world-class puck stopper has kept an even-keel all season and that has not changed despite the coaching upheaval. Rask’s backup Anton Khudobin struggled under Julien and saw little game-action and had posted just one win in seven games. Like his teammates, Khudobin is undefeated since the new coach stepped behind the bench with a win over the Vancouver Canucks in the team’s second game under Cassidy.
Wednesday, Boston faces a challenge to its win-streak from perennial Stanley Cup contender Anaheim Ducks at Anaheim’s Honda Center. The game will be the second of a four-game road trip that will also see them visit the Los Angeles Kings (Thursday) and the Dallas Stars (Sunday).
As always, the Bruins will take each game one shift at a time, as they should. Returning home with the streak in tact would be a feat that most would not have predicted at the beginning of February but change can bring new attitudes and that certainly appears to be the case in Boston.
“The guys responded to the change (in coaches),” Cassidy said after the win in San Jose. “Everyone has their own reason why and I’m just glad that they have and just recognize that if we want to play into the late Spring, we have to win our share of games and so far we’ve been able to do that in the last four (games). All we can do is control our own environment.”
An environment, in which a new voice was needed and has received the desired results.
Shawn Hutcheon is the Boston Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.