By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
Over their final five games under former coach Claude Julien the Bruins averaged four goals per game. Boston scored six goals in defeating the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks 6-3 at TD Garden on Thursday in their first game under new coach Bruce Cassidy.
When Julien was canned Tuesday, the Bruins weren’t in the Eastern Conference playoff structure. Thanks to their win against the Sharks and the New York Islanders’ win against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Bruins moved back into the top eight in the conference.
Obviously the coaching change was a stroke of genius.
There was a lot to like in the Bruins’ victory, especially considering the elite competition in their way. They played with the type of aggression you’d expect out of a team trying to impress a new coach and with a level of emotion and crispness rarely seen this season or last on home ice.
David Pastrnak (two goals), Patrice Bergeron (four points) and Brad Marchand combined for eight points. David Backes had one goal, two assists and seven shots on net. Tim Schaller gave the Bruins a rare goal from their fourth line. It was all enough to make you wonder what took general manager Don Sweeney so long to make the coaching change if this was going to be the result.
But there were plenty of reasons in the victory to believe things are still the same with the Bruins. Most of the scoring still came from the same three guys, and Pastrnak’s two goals were both on the power play with Bergeron, who had the primary assist on both, and Marchand on the ice in the reunion of the first line that was broken up for Cassidy’s debut.
There were still plenty of issues moving the puck out of the defensive zone, including miscues by rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller before the goals by Joe Thornton and Justin Braun. Tuukka Rask had to make several crucial saves, including a stop on Joel Ward on a 2-on-1 during a Sharks penalty kill that could’ve tied the game in the second period.
After his winning debut Cassidy accepted the negatives because there were more positives.
“We’re going to err on the side of hopefully aggression, playing on our toes early on here and then, you know, we’re going to have to dial it back in,” he said. “You know, the day will come when we pay the price for that aggression and we’ll see from there when we find that happy medium.”
Of course we saw the Bruins emotionally take down the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden 4-3 on Jan. 26. We saw the Bruins go up to Montreal and beat the Canadiens 2-1 in overtime Dec. 12. Every hint of brilliance from Julien’s Bruins seemed to be followed by a pitiful performance. Cassidy’s Bruins are going to be judged on their second and third acts.
Backes got a lift out of playing with Bergeron and Marchand but the Zamboni driver could thrive playing with those two guys. Backes is not only going to have to up his production but eventually become a contributor on another line to balance out Boston’s offense. The Bruins survived with Jimmy Hayes and Frank Vatrano taking faceoffs instead of Ryan Spooner on their third line, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to survive that in the long haul. Zdeno Chara’s return from illness will improve the Bruins’ ability to defend, but we’ll see how a defense corps with Chara, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller responds to playing at Cassidy’s higher pace with players taking greater risks.
The Bruins did what they were supposed to do Thursday. They produced an all-around strong performance and proved that the coaching got their attention. By this weekend, the novelty will have worn off, the Vancouver Canucks and the Canadiens will come to town for a back-to-back, and then we’ll see if the coach’s methods have staying power and if the players are capable of playing at a level they only rarely hit for the first four months of the season.
“Hopefully we build from that and realize how we have to play the game and the intensity that we need,” Bergeron said. “But, that being said, we can’t just rely on one game. It’s about moving forward and keep pushing and definitely using that game as an example of how we need to play.”
The story of the Bruins’ season has been about not playing the right way and with the right emotion consistently. We’re going to find out if Cassidy has the magic touch to change that.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.