By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Was the Bruins’ 7-4 loss at Edmonton on Thursday a game that will be forgotten by the time the reign of interim coach Bruce Cassidy ends, or was it an ominous sign of rocky times ahead in the Bruins’ final 11 games of the regular season?
We won’t know the answer until the end of the upcoming “week from hell,” which will determine whether they’re going to need all 11 games to qualify for the playoffs or if they they’ll have a solid grip on a playoff spot with a week or so to go. The Bruins visit Toronto on Monday, host Ottawa on Tuesday, host Tampa Bay on Thursday and then visit the New York Islanders on Saturday. Four games in six nights all against teams that are in the race for playoff position in either the Atlantic Division or the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
Despite the Bruins’ decision to try to beat the Oilers by playing zero defense, and goaltender Tuukka Rask’s decision to respond to his teammates’ struggles by proving he could be just as terrible, the Bruins visit to Western Canada was an unmitigated success. The Bruins went 2-1-0, including a full 60-minute standout performance to end Calgary’s 10-game winning streak.
Now 12-4-0 under Cassidy, the Bruins still control their own destiny in their attempt to end their two-year playoff drought. Here are a few thoughts while the Bruins take the next two days off before returning to practice Sunday:
– The Claude Julien haters are dancing in the streets. All it took was removing Julien and inserting Cassidy to make the Bruins contenders again, right? There’s no arguing with the results so far, but it’s funny how Cassidy has gone about getting better performances out of these Bruins. The same people railing against Julien almost from the day he took over were the same demanding that the Bruins commit to playing the younger players more. Well, you might be surprised to look at the time-on-ice totals since Cassidy’s run to the Cup began. Defenseman Colin Miller has played two minutes fewer per game, and rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo’s ice time is down by one minute. Torey Krug is also down by one minute.
You know what the means? The defensemen who people love to hate, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller, have seen their ice time increase. McQuaid and Kevan Miller are each playing over one minute more. Oh the humanity! Some of this has been caused by the Bruins’ penchant for getting an early lead under Cassidy. Regardless of the score, Cassidy trusts his veterans more on defense.
Up front, Ryan Spooner’s ice time is the same, as is that of most of the Bruins’ primary sources of forward production. Cassidy has had the luxury of a healthier Frank Vatrano and the addition of Drew Stafford, not to mention the brief appearance of Peter Cehlarik on the scene. Julien clearly had an affinity for veterans over rookies like Cehlarik, especially in an young-leaning lineup, but that’s not was keeping the Bruins from winning more in their first 55 games. The “play the kids” crew that thinks Julien was holding everyone back should tamp down their enthusiasm for Cassidy as some sort of “youth whisperer.” They need to acknowledge that under Cassidy the Bruins are landing three fewer shots on net per game than under Julien, but their percentage is 12.38 compared to 7.42.
The Bruins have sacrificed a little structure for creativity and risk, and it has paid off. It’s also helped that Brad Marchand has morphed into Superman (for the purpose of this comparison, David Pastrnak is Batman or something).
– Shooting percentage isn’t just about luck and for that Cassidy and his staff deserves credit. He’s figured out ways to get players in better scoring areas and allowed them more room to be creative. He has them playing with more urgency and enthusiasm, and the Bruins don’t panic when something doesn’t go their way, like a bad bounce or questionable video review. The coaching change has been a boon for the Bruins and will probably result in a playoff berth.
It’s become apparent to me in the month since the coaching change that the message from Julien wasn’t stale; the players were listening and for the most part the game plan was sound. Montreal’s success has proven Julien didn’t forget how to coach. But there was complacency from Julien and his staff that was trickling down to the players. Seven straight seasons in the playoffs and the Cup win in 2011 clearly caused amnesia for what it took to get to the elite status the Bruins achieved for several years.
It was difficult to find practice time this season, but that didn’t mean the pace of practice couldn’t have been faster. The Bruins completely overlooked forging team chemistry before or during the season. Even with so many returning players, a simple bowling outing might’ve bonded the Bruins better. Once the Bruins talent level from 2011-14 dropped off, Julien didn’t adapt his methods to reflect that the Bruins were going to be a challenger for a playoff spot, not a team sitting pretty. There would no longer be a chance to rest guys at the end of the regular season because the last few weeks of the season would be an early start to the playoffs. Julien’s strategies might’ve brought results and his message was still resonating with the veteran players had he stayed at the helm, but too many of the non-core players weren’t buying what Julien was selling.
The loss to the Oilers showed what the ugly result of playing the Cassidy way can be if the Bruins aren’t smarter, don’t skate hard and face the wrong opponent. But 12 out 16 times the Cassidy way has been the right way, so there’s no arguing life is better for the Bruins so far since Feb. 7.
– Lastly, former Bruins forward Brett Connolly — deemed a terrible player by many last season — scored his 15th goal of the season for the Washington Capitals on Thursday. Connolly had a rough year for the Bruins last season and might never have found success in Boston, but it’s still baffling Bruins general manager Don Sweeney let Connolly walk rather than keeping him for barely $1 million or trading him even for a low-round draft pick.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.