By Matt Kalman
Lost in all the hoopla of the Anton Khudobin vs. Tuukka Rask debate after the Bruins’ past two games was the defensive job Boston did against a couple of the most lethal offensive opponents a team can face in the NHL in 2017.
In the Bruins’ win against Pittsburgh last Friday, Sidney Crosby was limited to two shots on net. He scored a goal, but even that was questionable because of potential goaltender interference (denied on replay review) and the whistle being blows around the time of the shot (also denied on video review). Let’s face it, Crosby sweeping the puck off Khudobin’s stomach into the goal looks the same on the scoresheet as his hundreds of other goals, but it wasn’t one he’ll be showing his kids on a highlight reel someday.
Next up, the Bruins lost to Edmonton on Sunday and Connor McDavid finished with two assists. But the reigning Hart Trophy winner didn’t attempt a shot on net until late in the third period. And his two assists weren’t the product of brilliant playmaking, as he got the secondary assist on the Adam Larsson goal that went in the net off Charlie McAvoy’s skate and the primary assist on Leon Draisaitl’s empty-net goal.
The Bruins may have had a more difficult time containing Patrick Maroon with Edmonton and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh, but cutting off the production of two of the bigger names in the sport went a long way toward earning them one win and coming close in a second game.
Now the Bruins’ defense may be faced with the stiffest test yet, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Heading into action Tuesday the Lightning, who will square off with the Bruins at the Garden Wednesday, were leading the league at 3.70 goals scored per game. Steven Stamkos (10 goals and 26 assists for 36 points) and Nikita Kucherov (17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points) were the top two scorers in the League.
Maybe the challenge of facing the Atlantic Division-leading Lightning will be even more difficult than the Bruins’ last two showdowns.
“McDavid is more of a distributor high end. He grabs attention when he has the puck flying through the neutral zone. Whereas these guys [on the Lightning] get as much attention when the puck’s just about to find them because they get [their shots] off in a hurry. They’re more shooters. We’ve got to make sure we get sticks on them in a hurry, or in the lane, or bodies in the shooting lane right away.”
The Bruins will have to duplicate their defensive effort against the big guns the way they did against Crosby and McDavid, with Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy leading the way. And they’ll have to do a better job against the secondary players than they did in the Pittsburgh and Edmonton games. Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn … these are guys you can’t forget about.
That’s where the rest of the defense corps — Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller and Matt Grzelcyk — will have to do a better job of keeping their gaps tight and working in tandem with the supporting and back checking forwards.
Recent results have answered most of the questions about the Bruins’ defensive sextet being able to handle deep, talented offensive teams.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve had some good tests lately, that’s for sure,” Miller said. “We didn’t get the result against Edmonton, for whatever reason we just don’t play well against them. Overall I think we’ve played pretty good the last five games or so and done a pretty good job of shutting those guys down. Tomorrow will be an even bigger test and maybe more of the same.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.