By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins have two lines made up completely of college players, but one thing makes one of those trios stand out.
“Nash is an Ivy Leaguer, so … ” forward Danton Heinen said about his linemate Riley Nash on Thursday after the Bruins defeated the Arizona Coyotes 6-1 at TD Garden.
Maybe it’s that extra little dose of intelligence that’s making the all-collegiate line of Heinen, Nash and David Backes a productive third line. Their brains and their brawn were on full display during the romp of Arizona, with Backes scoring his first two goals of the season and the trio combining for five points.
The brawn showed with Heinen winning battles down low and then Backes bulling his way into position to tip in his first goal with 6:06 remaining in the second period to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead. The brains showed with Nash’s shot from the point (after he switched places with defenseman Matt Grzelcyk) that was tippable for Backes, and the three-man game they played all night keeping their tight triangles for passing in the offensive zone and breaking the puck out of the Coyotes’ end.
“Backes talks a lot on the bench and talks to us a lot of what he wants out there and it’s all for a purpose,” Heinen said. “So those are things you try to listen to him. He’s played a long time, he’s got a good knowledge of the game, and Nash is just a smart, smart player. Those guys are not hard to play with.”
It’s taken nearly a season and a half but the Bruins may have found linemates for Backes. Placing their other Davids, Pastrnak and Krejci, in the lineup has been easy. Give Pastrnak someone to get him the puck so he can unleash his shot; find wingers that will skate and can get open for Krejci. Backes has proven a trickier linemate because his desire is to play a straight-line game but he’s paid too much and has too much skill to be on a fourth line. The Bruins can’t afford to play two fourth lines while just two lines are offensive threats.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he put Heinen, Nash and Backes together after Backes came back from recovering from colon surgery because he wanted a third line with offensive ability and also ability in other areas. The third line has two regulars on the penalty kill and two regulars on the power play. They’re all two-way players. So Cassidy can trust them against other teams’ top lines if necessary, but he can also cast the third line in a more offensive-minded role.
Against Arizona the third line started in the offensive zone 60 percent of the time 5-on-5. And they rewarded Cassidy’s faith with Corsi For percentages (hold on to your seat) of 77.14 (Backes), 72.73 (Nash) and 70.59 (Heinen), according to hockeystats.ca.
In four games since Backes’ return, they’ve combined for 10 points (four goals, six assists), all while not exactly resembling the type of line Backes has talked about playing with since he signed with the Bruins on July 1, 2016.
“I think they’ve bought into it though,” Backes said. “They’ve got skill and they know that one guy pressures somebody and the other guys can read off it. I think three smart players that are kind of interchangeable, responsible, and I think we’re going those opportunities.”
With Backes around, the quiet duo of Heinen and Nash don’t have to worry about peeping up. Playing with Backes and Heinen prevents Nash from falling into his defense-only mindset and makes him more of a threat to score. At 22 years old and in his first NHL season, Heinen gets to take some risks and see how his skills translate to the highest level of the sport because he knows Nash and Backes are always going to be backing him up.
The on-ice synergy has been terrific and with Nash around, that third line even features someone that can define and spell synergy. The Bruins are reaping the rewards of Heinen, Nash and Backes’ meeting of the minds (and playing styles).
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.