By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Before departing for New York on Friday, Bruins interim coach Bruce Cassidy had a message during and after practice for players, coaches and media types alike after he was asked how the Bruins would go about ending their four-game losing streak.
“So generally go back to the fabric of your team and talking to a few players today, the Bruins have always been a defensively accountable team,” he said. “Some of that part of our game has gotten away from us. It’s well-documented, we’ve talked about it and we’re working to address it. So if we can, go back to square one there, manage the puck, make good decisions with it 100 percent of the time and see where that takes us.”
Voila! The Bruins didn’t play their prettiest game against the New York Islanders on Saturday but they executed Cassidy’s back-to-the future game plan and earned an important two points with a 2-1 win. They moved back into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and they did it the old-fashioned way just the way Claude Julien would’ve wanted.
Oops, I mentioned that guy again. Will he ever go away? Hopefully for the Bruins and their playoff hopes those 10 years of knowledge consumed under Julien didn’t disappear and is easily accessible. They sure looked like a Julien-coached team against the Islanders.
The Bruins outshot the Islanders 17-10 at 5-on-5. Boston’s penalty kill went 6-for-6. In all situations the Bruins kept the Islanders to the perimeter, and when the Islanders had a high-danger scoring chance Anton Khudobin was there to make the save (except for the one goal against).
Boston’s fourth line (Riley Nash, Dominic Moore and Noel Acciari) played well enough to earn more minutes at even strength than the third line (Jimmy Hayes skating with Julien critics Ryan Spooner and Frank Vatrano). And after the Bruins’ best scorers missed a multitude of scoring chances (even Brad Marchand had his third straight game without a point), the fourth line rewarded Cassidy for the extra ice time with two goals from Nash.
Holy 2013, Batman, the Bruins are better as a defensive-minded team that scores rather than a team that thinks offense and tries to also play some defense. Who would have thought of that? Cassidy has clearly been convinced and it’s to the team’s benefit that he’s quickly come around to Julien’s old line of thinking.
There’s no doubt the initial change from Julien to Cassidy behind the bench gave the Bruins a jolt and they’ve ridden that wave to 3.55 goals scored per game since the switch. But in the 20 games under Cassidy the Bruins have had four six-goal games and one five-goal game — production that easily skews any average. The goals-against averages under Cassidy and Julien are almost the same, but letting in 2.65 goals per game isn’t sustainable in this day and age if you’re doing enough offensively to score more than five goals on a semi-regular basis. Even high-powered teams like Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh subscribe to a mentality that stresses defense before offense.
If you don’t believe it’s difficult to play the way the Bruins played for most of Cassidy’s first 20 games over the course of a season and earn enough points to make the playoffs, read Cassidy’s own words.
“When I came in I stressed a more offensive game because I thought we were lacking in that area. But it was also posed to the guys, ‘why can’t you be a good offensive team and still have a strong defensive foundation?’ Trust me, it’s hard to do both,” Cassidy said Friday. “I think every coach would tell you they try to do that. So we tried to balance the two and then the offensive part at the expense of some defense … but where the defense got away from us was because we were trying to create offense, our puck management [suffered]. So it always comes back to that, make good decisions with it and find the happy medium.”
A happy medium might be the goal, but when in doubt a team should err on the side of defense. If Cassidy’s words weren’t enough to prove he’s beginning to subscribe to that theory, the Bruins’ play against the Islanders proved that what has to be done over the final seven games of the regular season to avoid a third straight playoff no-show in win a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 game.
It turns out Julien knew what he was doing, trying to win with defense rather than relying on an eventual uptick in the Bruins’ shooting percentage. Cassidy seems to have figured out the same formula just in the nick of time to salvage the Bruins’ season.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.