By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
With the Bruins defense pair of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy assigned to jump over the boards every time New York Islanders star John Tavares got on the ice with his line, coach Bruce Cassidy gave the assignment of slowing down rookie sensation Mathew Barzal’s line to the pair of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo on Saturday
It might’ve helped their cause if Carlo had told Krug that he’d played against Barzal a lot in the Western Hockey League.
“I didn’t even know he’d played against him. Tell him ‘thanks for the tips,’” Krug sarcastically told me after the Bruins defeated the Islanders 3-1 at TD Garden.
As it turned out, Krug didn’t need any advice beyond what the coaching staff had explained and what the veteran blueliner knew about keeping Barzal contained and also rendering Barzal’s linemates, Jordan Eberle and Andrew Ladd, ineffective.
Krug and Carlo got some help from the Bruins’ new two-way third line of Riley Nash centering Danton Heinen and David Backes. But for much of the night Barzal’s line was unable to be a threat because it couldn’t get into the zone and generate attacking time inside the Boston blue line.
“I think their gaps were good. That was a focus of trying to kill plays at the blue line for our D. … And they are both good skaters, Torey and Brandon, so we want them to do that,” Cassidy said. “We don’t want them to have to rely on having to battle down low all night. … So good for them. I know they won’t be as successful defending if they don’t have good gaps and aren’t able to kill some of those plays.
Barzal, who entered the game as the NHL rookie leader in points (27) and assists (19), is a player Krug described as one that “the puck follows him around.” Barzal picked up a secondary assist just as a power play ended with 3:08 remaining in the game. Otherwise he had four shot attempts at 5-on-5 and never really got free for one of his tours around the offensive zone that have become his calling card.
Krug wound up with a 52 Corsi For percentage; wound up at 47 percent (but the shot attempts were from the less dangerous areas of the zone). Although he didn’t share his expertise with Krug, Carlo said some of his past experience against Barzal helped.
“I’d say he gave him a couple of dashes over the years but I started to figure him out,” said Carlo, who played for the Tri-City Americans while Barzal was with the Seattle Thunderbirds. “He’s playing that same position on the power play. He’s a passer, he’s really good at going through the seams. So that’s something I really figured out about him I guess playing him so many times.
“Each time that I played him it was a fun challenge because he was one of the best players in that league. It was something that I took pride in, shutting him down.”
Watching Krug and Carlo handle their challenging assignment had to the give the Bruins – players, coaches and front office – a dose of confidence. The Bruins know they can rely on Chara and any partner to lock up top lines. As the Edmonton Oilers proved a couple weeks ago (after balancing out their lines), multi-line teams can give the Bruins fits. Tampa Bay picked up its play after breaking up Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for a stretch of one recent Bruins win. The Bruins avoided facing the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin duo because Malkin was injured for the Black Friday game.
The Islanders’ Tavares-Barzal one-two punch has the helped the Islanders pull into second in the League in goals, but they left the Garden with no points in the standings after scoring just once. Goaltender Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and most of Boston’s skaters met or exceeded their expectations in the defensive end. But Krug and Carlo also produced a solid performance under a little more pressure because some of these tougher matchups have gotten the better of them this season since they were paired.
During one of the Bruins’ third-period power plays, Carlo blocked a Barzal one-timer with his torso. Carlo said all the shot did was take a little wind out of him. What the shot didn’t do was deter him from joining Krug in keeping Barzal locked up, even without Krug sharing in Carlo’s prior knowledge of Barzal’s game.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.