By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Monday was Claude Julien’s 58th birthday.
The only reason that’s pertinent to the Bruins’ current situation is their play in Monday night’s 3-1 loss at Toronto in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference first round looked like a tribute to their former coach.
The night started with the Bruins’ current coach making a lineup switch from a young, skilled player to a veteran grinder, featured the Bruins out attempting the Maple Leafs by almost 30 shots, and also featured David Pastrnak making the type of play in the defensive zone that used to give the old coach fits.
As far as tributes to Julien, it was an all-around performance. The Bruins better hope it’s all out of their system by Wednesday night’s Game 7 back here at the Garden.
Let’s start with the lineup. Just one day after saying he didn’t think his team was having problems generating offense (the Bruins scored on three of 45 shots in Game 5), Bruce Cassidy decided to weaken his offense by scratching Danton Heinen and replacing him with Tommy Wingels. Cassidy then doubled down on this move by putting Wingels on the second line next to David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, and dropping Rick Nash to play with Riley Nash and David Backes.
Cassidy might’ve been looking for some Sean Kuraly-like Game 5 magic from Wingels one year after Kuraly entered the lineup for Game 5 and scored twice, including the overtime goal, against Ottawa. All Cassidy got for this move was a less dynamic and versatile lineup that produced one measly goal.
Heinen has struggled generating offense in his first NHL playoff series with four shots on net in five games, but he’s protected the puck well and has been sound defensively. With injuries juggling the lineup a couple of times, Heinen, Backes and Riley Nash – a line that was red-hot a few months ago – barely had a chance to get back on track before Cassidy’s decision to sit Heinen.
Twice Wingels had a chance in tight to get the Bruins into the lead in the second period and failed. Wingels’ effort level was high, as it always is, but all the effort in the world isn’t going to grant him great skill. He tipped a perfect pass from Matt Grzelcyk wide and then couldn’t get much mustard on his shot from the top of the crease after a couple of hacks at a loose puck, a couple of chances that could’ve turned the game Boston’s way. Can’t blame Wingels there, he’s not a finisher. He shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with. As the game went on and the Bruins continued to be stymied by Frederik Andersen (32 saves) and the Maple Leafs’ willingness to block shots (23 by the end of the night), Cassidy didn’t have many option for shaking up his lines.
He could’ve moved Rick Nash back up, but that would’ve weakened his third line. Cassidy opted for a Rick Nash, Kuraly, Backes combo that had some sustained zone time but lacked finish. It would’ve been interesting to see if Heinen could’ve come alive or at least been an option during the lineup shuffle. For a coach and an organization that’s been all about empowering and encouraging young players, the Bruins clearly panicked by removing Heinen from the lineup and he should be back in for Game 7.
Of course, there’s no telling if Heinen would have had more success getting shots on net than the rest of his teammates. The Bruins had 72 attempts to Toronto’s 43, one game after they won that battle 90-39. But the Bruins only outshot the Maple Leafs 33-30 in Game 6 because they missed the net 16 times to go along with those 23 Maple Leafs blocks. That’s right, the Bruins had more shots blocked and missed (39) than they had on net (33).
Prior to Julien’s dismissal, you’ll remember that they were the No. 1 team in the NHL in Corsi For percentage but just 17th in goals scored. The switch to Cassidy changed the Bruins’ offensive approach and results, helping them score a goal more per game and surge into the postseason. The Bruins have now reverted back to that form and their inability to create second chances, the Leafs’ courage to get in the lanes, Andersen’s radar-caliber shot tracking and a little luck are conspiring against them and might send them to an early offseason. It’s going to take a lot more traffic in front of Andersen and better disguising of their shots to reverse this trend in the series finale.
The Bruins would probably be able to overcome their deficiencies if their first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak could produce even half as much as it did the first two games of this series. Instead, that line has no points in its past three games, not including the game Bergeron missed with a mystery injury.
Pastrnak is really struggling to find the room to create fancy plays and he’s abandoned the simplified approach he was using earlier in the series. He didn’t land a shot on net until the third period and he had six attempts blocked. When you’re not producing at the offensive end, especially in the playoffs, you’re supposed to take care of your own zone. At a crucial moment, Pastrnak didn’t do that.
With the score tied 1-1, Bergeron hammered the puck around the boards to the side of the Boston zone that was Pastrnak’s responsibility. Once he decided (possibly wrongly) that he wasn’t going to win the race with defenseman Ron Hainsey to the puck, Pastrnak skated toward Hainsey. The Bruins right wing took an angle that prevented him from having any chance to block the shot and then decided not to play the body. While Hainsey was firing the puck to the middle of the zone, Pastrnak took off. Had Marchand corralled the puck, he probably would’ve fed Pastrnak for a breakaway. But Marchand missed the puck and Mitch Marner fired it past Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins needed a save there, but Rask failed. They also could’ve used a responsible defensive play from Pastrnak. Blowing the zone without knowing the Bruins had the puck might have been fine in a January game against Arizona, but not in the playoffs. The playoffs are the time to do whatever it takes to win, to go outside your comfort zone. No one expects Pastrnak to be a shot blocker or a hitter, but in the playoffs everyone has to be everything. That’s why the Maple Leafs have become a shot-blocking machine after ranking 27th in that department in the regular season. Pastrnak finished the game with no blocked shots, no hits, no points, and no victories.
When he was under Julien’s tutelage, Pastrnak was an up-and-coming force still learning, occasionally losing ice time for plays like the one he made before Marner’s goal. Now he’s in Cassidy’s care and sometimes falls out of favor, but he’s a driving force for the Bruins all over the rink. As much as the Bruins rely on Marchand and Bergeron to set the standard, Pastrnak has to follow suit. His hat trick and six-point game are in danger of becoming a footnote in history rather than the highlight of a series win, the same way the Bruins’ 2013 comeback against Toronto is a footnote on a playoff season that ended with a six-game loss in the Stanley Cup final. In Game 7, Pastrnak has to re-commit to doing everything he can to help the Bruins.
The Bruins have changed for the better by leaps and bounds since the coaching change. Everything has not only gone to plan, it’s gone to plan much quicker than anyone, including the Bruins’ brass, expected. A first-round playoff loss won’t set the organizational plan back, but it’ll be a major failure after producing an amazing regular season and taking a 3-1 lead in this series.
The Bruins were eliminated in a Game 7 each of Julien’s first three seasons before they learned how to win those do-or-die games and won three on their way to the 2011 Stanley Cup championship. We’ll find out Wednesday if Cassidy’s Bruins can keep doing things quicker than expected and win a Game 7 earlier in his coaching rein.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.