The 2021 NHL season is well underway and the Boston Bruins find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference with a 9-1-2 record, good for 2nd in the NHL, 3 points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite only 1 loss in regulation through the first 12 games, it has been a grind for this edition of the black and gold. Injuries to key players has forced coach Bruce Cassidy to adapt a revolving door of players to fill in different roles (the Cassidy Carousel). After a recent win Cassidy said, about his line tinkering , “Some of it is out of necessity, with injuries, but sometimes it’s just in game, trying to get some guys going…” Rest assured, nothing has come easy for this group. 9 of 12 games have been decided by one goal and 7 games have gone to overtime/shootout. In fact the Bruins have not played 2 games in row that did not require overtime hockey since the start of the season. And the grind doesn’t end there.
It might not be fair to say the Bruins are slow starters, as they have played some really good opening frames, dominating some. They have, however, been a team that saves their best for the end of the game or when their back is against the wall. They have been behind by 2 or more goals 5 times in their 12 games and have come away with a 4-0-1 record in those contests. A remarkable display of resiliency early in this NHL campaign. These stats are truly remarkable in a young season, but the real eye popper is when they get their goals. Of Boston’s 39 goals, 25 (or 64.1%) have come in the 3rd period or overtime. Only 4 times have the Bruins gone into the 3rd period with the lead. And they have been behind in the 3rd in half of their games.
Fans are not allowed into TD Garden just yet, but when they are, I would advise they not leave their seat until the final horn has sounded. It is cardiac arrest hockey at its finest for those who support them, and it has to be frustrating for their opponents who see them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat time and time again. The new COVID-19 restricted season has teams playing solely within their own division, and each team will square off against the other 8 times in the Eastern division. Get your popcorn ready.
So what does this all mean for a team that came into the season as the favorite to win their division and one of the favorites (along with Tampa Bay, Colorado and Las Vegas) to hoist the big tin can known as The Stanley Cup?
Despite their success, the Bruins are very much a team still searching for the right fits up and down their lineup and injuries have been a large part of that search. Last years Rocket Richard Trophy winner (shared with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin) David Pastrnak, missed the first 7 games recovering from off season hip surgery. RW Ondrej Kase left during the Bruins 2nd game, with what is believed to be a concussion, and has not returned to practice since. LW Jake DeBrusk, who signed a 2 year $7.35M contract before the season also missed 5 games. These two were suppose to fill out the flanks on the second line along side David Krejci. As a result, there has been A LOT of blending of lines. Luckily, Pastrnak’s return has one line intact. Along with Brad Marchand and newly appointed Captain, Patrice Bergeron they make up one of the, if not the best line in hockey. After that, well, it’s anybody’s guess from night to night. Cassidy has tried pretty much every combination imaginable, with Craig Smith, Nick Ritchie, Andres Bjork, Jack Studnicka (also out with injury) and even rookie Trent Frederic. Secondary scoring remains a problem.
The Bruins top line has accounted for 19 of the 37 goals this season, and that is with Pastrnak only playing 5 games. Look a little further and you will see Nick Ritchie’s 4 goals have all come on the powerplay, playing with the top guns. Look still further and you see that Bruin forwards not named Pastrnak, Marchand or Bergeron have 9 even strength goals in the 110 man games they have played. That is not good. Even David Krejci is without a goal on the season with only 4 of his 9 assists coming at even strength. Sure, you can attribute a good portion of this to lack of a preseason, a 10 day camp, injuries etc. For the Boston faithful though, memories of past losses due to a lack of secondary scoring linger long and fresh.
The next 10 games will tell us a lot more of the what this Bruins team will be offensively. Ritchie and Smith seem to have become mainstays along side Krejci, but the expectation is for DeBrusk to return to 2nd line LW. And Bjork seems to be getting his spot back on the 3rd line after being relegated to 4th line duties. Obviously there is no need to push that panic button just yet. It is still early in an unusual season and you can’t complain about 9-1-2. For the Boston Bruins, a team that went to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019 and won the Presidents Trophy as top team in the NHL in 2020, the eye has to be on making that final step forward. A trade deadline deal seems almost inevitable, unless this group can find a way to chip in on the score sheet more consistently. The next dozen games will tell us much more. Until then enjoy the ride and stay up for those 3rd periods.