Lost among the quick feet and the slick mitts of the Eastern Conference for the past three seasons — pushed out of the playoff picture for two straight years before serving as a stepping stone in Ottawa’s Cinderella run last year — the Boston Bruins have reclaimed a seat at the contenders table.
The Bruins sit just three points from Tampa Bay’s conference-leading sum (with three games in hand) heading into action Saturday, and their success is buoyed by a potent, consistent offensive renaissance led by their top line.
But while it’s been Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak shouldering the heaviest load during the Bruins’ climb back into the championship picture, at least part of Boston’s renewed success can be attributed to the play of the club’s blue line.
While they haven’t discovered a Nashville Predators-esque knack for piling up points from the back end, a key change in strategy has granted Boston’s rearguards the freedom to embrace their vision and move the play up ice with more creativity.
“Coming in, we played Claude (Julien)’s system, where everything was D-to-D over or rim,” defender Torey Krug told The Boston Globe‘s Fluto Shinzawa recently. “It kind of limited you on where you could go. You just go straight back to the corner and wait there for your partner to get it over to you.”
That stands in stark contrast to the B’s approach under new bench boss Bruce Cassidy. The new emphasis? Create some space, assess your options, and react.
“Every time we get the puck, the first thing we think about is moving our feet three hard strides, then making the play from there.”
According to Krug, that’s allowed his team to open up their game, leaning more on their speed than their structure.
“I think it’s really changed the pace of our breakouts,” Krug told Shinzawa. “We’re spending less time in our zone, because we’re able to scrape an opposing player around the net. All of a sudden, you’re looking up ice instead of facing your own end trying to make a breakout. Any time you can grab the puck and you’re able to look down the other way, it’s good for our team.”
That heads-up approach has allowed the defensive corps to put the puck on the sticks of Boston’s top-line scorers more often, allowing all three to sit above the 50-point plateau with nearly 30 games remaining on the schedule. Conversely, it’s served as a catalyst for the club’s defensive improvements as well, with that decreased defensive-zone time resulting in a league-best mark of just 2.38 goals-against per game.
For his part, Krug has parlayed that greater defensive freedom into 10 goals and 36 points (ranking him fourth and 10th among all NHL defenders, respectively), leading all Bruins defencemen in the offensive department.
However, the greatest beneficiary of Boston’s revamped approach might just be rookie phenom Charlie McAvoy, who’s been permitted to continue his dynamic, smooth-skating ways in the big leagues rather than tailoring his style to fit into a traditional, rigid structure.
The result: 26 points, more than 22 minutes of ice per game, and a fair shot at the Calder Trophy this summer.