It wasn’t the smoothest of times for the Boston Bruins during the first half of the 2018-19 season. Bruce Cassidy had his hands full guiding the Bruins through injuries and a lack of secondary scoring.
Yet, the Bruins are healthier and slowly but surely finding their stride. They’re still looking up at the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division, but the fact that they sit in third place in the division is a testament to Cassidy’s coaching and Boston’s next man up mentality.
And they’re in a prime spot to make a good second half run. The Bruins host four of their final six games before going on their league-mandated bye week. Seventeen of their final 33 games following the All-Star break are against teams currently in the top eight of their respective conference.
Of course, things can change between now and April as teams jump in and out of the playoff picture, but things are lining up nicely for the Bruins. Yet they still have some issues to address if they want to make a deep playoff run.
The Bruins carry a season-long five game win streak. They face the Washington Capitals Thursday night looking to break a 13-game skid against Alex Ovechkin and company.
Let’s take a look at some of the second half storylines that await.
The Bruins need to close the revolving door on the second line.
Secondary scoring is still an issue that Don Sweeney needs to address at the trade deadline, specifically on the second line. Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci are both having solid seasons, but the team needs another veteran winger to close the revolving door on Line 2.
Fresh off his three-game suspension, David Backes made a good first impression with DeBrusk and Krejci with his fourth goal of the season Saturday night against the Sabres. He is only a short-term solution, though. Same goes for Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Joakim Nordstrom (when healthy) or any other Bruin who gets a second line assignment between now and the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
Jeff Carter, Jaden Schwartz and Wayne Simmonds are a few possible fits to skate with Krejci and DeBrusk. All three would be an upgrade over their current core of wingers outside of DeBrusk, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Yet, Sweeney — whether he acquires a player that’s signed beyond this year or adds a proverbial rental player — enters a buyer beware situation a year after making the Rick Nash deal.
Eight healthy defensemen will lead to tough lineup decisions.
Whatever issue they have with Charlie McAvoy being tardy, the Bruins are opting to keep that situation in-house. Don’t believe me? Just ask Cassidy following Monday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena.
“I asked Zee [Zdeno Chara] about that. Sometimes they have organized workouts on the road if they have the day off. So maybe he came in late to one of those once?” Cassidy said. “I don’t know. I don’t know of Charlie ever being late on my watch.”
McAvoy, who sustained a lower-body injury in Carolina on Dec. 23, returned to the ice on Monday prior to practice. He resumed skating activities again the following day before the team’s pregame skate.
There’s still no timetable for McAvoy’s return to game action, but the Bruins are closer to having eight healthy defensemen for the first time this season. This will force Cassidy’s hand, however.
McAvoy, Chara, Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller are all locks as regulars on the back end when healthy. That leaves either Matt Grzelcyk or former New Jersey Devil John Moore as the odd man out.
Grzelcyk is having a career season and is one of Cassidy’s better all-around defensemen. Moore’s had stretches of good play during his first year in Boston, but he’s also missed assignments from time to time in his own end that’s led to quality scoring chances — and even a few goals. Put the smart money on Grzelcyk staying and Moore being the odd-man out.
Here’s a look at the ideal defensive pairings upon McAvoy’s return:
The Bruins used these same D pairings often last season. They haven’t had the chance to do so this year thanks to injuries. It’s worth a try at the very least to reunite the aforementioned defensive duos. Better late than never, right?
A bold second-half prediction
Esteemed colleague Matt Castle offered a thought on David Pastrnak deserving Hart Trophy consideration. I’m not going to argue against that. Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Nathan McKinnon and Johnny Gaudreau are all making a strong MVP case as well.
So Pastrnak may have an uphill climb for his first career Hart Trophy, but the Bruins should have no shortage of hardware this season. Patrice Bergeron is once again a Selke candidate and Cassidy’s remarkable job behind the bench is worthy of Jack Adams consideration.
These are hardly bold predictions, though so let’s go with a pick that seemed distant just one month ago.
The Boston Bruins will face the Toronto Maple Leafs and have home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
This doesn’t seem far fetched now as the B’s trail the rival Maple Leafs by two points for second in the Atlantic. The two teams meet Saturday night in Toronto for the final time this regular season.
The fact the Bruins are within striking distance of a talented team led by John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Morgan Reilly (to name a few) is a testament to the perseverance of this Bruins squad. After all, who would’ve thought they’d be in this position with Bergeron, Chara, McAvoy and countless other marquee players missing extended periods of time due to injury?