The Bruins are riding a 14-game point streak. They won seven in a row, their longest win streak of the season, before losing to the Blues in a shootout on Feb. 23. A 4-1 win over the Sharks on Tuesday gave them the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Bruins were the NHL’s third-best team in February, and NESN and NHL Network analyst Billy Jaffe told Boston.com forwards Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson only improved the Bruins roster at the trade deadline.
“They might not have been the big-splash moves, the biggest names out there,” Jaffe said, “but what they tried to do is really acquire a couple of guys that addressed some significant needs for them.”
In Coyle, the Bruins acquired a quality third-line center who provides 5-on-5 scoring; they’re the sixth-worst team in the NHL in that department. Jaffe said the position had been an issue for the team since Riley Nash, who anchored the third line last season, walked away in free agency. Coyle, who turns 27 on March 2, is also under contract for next season, which Jaffe said gives Coyle and the team more time to jell.
In Johansson, Jaffe said the Bruins acquired a player who has flown under the radar of many fans.
“Incredibly high skill, bigger than people realize. He’s over six feet and a little over 200 pounds,” Jaffe said. “But he really plays an offensively minded game with some great skill.”
Jaffe noted the time Johansson spent among the top two forward lines on the Capitals as an example. Johansson’s best season (24 goals, 58 points) came in 2016-2017 when he recorded the fourth-highest time on ice per game of all Capitals forwards.
In both of the Bruins’ new forwards, Jaffe said the Bruins acquired versatility they can use up and down the lineup. Coyle has spent significant portions of his career at center and right wing. Johansson was initially drafted at center and he is comfortable playing any of the three forward positions. He played right wing against the Sharks on Tuesday alongside Jake Debrusk and David Krejci.
“I think I got caught going on Jake’s side a little bit a few times,” Johansson told reporters after the game Tuesday. “But no, not really. I’ve played there before. It just might take a few shifts to get used to it, but I think playing with two guys like that, you can just read off each other as well and it’s not written in stone that you have to be on one side or the other.”
"They're so easy to play with, they move the puck, and they move their feet…felt like a good way to start."
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 27, 2019
“So in the end, I like to say they might not be the sexiest moves, the splashiest or flashiest moves they made,” Jaffe said. “But they really addressed them and they made the team better, no question.”
The NHL’s playoff structure sets the winners of each division against one of the conference’s two wild-card teams, leaving the second- and third-place teams in each division to play each other in round one. Entering Thursday’s showdown with NHL-leading Tampa Bay, that would put the Bruins against the Maple Leafs for the second year in a row. Last year’s series went the distance, with the Bruins ultimately prevailing in Game 7.
Jaffe expects much of the same. He said the series would likely stretch to seven games again and that home-ice could mean better matchups.
“Boston has the advantage with team defense and defensive structure,” Jaffe said. “Toronto probably has an advantage offensively. They have some amazing offensive firepower up front. But when it’s all said and done, the Bruins, I think as constructed, can absolutely beat the Toronto Maple Leafs again.”
Jaffe urged Bruins fans to pay close attention to defenseman Charlie McAvoy (19 points in 36 games) and right wing David Pastrnak (66 points in 56 games) the rest of the way. McAvoy missed time due to injury earlier this season, but Jaffe said he has stepped up his game in recent weeks.
“He’s been such a difference maker for the team when he’s playing the way he is,” Jaffe said. “He’s more physical, he’s more instinctive in his game, he’s faster, and he’s more offensively involved. He’s been beautiful to watch.”
Jaffe said it will be important to watch how Pastrnak’s recovery from thumb surgery earlier this month will impact his creativity and stickhandling.
Jaffe cited the Nashville Predators, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Vegas Golden Knights — who landed the biggest deadline deal by acquiring forward Mark Stone from the Senators — as teams that improved by Monday’s deadline, as well as gave the Columbus Blue Jackets credit for their “impressive and gutsy” moves.
“Nobody, I think, expected them to not only keep two big unrestricted free agents-to-be in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky,” he said. “But not only did they keep them, they added around them.”
Columbus traded for forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, appearing to load up for this season’s playoffs, but risks losing the pair alongside star players Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency after the season. Jaffe speculated what level of playoff success would make the Blue Jackets’ trades worth it.
Columbus, in its 18th season, is the NHL’s only franchise to have never won a playoff series and sat one point out of the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot entering Thursday.
“What’s deemed success now? Getting into the playoffs?” Jaffe said. “Winning one round? Or do they have to go to the Eastern Conference finals to be deemed successful?”