Bruins takeaways: Where would Boston be without Brad Marchand?

"I think the biggest fear is getting pushed out and losing your spot."

Brad Marchand skates against Washington.
Brad Marchand skates against Washington. –AP

COMMENTARY

Even in one of their better starts in recent memory, the Boston Bruins couldn’t make things easy on themselves. It wasn’t through their own undoing, though.

A pair of unlikely scorers in Jeremy Lauzon (33 seconds in) and Anton Blidh set the tone with their first-period tallies. Brad Marchand continued his penalty kill dominance with a slick toe-drag before backhanding his 30th career shorthanded tally in the second.

The Bruins expected a pushback from the Washington Capitals. But Bruce Cassidy’s squad didn’t expect Kelly Sutherland and the officiating crew to provide a helping hand to Washington.

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In an 85-second span, the officials assessed Blidh a double-minor for tripping and slashing and an interference minor on Jakub Zboril. Blidh’s trip on Eller wasn’t so much in question, but his subsequent shove to Eller and Zboril’s interference call provided some rather dubious head-scratching moments. Washington capitalized on consecutive 5-on-3 opportunities with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie lighting the lamp a mere 19 ticks apart.

This didn’t rattle the Bruins. Jeremy Swayman remained calm, cool and collected between the pipes. They remained assertive in all three zones. Craig Smith eventually provided a cushion with his power-play tally late in the third period to secure the 4-2 victory Thursday night at Capital One Arena.

“I think our guys were committed to playing the right way all night,” Cassidy assessed. “First period we got out to an early lead. We got a couple of breaks around the net, but we created them with some forechecks and putting pucks in the right places and putting pucks on net. Then we got into some penalty trouble. We have to be careful with [the Capitals], but we played through it.”

Here’s what we learned after the Bruins earned consecutive wins for the second time since their 10-1-2 start.

Marchand showing no signs of slowing down

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Where would the Bruins be without Marchand this season?

Between the struggling offense and Cassidy dealing with transitioning pieces on the blue-line, the Bruins struggled with consistency for the better half of the 2021 campaign. Marchand’s stellar play throughout the year provides the Bruins with that rare stability.

Marchand provided a hand on Boston’s 10 of 17 goals over the last four games. His stretch included a hat trick in last Saturday’s 7-5 win over the Penguins, a four-point night Tuesday in Philadelphia and his highlight-reel shorthanded tally Thursday.

As he matured, Marchand transitioned from ‘Little Ball of Hate’ to an elite player in the National Hockey League. Even with a strong injection of youth into the pro hockey product, the competitive 33-year-old winger hasn’t lost a beat throughout his illustrious Boston tenure.

“I think the biggest thing — as you get older — is you’re competing against a whole new generation of players. And when they come in…they’re so skilled, they’re so talented in the way they can skate now,” Marchand said. “To be able to keep up with them, it’s a grind every day. I think the biggest fear is getting pushed out and losing your spot.”

Even if he feels a little timid from that aforementioned quote, Marchand hasn’t shown any fear since Day 1. The battle-tested veteran witnessed the highest of highs and the lowest of lows over his 11 seasons. And amid a year of ups and downs, Marchand has put the team on his back during another stellar campaign.

Jeremy Swayman performing ‘as advertised’

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Tuukka Rask’s ailing upper-body injury rushed Dan Vladar into the spotlight. Jaroslav Halak’s recent positive COVID-19 test prompted Jeremy Swayman into the same situation.

Vladar provided the Bruins with a chance to win in each of his first four appearances. Swayman relieved Vladar following a busy slate on Tuesday, promptly tallying 40 saves and a victory in his NHL debut.

Cassidy tabbed Swayman again on Thursday against Ovechkin, Zdeno Chara and the rest of the highly skilled Capitals. His confidence never wavered one bit.

The Caps found themselves within striking distance after Ovechkin and Oshie delivered their second period 5-on-3 tallies. Swayman had little to no chance stopping either shot. He quickly put the pair of goals — on the heels of questionable calls — behind him.

“Every one of the guys came up to me and said ‘it’s not on you,'” Swayman said of the two 5-on-3 tallies. “But as a goalie, all I want to do is stop the puck and help my teammates. I evaluated it quick, but then I forgot about it and all I was worried about is the next shot. So it was an easy transition for me to make sure I was ready for the next shot.”

Swayman stopped 71 of 75 shots in his first two career games. His early success is even more remarkable with their two cornerstone defensemen in Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy out of the lineup with respective upper-body injuries.

The Bruins knew they had something in Swayman after his stellar career at the University of Maine. Swayman carried over his strong stint in Providence to Boston. The Alaskan-born netminder lived up to the hype during the first act of his NHL career.

“We heard he was a great goalie. Obviously we’ve seen him in practice, but it’s a whole different situation in a game at this level, and he’s as advertised,” Marchand said of Swayman.

“He competes very hard — a phenomenal kid off the ice…great to be around — and he’s a great goalie. He’s great, he competes and he never seems to be out of position. So it’s great that he’s stepping up in a time like this…him and Vlady [Vladar]. Whenever you have your top goalies out — for guys to come in and play the way that they have, it’s huge for our group. It gives us confidence to play in front of him.”

Can the Bruins string together a run?

The Bruins entered the week hoping to extend their cushion over the Flyers and Rangers for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Aside from their OT blemish to Philly on Monday, they’ve done just that. The Islanders and Penguins helped Boston out on Thursday with respective wins over the Flyers and Broadway Blueshirts.

Cassidy and company now sit seven points ahead of the Flyers and Rangers. With games in hand, they’re inching closer to the teams ahead of them in the East. The Bruins sit four points behind the Penguins and six in back of the Islanders and Capitals.

An important trade deadline awaits for Don Sweeney. The Bruins improved their postseason prospectus over the last week. They received timely secondary scoring from Lauzon, Blidh and Smith on Thursday. The injury-plagued defense core rarely encountered a hiccup against a skilled Caps bunch. But Sweeney knows he has to address those significant areas of need if the Bruins want to make a serious run of hoisting Lord Stanley again.

Boston’s sixth-year general manager hopes to provide an improved lineup for the long run before 3 p.m. on Monday. The Bruins face the Flyers and Caps in their weekend pair. They’d like nothing more than to carry this recent two-game run into a four-game streak before settling in for the home stretch of a unique 2021 campaign.

“Obviously we want to string together wins like we did at the start of the year, but it’s tough in this league,” Cassidy said. “I think we’re a team that’s capable of it…”

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