The greatest ever was in the building.
He was hanging out a few strides from the elevators in the bowels of TD Garden a few hours before game time.
Everyone wanted to catch a glance of him, and when Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy arrived for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference second round, Bobby Orr greeted him with a handshake, a smile and some words of encouragement.
The most recent greatest was on the ice, logging 22:40 of ice time, at 42 years old still battling shaky ice conditions and some of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ heaviest players trying to will the Bruins to a win. And with a series lead on the line, Zdeno Chara had a front-row seat to two key plays by a couple of his youngest fellow defensemen.
The future greatest was right in the thick of the Bruins’ wild 4-3 win, as Boston squandered a two-goal lead before prevailing on David Pastrnak’s goal with 1:28 to play.
But which one of Boston’s current defensemen is the future greatest? Is it Brandon Carlo or is it Charlie McAvoy? Time will tell, but in Game 5 the dual pillars of the future Bruins defense corps each made his case.
Carlo put in 21:27 of hard ice time, skating for 2:32 during two Bruins penalty kills and 13:48 of 5-on-5 ice time against Blue Jackets sniper Artemi Panarin. Bruins assistant coach Kevin Dean loves having the mobile Carlo go head-to-head with the elusive Panarin, so he told the 22-year-old Carlo to make sure he went over the boards every time Panarin did, even with Panarin double-shifting and playing on just about every line for a Blue Jackets team that dressed 11 forwards.
The Bruins held a 15-10 shot-attempt advantage when Carlo was facing Panarin at even strength and Panarin was limited to one even-strength shot on net the entire night. Carlo said Dean told him to make sure he was out against Panarin as often as possible, and then after the first period the coach whispered in Carlo’s ear to be aware of the double shifting.
“I love those opportunities to challenge myself against players like him, especially. And I had a lot of fun doing it,” said Carlo, who's playing in his first postseason but looking every much the veteran he has looked like since he broke into the NHL in 2006.
It wasn’t all wine and roses for Carlo. He got caught in no man’s land when Josh Anderson’s cross-ice pass went through the defenseman’s legs and off his skate to Panarin to set up Dean Kukan’s goal that tied the score 3-3 with 6:02 left in the third period.
But Carlo did what a defensive defenseman of his ilk doesn’t often get to do – he made a huge offensive play after a great defensive play at a clutch time. Carlo won the last battle with Panarin at the top of the circles in the Boston end with 1:39 left. Carlo came away with the puck and made a diagonal pass, blue line to blue line, to Brad Marchand for the setup of Pastrnak’s game-winner.
“It was good that I could get my stick and a little bit of body on him. And glad I could get the turnover and get it moving the other way,” Carlo said.
No less than Chara, Boston’s still-reigning shutdown defenseman, was impressed with Carlo’s performance.
“So he had an amazing, strong game,” the Bruins captain said.
McAvoy started Game 5 like a beast, marching up and down the ice with the puck and hammering any Blue Jackets puck carrier that got near him. He finished with a team-high 24:31 of ice time (a common occurrence in these playoffs) and had one of the best games of his career. But even he was caught out of position on Ryan Dzingel’s goal that cut the Boston lead to 3-2 with 7:53 left.
Like Carlo, McAvoy, projected to be the Bruins' No. 1 defenseman for years to come, didn’t hang his head after adversity. With Panarin open at the top of the top left circle for a one-timer after a Marchand giveaway at the blue line, McAvoy dove feet first and caught the entire puck with his right foot to make sure the puck didn’t even test Tuukka Rask.
“So I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a stick there, my best chance was to kind of sell out and hope for the best. And sure enough, I was lucky enough to get a foot on it,” McAvoy said.
Said Carlo: “That was fantastic. Those are the kind of block shots that you tell stories about in the future.”
Orr has his stories, and Chara has many too. Sometimes thinking about the Bruins without Chara can be a horror story, but it looks like Carlo and McAvoy will be writing plenty of fantastic tales. Undoubtedly their Game 5 performances will be an early chapter. A Stanley Cup championship would certainly be a thrilling end.
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