A week that started with the chaos of a Brad Marchand suspension, a Jake DeBrusk trade request and a Bruce Cassidy COVID case ended with arguably the Bruins’ most encouraging performance of the season.
That last part might sound weird, because the Bruins actually lost to the Lightning Saturday night, 3-2, in overtime. But they dominated the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions for the majority of the game, and they did so without their two best players in Marchand and Charlie McAvoy, the latter of whom was dealing with a non-COVID illness. Jakub Zboril, who had been a steady presence on defense for the last couple weeks, was also out.
It also might sound weird to suggest that the Bruins should feel pretty good about themselves after going 1-1-1 during Marchand’s suspension, but… there was a lot to feel good about this week.
The Bruins actually dominated both games they lost, outshooting the Red Wings 42-16 in a 2-1 loss on Tuesday and outshooting Tampa Bay 39-25 (38-21 in regulation) on Saturday. The one game they got outplayed -- Thursday in Nashville -- they ended up winning thanks to an excellent shutout performance from Jeremy Swayman, which was an encouraging development in its own right.
On either side of Swayman’s big game, the Bruins ran into similarly stellar performances from Alex Nedeljkovic and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Lady luck wasn’t exactly on the Bruins’ side either. Take the sequence early in the second period Saturday night, when David Pastrnak and Brandon Carlo hit the post less than a minute apart, and then the Lightning immediately scored on a centering pass that deflected in off a skate. The Bruins have now rung the iron seven times in the last two games, with Pastrnak doing so twice himself on Saturday. On Tuesday, the refs missed Mike Reilly getting tripped seconds before one of Detroit’s goals.
Through all the chaos and bad luck, though, the Bruins dug deep and showed some heart up and down the lineup. Taylor Hall embraced the opportunity to play Marchand for a week, as he looked as lively as he has all season while playing on the top line and top power-play unit.
Hall seemed to click with Pastrnak in particular, with Hall setting up Pastrnak for a power-play goal on Tuesday and Pastrnak springing Hall on a pair of breakaways on Saturday. While Hall, Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron didn’t actually combine for a single five-on-five goal in the three games, they certainly had their looks as they dominated possession and chances in all three. You would expect Pastrnak’s posts and Hall’s unfinished breakaways to start going in at some point.
Erik Haula returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch on Sunday and had by far his best week as a Bruin while moving from center to wing to play next to Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith on the second line. He was involved in both goals in Thursday’s 2-0 win over the Predators and then he had a beautiful pass to set up Coyle for the Bruins’ first goal on Saturday.
Jake DeBrusk also had a strong week in his return from not just a healthy scratch, but also the public reveal of his trade request. He scored on Thursday and played hard and fast on a line with Tomas Nosek and Curtis Lazar, showing that -- at least for now -- he’s not quitting on anyone or just going through the motions until he’s traded.
There will obviously be some line shuffling when Marchand returns on Wednesday, but the Bruins will hope Hall, Haula, DeBrusk (if he's still here) and others continue to play well no matter where they end up. The Bruins could even keep some of these combinations together, with interim coach Joe Sacco saying the coaching staff will talk things over before deciding on Wednesday’s lineup. At the very least, the Bruins know they can revisit some of these combinations -- specifically Hall and Pastrnak playing together -- if they’re in need of a shakeup.
Last but certainly not least, the Bruins’ defense deserves credit for an impressive performance on Saturday. With no McAvoy and no Zboril, the defense helped hold the Lightning to 21 shots on goal in regulation. One of Tampa Bay’s goals was a shorthanded tally off a power-play breakdown and the other was an unfortunate bounce off a skate. True, the Lightning weren’t full-strength either -- they’re without Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point right now -- but they’re still a talented team that was playing well coming in.
Mike Reilly, a healthy scratch just a couple weeks ago, led the team in minutes at 22:39. Connor Clifton, who had been out of the lineup since Nov. 14, was right behind him and actually led the team in five-on-five minutes. Jack Ahcan, just called up from Providence, looked very good, with the Bruins holding a 31-5 advantage in shot attempts during his 15 even-strength minutes.
“I think our guys played real well tonight, especially being down 2-0 to that team,” Sacco said Saturday night. “…We played hard tonight. We competed. Really nobody took the night off. We had everybody on board, and it was good to see. Unfortunately we don’t get the end result, the extra point, but we can build off that game for sure.”
This was a week where things really could have fallen apart for the Bruins. And if you just look at the results -- three points in three games -- there wouldn’t seem to be much to feel good about. But the Bruins should be encouraged by how they played and how they came together in the face of adversity, and they should be able to carry some momentum into their upcoming three-game road trip through western Canada.
“I think it can only help. You learn to work through some adversity, whether that’s guys out, coaches out, injuries, what have you,” Coyle said when asked about the past week. “It’s never gonna be a perfect scenario or perfect season. You learn to work through these things. It’s more responsibility and more opportunity for other guys to step up … and guys have done that.”