By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
When Brad Marchand’s shot broke through Carey Price’s pads giving the Bruins a 4-3 shootout win over the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday night, the Boston bench erupted as if they had won the seventh game of a playoff series against their ancient rivals. The Little Ball of Great was first embraced by his longtime line mate Patrice Bergeron, before being engulfed by the rest of his teammates, celebrating in a way few B’s teams have in a city that has too often been a house of horrors for those wearing the Black and Gold.
Make no mistake about it, these are not your father’s hated Habs; they are a dumbed down version of the once-vaunted franchise, and they have all the personality of their head coach Claude Julien.
That is, barely any at all.
This suddenly scintillating Bruins squad is where they are now – 18-3-3 in their last 24 games, 12 games in a row with at least one point put away in their playoff bank (9-0-3) – in a large part because of the faith the first year B’s bench boss Bruce Cassidy, has shown in his up-and-coming kids. That’s something that Julien was seemingly unable to do at the end of his tenure in Boston.
“[The youngsters did] very well. I thought Jake [DeBrusk] gave us some good juice, [Danton] Heinen made some plays and Charlie [McAvoy] was frustrated at times and called for it, but then he bounced right back. That’s just Charlie,” said the obviously proud head coach following the exciting win. “We expect that every night out of these guys, and they’ve been doing it for three months. We’ve also got other guys that can pick them up, so it’s like they have to carry the team. But they are making their contributions.”
Prior to the sometimes sloppy tilt, Cassidy had this to say about his kids’ first foray into the hostile environment that the Bell Centre provide. “It’s ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ Saturday night, Bruins-Montreal, I think our guys will be a little bit more into it. I know I will be, growing up watching a lot of these games as a kid.
“For our younger guys, to be in Montreal, I hope they appreciate it. We’ve tried to tell them that things seem to happen quick here. But until you live it . . . This is good for them; this is part of the learning curve of the game. Hopefully they get immersed into it quickly.”
It is amazing how different this Bruins team is than just a year ago under Julien. Last January, the B’s were a bubble team at best, often times sleepwalking through games, and lacking heart and soul. A short 12 months later, they are a cohesive unit that fights for each other – literally and figuratively – and one that as enjoyable to watch as the 2011 team, that hoisted the Stanley Cup seven years ago.
Now infused with the likes of McAvoy, DeBrusk, Heinen, Sean Kuraly and Matt Grzelcyk – coupled with second-year defenseman Brandon Carlo and budding superstar David Pastrnak – the Bruins core of Zdeno Chara, Bergeron, Marchand, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and seemingly reborn David Backes, is suddenly becoming a force to be reckoned with, and could make some noise in the Eastern Conference when the NHL’s second season begins in the spring.
In a radio interview on SportsNet SN590 in Toronto on Friday, Cassidy was asked if his team was ahead of schedule in their rebuild. The B’s HC said, “I would say so, I don’t want to be disrespectful in saying that, I thought at the start of the year it would take some time to get to where we wanted to be because we were mixing some new faces in there. But, quite honest, they are good players and they have done a good job for us and as a result; we probably have a got few more points than we projected at the start of the year.”
While Cassidy’s hand was forced at the beginning of the season to rely more heavily on the inexperienced players on his roster due to injuries to key veterans, he has grown so confident on his kids – especially on his blue line – that veteran Adam McQuaid can’t crack the line up even though he has fully recovered from a broken leg he suffered blocking a shot against the expansion Golden Knights in Las Vegas back in October.
There is little doubt that Julien would have inserted the veteran into the defensive rotation once he was healthy at the expense of someone like Grzelcyk, even though the rookie has a far greater upside than the scrappy McQuaid.
The Bruins are building into the best sports story in Boston, even though it has largely been under the radar, with the Celtics and, of course, the Patriots dominating the headlines. Nevertheless, what they are building is real, and not enough credit can be given to the head coach who has made his young talent confident enough to go out and play their games, without gripping their sticks in fear of making a mistake that will bury them on the bench.
NHL hockey is all about capitalizing on opportunities, and that’s exactly what Cassidy’s group of talented kids are doing right now. And should they continue to progress at the level they have in the first half of his first full season behind the bench in Boston, the B’s bench boss’ faith could be rewarded with a deep run in the playoffs this spring.