Kalman: Bruins’ line juggling is about more than getting David Pastrnak going

Matt Kalman
April 29, 2019 - 4:54 pm

Let’s address off the top the issue of whether every Bruins player that’s not meeting expectations is injured.

The answer is typically: all players at this time of year are dealing with some sort of aches, pains, bruises, cuts and maybe even fractures. We’ll know more details once Boston’s run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs is through.

Fact is, if you’re healthy enough to play, you’re healthy enough to produce.

And right now it doesn’t appear Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is too concerned about a health-related issue with right wing David Pastrnak. Cassidy wouldn’t be moving Pastrnak to a line with his two hottest offensive players if he was concerned Pastrnak wouldn’t be able to perform because of injury; he’d be more likely to leave Pastrnak where he’s comfortable, with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, so those two could insulate him.

Instead there was Pastrnak practicing Monday on the right side of Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, who each have three points through two games of the Eastern Conference second round against Columbus. The series is tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 on Tuesday at Nationwide Arena, and Cassidy said he wouldn’t commit to his new-look lines until game day.

And the fact is, Cassidy could commit to his lines Tuesday morning, he could even commit to them or some other combination during pregame warmup, and then the Bruins might start Game 3 totally different. The odds are always strong that Cassidy’s lines won’t be the same by the third television timeout of the first period. That’s how he operates and it’s worked, resulting in two straight seasons of finishing the regular season near the top of the NHL standings and two straight trips to the second round of the playoffs.

But this time of year a coach only has so many motivating tools at his disposal. The roster is what the roster is and the magnitude of these games should be enough to get players to perform at their best. Boston’s top six forwards, however, have struggled at 5-on-5 against both Toronto in the first round and Columbus in the second round.

Even if putting Pastrnak on the third line was just for one day of practice, it should serve as a wakeup call for the speedster to get his game in gear. He has just three goals in these playoffs, and two came in one game, and one was on the power play. But that message should resonate with Bergeron, Marchand, Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci as well. Those four players have combined for zero 5-on-5 points this series.

And the way for them to get into gear is to simplify their game.

The Blue Jackets are a tight defensive team, and at this time of year the style of play is the same regardless of opponent – these games are won in the trenches. During the regular season Marchand can carry the puck around offensive zone, cue the calliope music, deke out a few defenders and then fire a shot or make a fancy pass to a linemate for a tap-in-goal. In the playoffs those tactics, more often than not, don’t work.

The Bruins have figured that out at times in this postseason. Pastrnak’s last goal came while he was skating a rare shift with Johansson and Coyle in Game 2 against Columbus. The puck went in the net off Pastrnak’s skate, but the point was made. Coyle protected the puck as he circled the net, Pastrnak drove to the net, Coyle passed to the front, goal.

In Game 2 against Toronto, Marchand scored on a drive to the net. Krejci scored on a rebound in Game 3 and set up a DeBrusk goal on another net drive in Game 6. Zdeno Chara’s goal in Game 4 was unassisted (what?) but was the result of work down low by Bergeron, Marchand and Danton Heinen.

This is the formula that works, and pretty much every team has to subscribe to it. Those that get away from it for long enough stretches get eliminated. You can call it playoff hockey, you can call it “play like Mark Recchi” or whatever you want to call it. It’s the way the Bruins have to play more often to survive this battle with the red-hot Blue Jackets.

For this reason Cassidy should consider keeping his Monday practice lines together for the start of Game 3. With Heinen around, Bergeron and Marchand can better avoid the temptation to play a fancy game. With rookie Karson Kuhlman on their line, Krejci and DeBrusk can refocus on a straight-line game.

And Pastrnak with Coyle and Johansson might create more off the rush, but that’s unlikely. Coyle and Johansson will more likely be protecting the puck down low, and it’ll be up to Pastrnak to get open when they win the battles.

Cassidy joked Monday that the only place he probably wouldn’t play Pastrnak is on Sean Kuraly’s line. Well, the coach shouldn’t rule anything out. Whatever it takes to get the Bruins to put their noses to the grindstone should be in Cassidy’s bag of tricks.

For now it seems the coach is hoping that message resonates throughout his lineup while he mixes up just three of the lines. Cassidy could run out of time for more line tweaking if enough players don't take the message to heart now.

The Big Bad Blog is presented by: 

 Technology Decisions Aren't Black and White. Think Red. Click here for more.

Related: Bruins prepared for Columbus’ cannon, hoping not to hear it