Kalman: Backes should return to Bruins lineup even if DeBrusk plays

Matt Kalman
April 12, 2019 - 2:08 pm

Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk didn’t practice Friday, the off day between Game 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference first round series that the Toronto Maple Leafs lead 1-0.

“Jake was given a maintenance day so he’ll be back with us I’d assume tomorrow morning,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “If he’s not feeling well … I’ll put [David> Backes in and juggle the lines around. But right now we anticipate he’ll play.”

DeBrusk took at least two hard hits from Toronto center Nazem Kadri and one of them obviously dinged him up a bit. This is playoff time, so the odds are better that the left wing will play than not.

But when it comes to Backes, who a healthy scratch for Game 1, this shouldn’t be an either-or proposition for Cassidy. The Bruins missed Backes’ presence in Game 1, and although the best-of-7 series seems long, the Bruins don’t have time to wait and see if Noel Acciari, Chris Wagner or someone else can fill the emotional and physical void. A 2-0 hole in the series might be too deep to dig out of and the Bruins’ best chance to pull even with the Maple Leafs on Saturday is to get Backes in there.

During practice without DeBrusk, Cassidy threw together his lines like this:

Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak

Johansson-Krejci-Kuhlman

Heinen-Coyle-Backes

Nordstrom-Acciari-Wagner

One could imagine a scenario where DeBrusk plays, Johansson shifts back to Coyle’s left and Backes bumps Nordstrom off the fourth line. Then Wagner has to play the left side, which isn’t ideal, but there won’t be that many shift for a Wagner-Acciari-Backes line where that’ll matter. What will matter is that Backes will be there to smack some Maple Leafs around, slowing down their thinking and their puck movement. And the Bruins will have Backes on the bench to make Kadri or someone else for answer for a borderline hit, and to have him rallying the troops with his encouragement and experience.

There’s also a scenario where Backes gets to play with Coyle and Heinen and Johansson goes on Krejci’s right with rookie Karson Kuhlman up in the press box. Kuhlman didn’t do anything wrong in his Stanley Cup playoffs debut, but some of his deficiencies were exposed when he wasn’t able to make a couple plays because in the playoffs there’s a lot less time and space than in those early-April “showdowns” with Minnesota. This alignment, though, might hold back Coyle, who was probably Boston’s best forward in Game 1.

Of course, Cassidy could decide to remain calm and double down on the strategy and lineup he thought would work for the first game.

“There’s two ways to slow them down, they’re a fast team,” Cassidy said. “Physically slow them down or you skate with them to slow them down. I thought we’d do a better job checking with our legs, skating, then we did [Thursday> night. And what I mean by that is them getting behind us and then coming through the neutral zone with speed. There were times we did a real good job with it, our legs were good on the forecheck. Other times they weren’t. So obviously David adds the physicality piece. We’ll have an internal discussion, ‘is that a better option?’”

No one is saying David Backes will be the Bruins’ savior. Boston’s top two forward lines have to be much better at both ends of the rink and every skater has to handle the puck better and put it in the right areas of the rink more often to get the forecheck going. Goalie Tuukka Rask might have to up his game from excellent to spectacular. Cassidy admitted he was “outcoached” in Game 1, and he’ll have to do a better job getting the matchups he wants while the Bruins are home ice.

The Bruins are never going to get the full return on the $6 million they committed to Backes (through 2021, by the way). If you divided up that cash, though, two thirds of it was supposed to compensate him for his role as a physical player with an ability to finish around the net and the other third was about bringing his voice into a dressing room led by quieter leaders like Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron.

With the physicality he showed in the second half of the regular season and his unending gift for gab, Backes can be the type of factor that often makes a difference on the sport’s biggest stage. If the Bruins aren’t going to let him work for his bread at playoff time, then what’s the point of having him around?

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