Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Bruins taking 'center by committee' approach on third line

Sara Civian
April 11, 2018 - 3:21 pm

Bruce Cassidy rattled off a typical laundry list of reasons for his pre-playoff lineup changes Wednesday at Warrior Ice Arena. Then he paused.

“...and, we could easily go back.”

That attitude has been the crux of the coach’s success this season with a Bruins team almost constantly plagued by injury. This time around reliable-if-underrated third-line center Riley Nash is out for Game 1 vs. Toronto Thursday with an ear laceration.

“It hurts -- he’s a guy that filled in a lot of different spots,” Cassidy said. “Thought he was a good anchor on his line for the most part. He’s an underrated guy that does a lot of things well.”

Although Cassidy isn’t huge on thinking games in terms of matchups, Nash proved more-than-capable of filling the elusive role of depth player who can match up with daunting opposition. That was obvious when he was forced into Patrice Bergeron’s spot on the first line and the Bruins still won nine-of-13 without their star center. Nash had a point-per-game average through the stretch, but his ability to keep up on defense will be missed the most Thursday.

“We have not generally chased the game for matchups, but of course it’s playoff time, so if we feel like we need to do that we will,” Cassidy said. “That’s where we talk about missing Riley Nash. He was a matchup guy when we didn’t chase matchups, so [replacing] that will be a challenge.”

The plan of attack is as on-brand, “try it and we could easily go back” Cassidy as ever: Shift Noel Acciari up to the third line, and take an almost center-by-committee approach with David Backes. Acciari will take the brunt of center responsibility, but it'll be a more fluid role.

“It’s a different flavor, but Noel’s played a lot of center and he’ll share that responsibility with Backes,” Cassidy said. “Backes might take the draws or play a little more against a certain matchup.”

In his new third-line role, Acciari will have to emulate the same trickle-down defensive responsibility Nash did with Bergeron -- Brad Marchand called him a mini-Bergeron for it, and Nash joked that meant “a little worse version” -- but still.

Acciari had been essentially filling in for Sean Kuraly at center since Kuraly sustained an upper body injury March 27. He and Backes have also spent time switching off at center with each other through that stretch, so the comfort level at least somewhat exists.

“The first couple games back at center, I was just kind of readjusting but I thought I found my stride,” Acciari said. “Since I’m playing center not wing, I gotta be more cautious about being first in the zone offensively, rather than throwing a big hit, make sure I’m a little more defensive. Backes will help me out with that, we’ll just be talking. It’ll be good.”

Neither of them can replicate Nash. But this just might work, if Backes’ ability to play with almost anyone, Acciari’s experience at center, the understood committee approach, and Cassidy’s willingness to switch things up on the fly are any indication.

And if it doesn’t, Cassidy said there’s “potential” for Nash’s return Saturday.

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