Three weeks ago, many Bruins fans feared a third consecutive spring devoid of playoff hockey in Boston. Once Don Sweeney finally fired head coach Claude Julien, fans and media wondered if it was too late. As happens often with teams that fire their coach during the season, the Bruins responded with a string of wins. This is much more than a normal jump in play attributed to a fresh face behind the bench. The Bruins hit one bump in the road, losing to Anaheim in Anaheim, but then they bounced back quickly with three more victories. During this streak, the Bruins won three of four games on the West coast, which has been dangerous territory for them in recent years. The Bruins are continuing to win under Bruce Cassidy because he allows them to play to the strength of their roster. Claude Julien was known for his emphasis on defense, preaching the benefits of positional and defensive responsibility. He often dressed and played veterans who did not commit careless turnovers within their defensive zone. This strategy worked when Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg were in their prime, Johnny Boychuk was still on the roster and Tuukka Rask played well. Unfortunately, time passed, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg aged, former GM Peter Chiarelli traded Johnny Boychuk and the Bruins defensive skill level plunged. Though the Bruins could still score goals, they couldn’t overcome their defensive deficits with their offense, now they can. Bruce Cassidy has changed the team’s focus. He has taken the shackles off the Bruins offensive game, and it has flourished. He allows or even encourages his defense to join the offensive attack. Colin Miller benefited from this strategy yesterday.
In the eight games that Cassidy has coached, the Bruins defense has contributed 22 points. Zdeno Chara scored a highlight goal in Montreal walking in from the point and even bruising defender Adam McQuaid has scored 3 of his 8 points this season since Cassidy has taken over. The biggest contribution on the blue line has come from puck moving defenseman Tory Krug, who has notched more than a point a game during Cassidy’s tenure. This freedom has not been limited to the defense. The Bruins offense, in total, scored about 2.6 goals per game with Claude Julien as their coach. Bruce Cassidy has seen his team increase their offensive output to over four goals per game. David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron have effectively doubled their offensive output. So far this season, under Claude Julien, David Krejci averaged about .62 points per game. Bergeron produced at a slower pace of .53 points per game. In Bruce Cassidy’s offensive system they have blossomed, increasing their points per game number to 1.14 and 1.28 respectively. Neither player has ever achieved a point per game pace during their NHL careers and while the sample size of eight games is far smaller than their whole careers, I believe the aforementioned change in coaching style has had a huge impact. David Krejci has played all but 14 games of his entire career for Claude Julien. While Patrice Bergeron entered the league three full seasons before the hiring of Claude Julien, a devastating concussion ended his season early in Julien’s first year. Bergeron’s slow recovery back to his former self occurred with Claude Julien as his coach. Both players have spent the formative phases of their careers playing in Claude Julien’s “defense first” system. It’s not a stretch to think that Krejci and Bergeron’s offensive freedom and creativity was constrained under Julien. Coming down the stretch run, the Bruins will need to outscore teams, rather than shut them down. Krejci and Bergeron’s increased contributions will go a long way to accomplishing that goal. The Stretch Run With around 20 games remaining in the Bruins and other teams’ schedules, points are at a premium. Looking at the Bruins closest competition for a playoff spot, their chances appear favorable. The Hockey News has the Bruins playoff chances at 85% based on simulations. Looking into the Bruins schedule and the other teams closest to them, we that percentage makes sense. During his weekly segment on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Beetle and Zo,” NHL expert Bill Jaffe said it will likely require 95-96 points to make the playoffs, this season, in the Eastern Conference. Using 96 points as the target, The Bruins would need to capture 24 points or the equivalent of 13 wins in the rest of their games this season. They need to go 12-7 or achieve a .631 winning percentage, that’s tough. Going .500 would get them to 90 points, that’s not enough. However, once you consider how many spots are available to the teams within reach of the playoffs, it starts to look more likely. Although Montreal has only a six-point lead in the division and has struggled lately, I believe the hiring of Claude Julien will help steady the ship north of the border and help the Habs clinch a playoff spot. That leaves three open spots available to the Bruins or any other team in the Atlantic that’s in the hunt, two in the division and one wild-card spot (The Rangers are well out of reach in the first wildcard position). Of these three slots, the Bruins, Maple Leafs, Senators and Panthers all have a chance within the Atlantic. The Islanders, in the Metropolitan division, will still fight for the final wild-card position as well. This leaves three spots for five teams (sort of) to make the playoffs. I do not count the Lightning as contenders for the playoffs, because they just sold off Brian Boyle, a key piece to their previous success. Out of these five teams, New York has an impossible hill to climb; they must collect 28 points to achieve 96 total points. To accomplish this, the Islanders must win 14 of 21 games which translates to a .666 win percentage. They also have 14 road games left to play and are about to start a long western road trip. To add to this, they have a losing road record. Finally, they play in a murderous division. If the Islanders do make the playoffs, I’d bet on them to win it all, because it would be divine intervention. This leaves three spots for four teams. Of the four teams, I believe the Maple Leafs and Panthers will be the two battling to qualify for the final wildcard spot. The Panthers have to sustain the best winning percentage at .700 in order to accumulate 28 more points. Both teams have a relatively favorable schedule in the season’s final stretch and the Panthers have finally recovered from injury. However, I think with Mike Babcock as a head coach and Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews living up to their expectations, I think Toronto sneaks in over Florida. Considering all of this, I am confident that the Bruins will make the playoffs. Can Anton Khudobin continue his recent play as the backup? However, in order to qualify for and compete in the playoffs, the Bruins need one more thing to go their way. Anton Khudobin, Tuukka Rask’s backup needs to continue to turn his season around. The Bruins backup goalie issues have been well documented over the past few seasons. Fortunately, Anton Khudobin has played very well in his last two games, which may be a sign he’s heating up. In Los Angeles, he made a number of saves through screens and stopped a prime opportunity by Drew Doughty
This would fall in line with his career stats. He’s achieved a 2.46 GAA and a .916 save percentage over his career versus a 2.84 GAA and a .896 save percentage this season. He may be coming back to his career numbers compared to his weak statistics this year, and the Bruins increased goal output will only help the situation. Tuukka Rask needs the rest desperately. In the previous two seasons, Rask faltered down the stretch after playing 70 and 64 games respectively. He is currently on pace to play 64 games again this season which needs to change. This heavy workload has resulted in health issues at the end of those seasons, including dehydration two seasons ago and the flu last season. In order for the Bruins to compete, Anton Khudobin needs to play well. Playoffs When the Bruins make the playoffs, they may overachieve compared to what many experts predicted. Due to the continued uncertainty within the Atlantic Division, the Bruins could face the Senators, Canadiens, Rangers or, unfortunately, the Capitals. Ottawa and Montreal can both be beaten, and with the Bruins’ current strong play, they may even have the edge. The Bruins must first play three games against Ottawa before season’s end, so if they don’t succeed in those games, their playoff chances will plummet. If they win, the Bruins will likely carry confidence into a matchup against the Senators. The Bruins also can beat Montreal. They’ve played the Canadiens well this season and though history is a huge gorilla on the shoulders of the Bruins, inside knowledge of the team’s head coach, along with recent success gives them a chance. If the Bruins win the division and face the Rangers, their chances drop. The Bruins have dropped the past four games to the Rangers, but have had a good history against them in the playoffs. The only team they do not stand a chance against is the Capitals, who are again the league’s best team and just added Kevin Shattenkirk. While there are many variables in play before the final playoff qualifications are decided, the Bruins have finally turned a corner and could be a factor in the postseason.