Every coach wants to enter the playoffs feeling good about his team.
Bruce Cassidy does not have that luxury.
The Bruins coach watched his team lose to Ottawa, its first-round opponent, in the second-to-last game of the regular season. In that game, Cassidy saw Torey Krug limp off in the first period. One game later, Brandon Carlo followed Krug to the dressing room, skating slowly off the ice with help from David Pastrnak after Alex Ovechkin checked the defenseman facefirst into the TD Garden glass. In the regular-season finale against Washington, Cassidy did his line-shuffling best in his search for traction on Lines 2 and 3.
Now the Bruins start the playoffs with more flareups than they endured when they were busy qualifying for the postseason.
On Jan. 24, when Kevan Miller (head) and Colin Miller (knee) returned from their respective injuries, it kicked off a two-month run of good health. Tim Schaller (lower body), Ryan Spooner (concussion), Zdeno Chara (illness), and Tuukka Rask (lower body) missed games here and there. But otherwise, the Bruins had lineup stability that few teams enjoy in the black-and-blue NHL season.
The Bruins’ luck, however, has turned rotten at the wrong time. Within the last two weeks, Frank Vatrano (upper body), Jimmy Hayes (lower body), and Noel Acciari (upper body) have required time off the ice. Their injuries, the late-season departures of Krug and Carlo, and the continued hushed play of Spooner and Matt Beleskey have resulted in a lineup that has left Cassidy shrugging his shoulders when it comes to what he can expect.
Consider the possible shortcomings:
X No power-play quarterback. Krug is the team’s leading scorer on the man advantage, putting up six goals and 19 assists while averaging 3:16 of PP ice time per game. Krug is good at advancing the puck through center ice and gaining the offensive zone. Once the Bruins set up, Krug works the point, from where he can direct the attack. He has a right-side option in Spooner and a one-time weapon on his left in Pastrnak. John-Michael Liles played in Krug’s spot in the final two games against Ottawa and Washington. Liles is no Krug.
X No right-side defenseman on the No. 1 pairing. Carlo’s status is unknown. But Cassidy noted it didn’t look good when it happened when Ovechkin rattled Carlo’s head into the glass on Saturday. The Capitals picked Chara and Carlo apart on their game-opening goal. But for the most part, Chara and Carlo have been a dependable defense-first tandem. If Carlo is unavailable, it disrupts the rest of the right side. Colin Miller, who took most of his shifts against Washington, moves from the left side of the No. 3 pairing to the right side of the first duo. Being matched against first lines is a big ask for Miller, who was a healthy scratch because of his defensive unpredictability.
X Left-wing dropoff after Brad Marchand. It did not help the Bruins that they were without their No. 1 left wing for the final two games of the regular season. Marchand’s absence underscored the paucity of Cassidy’s options after No. 63 concludes his shifts. Vatrano, Beleskey, and Drew Stafford have taken shifts on the second line with Pastrnak and David Krejci. Cassidy has not settled upon a threesome he prefers. Vatrano and Beleskey have been the primary ghosts. Under Claude Julien, Vatrano averaged 0.43 points and 14:39 of ice time per game. Under Cassidy, Vatrano is at 0.39 points and 12:23 of ice time per game. Beleskey had 0.23 points and 14:39 of playing time per game under Julien. For Cassidy, Beleskey recorded 0.06 points and 10:52 of playing time per game.
X Spooner’s undependable five-on-five play. Spooner hasn’t scored an even-strength point since March 15 against Calgary, when he had a helper on Beleskey’s third goal of the year. His last four points, all assists, have been on the power play. In the regular-season finale, Cassidy moved Spooner to left wing to make room for Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson. The former Boston University center learned the hard way what life is like in the NHL, getting 8:25 of playing time against the best team in the league. But the Bruins had to give Forsbacka Karlsson a look because Spooner’s five-on-five play has withered to nothing.
The Bruins have postseason assets. Their first line of Marchand, Bergeron, and David Backes can play against anybody in the league and have a good chance of creating more chances than they allow. If Krejci and Pastrnak get some help, they will be a dangerous second wave after Bergeron’s threesome. Dominic Moore and Riley Nash have been a good depth pairing and important shorthanded duo. Rask has a 2.11 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in 47 playoff starts.
Anything can happen in the playoffs with such strengths on the Bruins’ side. Their weaknesses, however, may be their undoing.