The Bruins have struggled to score goals when down a top six forward this year. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)
Injuries are an inevitability in hockey on a game-to-game basis, never mind the 82-game marathon-esque grind of an NHL schedule. That’s especially true given the almost impossibly condensed schedule most teams have been dealt this season thanks to the World Cup of Hockey and NHL/NHLPA mandated bye-week later this season.
That’s not an excuse, but a statement of fact.
The Bruins are a team that’s already had their share of battered bodies watching from the press box (0r not watching at all depending on the injury), too, especially to their top six forward group.
The latest injury to the group? 32-year-old David Backes, who is out for the second stretch this season, this time by way of a concussion sustained on a late hit from the Sabres’ William Carrier last week. And though the pieces have shuffled in and out at different points this season (I’m looking at you, left side of the David Krejci line), the most common top six dressed by the Bruins has featured a first line with Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, and a second unit with center-turned-winger Ryan Spooner and Backes on either side of Krejci.
The Bruins handled Backes’ absence in Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the Sabres, but felt it with a 3-0 loss to the Devils the other night. And in total, the Black and Gold have now skated in at least 16 games down at least one of their top six forwards. They’re still above .500 in those games by way of their 9-7-0 record, but the results have varied depending on the player out of action.
But the grind of an in-again, out-again might finally be catching up to the Bruins. So, about that 9-7 record…
Both Krejci and Marchand have skated in all 40 games to date this season, so you won’t find any win/loss splits with them out in/out of action. But the Bruins are 2-1-0 with Bergeron out of action (he missed the first three games of the season) and they’ve outscored opponents 11-to-8 with No. 37 on the shelf. The Bruins are 1-0-0 with Spooner out of the lineup, though that was as a healthy scratch and came in the B’s home opener win over the Devils, a 2-1 final. The Bruins have skated in seven games without Pastrnak in the lineup, be it because of an injury or a suspension, and have won two of five games with Pastrnak out, with 10 goals for and 10 against over that span. And the Bruins have skated in five games without just Backes, and while they two wins without their star free agent pickup from last summer, they’ve been outscored by a heavy 17-to-8 margin in that five-game stretch. The B’s have also been without multiple top six forwards for just two games — it was the Backes-Pastrnak tandem both times, and they’re a perfect 2-0-0 with three goals for and just one against in grind-it-out games on the back of Tuukka Rask.
The Bruins have scored just seven goals in those seven total losses, as well. It’s not necessarily shocking that a team often loses when they can’t score, I know, but I think it’s worth noting that when this team struggles to score, they struggle.
It’s not as if the Bruins will just come up a goal or two short, it’s that they simply frustrate themselves into oblivion in a potential overcompensation of sorts, suggested with those measly seven goals on 219 shots (3.20 shooting percentage).
This comes back to roster construct and/or a lack of true forward depth (true versus simply moving a center to the wing like B’s coach Claude Julien has been forced to do again and again). Though the Bruins are in a better spot now with Frank Vatrano back in the lineup, down a top six forward — and still without Matt Beleskey, currently out with a knee injury — the B’s feel a trickle-down effect that sets them up with a third line and/or fourth line that has very little chemistry and is more rag-tag than anything else. With Vatrano or whoever else called up into the top six, an already top-heavy team becomes even heavier.
And if they don’t perform at five-on-five, as was the case Monday night in Newark, there’s no doubt that they are sorta screwed offensively and have to rely heavily on either their special teams play or their goaltender to steal the show.
Their power play, with some shuffled units and a greater spreading of the wealth, has been better (four for their last 19 opportunities), and their penalty kill has been incredible of late, with kills on 50 of their last 55 times shorthanded.
“We’ve got some players that have come back, and whether it was injuries — and there were suspensions — but [Vatrano] is back, so he’s given us another option there, and at the same time, [Pastrnak] has been in and out, and now we’ve been able to kind of set two power plays,” B’s coach Claude Julien said after last Saturday’s win over the Sabres, a win that at the time gave the Bruins power-play goals in four of their last five games. “I think both power plays are pretty even. It’s not like you’re going with your first power play, and if it doesn’t score, then you just cross your fingers. A lot of teams have a second power play unit that just shoots the puck at the net. I think we have a second power play that can be just as potent in all areas as the first one. So hopefully that pays off moving forward, but I think it’s more about putting players in the right place. I’m not going to tell you that there was no confidence that was built through that. The confidence is building, and we’re getting a little bit more success.”
But if that confidence doesn’t translate into a power-play goal, or spread into even-strength play, this is a Bruins team that still struggles to score goals on a consistent basis, with two goals or fewer in all but 15 of their 40 games this season, which was absolutely the case in a near-lifeless loss to a Devils team that entered Monday with wins in just two of their last 10 games.
That’s with a healthy top six, too. That’s something they did not have Monday night, and something they’re unlikely to have when Connor McDavid and the high-scoring Oilers come to town Thursday night.
And all while the Lightning and Maple Leafs — with games in hand — continue to nip at the B’s heels.