When it’s worked, it’s been exciting to see the Bruins’ young defensemen join the rush as Boston’s back end receives a slight makeover in the post-Andrew Ference era.
When it hasn’t the Bruins have understandably given up more chances to their opponents. So it’s a good thing they have a pretty good fail-safe in Tuukka Rask.
Rask’s needed to be on his toes more this season than in seasons past. Why? Because it’s been apparent throughout the early part of the season that the team is still finding its way defensively.
“I think the consequences of me not being on top of my game might be a little different than in the past,” Rask said. “I just try to stop every puck and keep the game tight. If we’re not playing our best, you know -- it’s been a little unusual situation for us, giving up chances, and what kind of chances we’ve been giving up but it’s part of the game and we just have to battle through that.”
This season has been a weird one for the Bruins. In addition to the changing of the guard as Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton take on more prominent roles, the B’s have just been plain old sloppy and turnover-happy in their own end too often. So Rask has needed to be on his toes, and the $56 million man hasn’t disappointed.
Take Thursday’s win over the Panthers. On one of the first shifts of the game, the Bruins had a pair of giveaways, with Reilly Smith and Adam McQuaid both turning the puck over in the Boston zone in a short span. There were plenty of other mistakes made, but on the whole the B’s actually gave their opponent (who, remember, was the offensively and defensively and everything-ly challenged Panthers) less to work with than in games past.
The end result remained one goal, scored in the final six minutes by Jesse Winchester on a rebound. Through the roster turnover and shaky, out-of-sync play in front of him, Rask is second in the league with a 1.68 goals-against average and third with a .942 save-percentage.
“To have him as our backstop when we make mistakes is important,” Krug said. “When things aren't going well, you're kind of pushing a little bit too hard, and mistakes are bound to happen. When you're struggling, you want to keep moving forward, you want to keep being aggressive, and you have to have that confidence to be aggressive, so if you make a mistake, he's going to be there.”
The Bruins know that there’s been a changing of the guard on the back end. In the salary cap era, a decision like the one they had to make with Ference is unfortunately a no-brainer. If you can get younger and cheaper without making your team much worse, you have to do it. Plus Krug had proven in the playoffs that he was NHL-ready.
It’s just that replacing Ference in the lineup with a player like Krug, coupled with the emergence of Hamilton in his second season, changes the blue line and makes the good old “Call us boring, but you won’t score” Bruins the new “Buckle up, but we might score” Bruins. The pros are obvious: Krug has six such pros already to tie for the NHL lead among defensemen. Hamilton has three goals of his own.
The cons are apparent as well, as the young defensemen are still learning when to jump up and when to stay back.
“If you really look at it, the past few years we had a veteran group on the back end, and most of the guys were stay-at-home defensemen,” Zdeno Chara said. “Now we have that offensive part of our defense in our lineup. Not that it's a bad thing, but sometimes guys want to support the play -- and that's their job, to support the offense -- but when you do that, a few things open up defensively.
“You've just got to find a balance of when you are able to jump up and support and go for the rush or really recognize that they're leaving guys behind. … It's something that we as a group have to talk to each other about, especially young guys, to recognize that it's their job to support and be offensive, but first of all, because we are all defensemen, to prevent goals scored against.”
With communication and time, the B’s blue line will take shape and the chances for the opponent will subside. They won’t be where they were the last few years though, as the Bruins have to concede that increased opposing chances are part of the deal with having a good offensive presence on the back end.
“I think it comes down to working, five guys together on the ice,” Chara added. “We can be doing so many good things and working so hard, but if we're not working together as five guys, usually there's always going to be some hole or some gap that's going to be open. As long as we have five guys working together, supporting each other and talking, then everything's going to be easier and more in sync.”