As Bruins teeter, Bruce Cassidy's 'cool' as NHL head coach will be tested

Ty Anderson
March 23, 2017 - 4:08 pm

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is not worrying about what's out of his control. (Walter Tychnowicz/USA Today Sports)

It doesn't take all that long to realize that Bruins interim head coach Bruce Cassidy has basically become the team’s version of the cool stepdad you saw in any 90s movie. 

After the totalitarian style of Claude Julien seemingly wore thin on the club’s key pieces in recent years, the breath of fresh air that came with Cassidy had an instant impact on the team. The B’s started the Cassidy Era with four straight victories and wins in 12 of 15 games, and everything seemed to be just wonderful. Cassidy still demanded a lot from this team, and was riding the club hard in practices (the pro athlete way of saying that their chores remained the same -- or actually increased -- on a day-to-day basis), sure, but the team was loose for perhaps the first time all season. That largely seemed to be a direct result of Cassidy letting his players play to their strengths, and reinvigorate their games with a fun, up-tempo style that hearkens back to many of the players’ early paths to the NHL in the first place, back when they were skill players dominating the junior or college ranks (the pro athlete way of your parents letting you have a party at your house). 

Most of all, it appeared as if the dark cloud that surrounded the team was finally gone -- or moved to Montreal on a five-year, $25 million contract, anyways -- and that the club no longer walked on eggshells.

But like the handling of that first bad report card, Cassidy’s cool is now going to be tested. 

The Bruins have dropped three games in a row for the first time under Cassidy’s watch, and head into Thursday’s pivotal game against the Lightning in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and just two points from ninth place in the conference, which is where the club has finished in back-to-back meltdowns out of postseason contention. The prospect of that finish remains a sensitive topic and almost an expected doomsday end result for many pessimists in the Hub, and for obvious reasons. After all, it was with 12 games left last year that the Bruins began a five-game losing slide and finish on a free fall that saw them drop all but three games to close out their year, including a win-and-you’re-in regular season finale loss against the Sens. 

And those memories were the topic of discussion following the club's most recent loss to the Sens, a 3-2 defeat at TD Garden on Tuesday.

“You have to obviously look forward, definitely don’t dwell on the past and don’t look at the past two years,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, the team’s second in command behind Zdeno Chara, advised. “It’s not even something we should think about at this point. It’s about us finding ways, being better and finding ways to win games. We’re playing good hockey, but not good enough to get the result.”

Bergeron is correct in the sense that they are probably play a strong enough team game to win. But it’s the finishing problems that have become an issue for the club yet again, with late-game collapses on six different occasions this season (one of which happened in Julien’s final game in town and twice since then under Cassidy) along with an inability to solve hot goaltenders, with Frederik Andersen and Craig Anderson becoming the last two to stymie the B’s offense to the point of pure frustration, post-whistle scrums and storm-outs back to the locker room. (The B’s have to hope that Budaj isn’t Slovak for Anderson when they play against the Bolts tonight.) This is all so familiar to the story penned a year ago by this same group, when the B’s goaltending and shooting luck went out the window down the stretch, with just 27 goals on their final 422 shots of a season that saw the Bruins score the fifth-most goals in the NHL.

It also happened the year before that, too, when crucial losses took the B's fate out of their own hands on the last day of the season. 

But don’t waste your breath trying to get Cassidy to consider any of that as a real possibility under his watch. 

“Every year writes its own story,” Cassidy, who has witnessed the last two collapses from afar as the coach of the P-Bruins, said. “There’s a lot of guys in that room that weren’t here last year, including myself. So we’d like to write our own story. Clearly the last two games were important games for us and I thought we played very well. We had some breakdowns. I don’t think I’m going to wake up tomorrow and see us eliminated, so we’re going to go back to work against Tampa. We’re going to keep playing well and keep playing hard and we’re going to reinforce the positive as we’ve done so for the last six weeks or whatever it is, and work on the things we need to get better at.”

This has been the name of Cassidy’s game, to be honest. Cassidy has had a ‘relax’ kind of vibe to his name since he started -- he’s put a heavy emphasis on moving on from bad shifts, bad calls against his team (although he understandably hated the call against his club in Toronto on Monday), and bad games -- and has instead tried to build on the positives of any situation. He also doesn’t seem to like to focus on the past or even the future for that matter. It’s been a strength of his as the team’s head coach for 18 games, too, with that almost Bill Belichickian style of simply focusing on the task at hand (though there’s no Cincinnati in the NHL) versus worrying about the week of games that will follow. 

It’s a message that’s been properly conveyed to his players, too. 

“I haven’t thought about it, I haven’t talked about it,” said B’s defenseman Torey Krug said when asked about last year’s slide and this year’s recent struggles parlaying into another collapse. “It’s a different feeling this year. It’s not going to happen. I know we’ve got a lot of pride in this room. The guys that have been through it, there’s no other option except making sure we stay on course and take care and do our jobs.”

“Right now, we are in a better position,” David Pastrnak echoed. “We have a lot of games left, and important games. We need to look ahead and be better in those games.”

The only problem with that, however, is that at some point the Black and Gold will run out of games and positioning could, at some point, work against them if the team hemorrhages more points. 

The Bruins are already in a situation where the Maple Leafs would beat them for third in the Atlantic Division if each team wins out (as unlikely as that may be for each squad), and that’s without considering the game in hand that the upstart Leafs currently hold over the Bruins. A Bruins loss on Thursday coupled with an Islanders win on Friday against the Penguins would put the B’s in a definite must-win situation on Saturday in Brooklyn, too, as the Black and Gold would then run the risk of taking their own fate out of their hands for the second wild card as well with another loss. 

Still, Cassidy’s Bruins remain calm. 

“I think the only thing we can do now is stay mentally strong, stay with it, and go out there and play," Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask admitted when asked how the club fixes things before it spirals out of control yet again. "I think at this point of the season, there’s no time to kind of feel sorry for ourselves. We just go out there and make something happen and the results will happen. If they don’t, then it sucks, but we just have to believe that they will.”

It’s that trust in the process and the one game at a time mantra that Cassidy is banking on, too. 

“You gotta play the opponent in front of you, the game in front of you, and not worry about, ‘Well if this happens..’ and who won, and who lost,” Cassidy said of the team’s mindset amid the slump. “I just think in the long run that doesn’t benefit you. We’re aware of it. We know who won and lost last night. We gotta take care of our business. If we do, we’ll be fine. We really will. If we take care of our business, it doesn’t matter what this team does or that team does and that’s a fact.

“And that’s the message quite simply: We take of business, we’re fine,” Cassidy concluded. 

And if the cool demeanor of the 51-year-old Cassidy remains a staple of his style. 

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