When this hockey season began back in September, there were some sure things about these Bruins — or so we thought.
Of course, we knew that the Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak line would be back together and be one of the best lines in the league. We knew Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak would comprise one of the best goalie tandems as well. And we also thought the line of Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner would once again be far more of a force than their usual * fourth line” identification would indicate.
The first two assumptions have been spot-on. The third, however, has not always been on the mark. The grinding line has had some spurts during which it's been a handful, forcing some of the opposition's top forward units to play in their own end more than they'd like. But the threesome hasn't really gained the kind of traction to the point where it could go on a long run together.
Part of the problem has been that Nordstrom has been in and out of the lineup with various injuries and ailments. He was set to make his return on Wednesday against the Canadiens after missing four games with allergy issues. But coach Bruce Cassidy, who reunited the line for a game against the Habs, felt the unit's off-and-on struggles had to do with more than just Nordstrom's intermittent availability.
Simply, the players have to play better, said Cassidy, who has given the healthy scratch treatment to each one of them at various points this season.
* I don't think they've been as clean, execution-wise, whether it's that first pass to get out of their zone clean to get through the neutral zone … or they haven't made a play in the offensive zone to keep a puck alive. Then all of a sudden they're chasing back. They're typically playing against good players so they're going to have to do some work to get it off good players when they're playing in our end,” said Cassidy. * So I think it's just a matter of them bearing down and them executing with the puck a little better, either to get out of trouble and get going the other way so they can establish a forecheck and puck or possession, or to keep it alive in their end.”
With the B's playing game No. 58 on Wednesday, it is an important time for this line. At some point or another, Cassidy has to determine whether or not this group is going to be a reliable entity as it heads into the playoffs. The group had an up-and-down performance on Wednesday. It allowed some good chances against in the first period and, after the B's took a 2-0 lead in the second, they were on the ice when the Habs got a quick goal back. But the goal against seemed to get the players going and they finished out they game reasonably well.
As he's pointed out, that fourth line has been an important part of this team's identity. Cassidy has seen enough in the past to believe in it. He just has to see it.
* I think they'd be the first to admit they have some more to give,” said Cassidy. * Sean's had a look up on the third line. I think points-wise (5-14-19), his year is good for his previous totals, but at the end of the day, for us to be the best team, I think he has to drive that fourth line. We've moved him around for our benefit, to see what it looks like and maybe give him a change of scenery, so to speak. But at the end of the day, that's an important line for us, whoever's been on it. It has been for the last two years, three years. So we expect a certain standard of play from them with who they're playing against. We'd like them to get there. That's stating the obvious, but that's our goal and we're going to keep looking at it until we find something better or we really believe it won't happen. I still think there's room for them to get where they were before.”
Kuraly was scratched for the Feb. 1 game in Minnesota and when he returned, he played several games with Charlie Coyle as the left wing. Whether it was the scratch, or the relative freedom of playing left wing that did it, something unlocked for Kuraly and he is playing some of his best hockey. Now it has to translate to the fourth line
* I just have to keep playing like I'm playing, doing a lot of the same things. Hold the puck down low and skate and play hard and compete and it should be OK,” said Kuraly, who got banged up in a collision late in the second period but returned for the third.
Nordstrom (4-3-7 in 39 games) needs to stay healthy. And more consistency is still needed from Wagner (4-4-8 in 55 games, well off his pace of 12 goals last year). But Kuraly, who picked up an assist on on Pastrnak's second goal in the midst of a line change, would seem to be the key. His re-insertion into the lineup in the midst of the Toronto series last year after suffering a broken bone in his hand at the end of the regular season helped turn that first-round series in the B's favor. And he's been a strong playoff performer since he came up from Providence three years ago.
Well, the playoffs will be here before you know it. Now would be a good time for Kuraly and his linemates to start jelling again.