Erik Karlsson’s basically playing on one leg for the San Jose Sharks, and suddenly they’ve lost two in a row and are on the cusp of losing the Western Conference final to the St. Louis Blues heading into Game 6 on Tuesday.
The Bruins determined that Zdeno Chara wouldn’t be able to be at his best for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final last week, and instead of risking his health and playing shorthanded, they sat out their captain. The Bruins didn’t just complete their sweep of the Hurricanes, they shut them out. Now Boston awaits the winner of the San Jose-St. Louis series in the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s officially a new era for the Bruins when they can scratch Chara, who’s second on the team in overall ice time (22:32) and shorthanded ice time (3:17) per game, and still cruise to a playoff win with what might’ve been their most dominant performance of the postseason.
“Well they’ve been dynamite for us,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I think Torey’s been a little bit underappreciated this playoff with his ability to defend, to be quite honest. You know you’re always going to get the power play acumen from him, he’s going to make his breakout passes, but he’s taking a lot of pride in playing the other side of the puck, a lot. You watch video, he’s boxing out big guys every night, committed to that. He’s not leaving the zone early, he’s making sure the puck’s going out of the zone before he is. All the little things that make you a good defensive defenseman, the commitment to stay in the battle, have been excellent.”
Krug’s improvement and Carlo’s smooth adjustment to playing in the playoffs for the first time has allowed the Bruins to divide up the ice time more equally even when Chara has played. With Charlie McAvoy emerging as a No. 1 defenseman – a threat to make a great pass or skate the puck out of the defensive end, and a strong player without the puck at that defensive blue line and down low – and Matt Grzelcyk’s ability to defend with his quickness and avoid having to defend too much by getting rid of the puck rapidly, the Bruins are resembling a more conventional defense corps. They’re not leaning too much on their 6-foot-9 blueliner to carry the load, except on the penalty kill, where they were still able to make do against Carolina.
The Blues will be a totally different beast than the Hurricanes, who by the second period of Game 3 had clearly been demoralized by the Bruins (and especially goalie Tuukka Rask) and hardly put up a fight. Carolina proved to be less deep up front than most thought. If the matchups hold, the Bruins will need Chara to lean on Ryan O’Reily’s line with David Perron and Sammy Blais, and/or Tyler Bozak’s line with Pat Maroon and Robert Thomas. What’s obvious is that the Blues are heavy, and it’ll take a healthy Boston defense with Chara in the mix to slow them down. It’ll also take Krug and Carlo keeping up their strong play against Brayden Schenn’s line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.
Not to count out the Sharks yet. If healthy, they have plenty of bulk too, with Chara probably needed to lean on the line of Tomas Hertl centering Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski. Their bottom six also features height, weight and skill and can’t be overlooked. At this point, though, it looks like injuries alone might keep San Jose from the Final.
There are many factors that will determine what the Bruins defense looks like in the years ahead. There will be the continued development of McAvoy, Carlo, Grzelcyk, Urho Vaakanainen, Connor Clifton, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril, and the ability to keep them within the salary cap. There’s the contract status of Krug, who can become an unrestricted free agent after 2020. There's the Seattle expansion draft that could pluck a Boston defenseman in 2021. But these things are far from the Bruins’ focus heading into next week’s championship round.
In the present they should be favored against either the Sharks or Blues, and their defense corps with Chara will be a major reason why. Knowing that they could survive, at least for a short spurt, without Chara, though, has to make them more confident about what they could accomplish.
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