5 things to watch for in Bruins' exhibition game Thursday night

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By WEEI 93.7

For the first time since March 10, there is going to be an actual Bruins game against an actual opponent on your TV.

Sure, Thursday night’s matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets (puck drop 7 p.m.) is an exhibition game, but make no mistake: This is much more important than your average exhibition game.

It’s the only exhibition game these teams will get before they play games that matter -- for the Bruins, a round-robin tournament to determine seeding that begins Sunday afternoon against the Philadelphia Flyers; for the Blue Jackets, a best-of-five play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs that begins Sunday night.

While there may be aspects of this that look like an exhibition game -- the Bruins may split the game between goalies Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, for instance -- it will for the most part be treated like a real game.

These teams know they need to get up to playoff game speed as quickly as possible, and figure out their forward lines and defense pairings as quickly as possible, so expect to see some real intensity.

With that in mind, here are five things to watch for from a Bruins perspective:

Does David Pastrnak play? And if so, does he look like classic Pasta?

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Wednesday that he anticipates Pastrnak will play, but that a final decision would be made on Thursday. Pastrnak has gotten three practices in since returning to the ice on Monday after missing all but one day of the Bruins’ two-week return-to-play camp in Boston.

By all accounts, he has looked great in those practices and not like someone who’s playing catch-up. Linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand even joked that they’re actually the ones trying to catch up to Pastrnak.

Now we’ll see how Pastrnak looks in a game situation, though. If he really does look like he hasn’t missed a beat, that would obviously be great news for the Bruins. But if he struggles or there are some plays where he looks a little off, then perhaps there’s still some catching up to do after all.

Is the second line clicking?

The second line is perhaps the biggest X factor for the Bruins this postseason. With Ondrej Kase still not cleared to travel to Toronto, never mind play, Cassidy has for now settled on the trio of Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci and Jack Studnicka.

Krejci and DeBrusk were both slumping at the time the season was paused, but Cassidy decided to reunite them to start camp given their experience with each other and he’s stuck with them. After a few different players got looks on the right side, Studnicka, the team’s No. 1 prospect, has emerged as the favorite thanks to his impressive practice and scrimmage performances and offensive upside.

Everything we’ve heard from Cassidy and the three players has been positive so far, but now it’s time to see what it looks like in game action against a real opponent. If they play well, expect to see this line stay together for Sunday’s round-robin opener and possibly beyond. If they struggle, Cassidy may have to once again consider some other options.

How does the third line look?

The third line has also been different throughout camp. Charlie Coyle centering it was always a given, as Cassidy has made it clear he prefers Coyle in the middle rather than moving him to right wing despite the vacancies the team has had there.

The other constant the last two-plus weeks has been a mild surprise, and that’s Sean Kuraly on the wing. Cassidy moved his usual fourth-line center up a line and over to the wing for a couple reasons: to free up Kuraly to do more offensively, and to give Coyle another big body in hopes of making this line a physical, puck possession kind of line.

Initially there was a third big body on this line: trade deadline acquisition Nick Ritchie. But Ritchie has now missed the last handful of practices for unspecified reasons and is unlikely to play Thursday. So Kuraly has moved from the right wing to the left, which is a more natural fit for him anyways, and now they’re joined by Anders Bjork, who had been practicing on the top line before Pastrnak returned.

Bjork isn’t as big a body, but he is a good possession player, especially in transition and entering the offensive zone. He also adds an element of speed and offensive skill and creativity. At the very least, this is a line of three smart players who shouldn’t make many mistakes. But if they can also score, that could give the Bruins the same kind of third-line production boost they got from Coyle and Marcus Johansson last postseason.

Are the goalies ready or rusty?

The playoffs are about goaltending as much as anything, and which goalies get going the quickest will go a long way towards deciding some of these early games and rounds.

Rask and Halak gave the Bruins the best goaltending tandem in the league in the regular season, and Rask’s excellent postseason last year was a big reason the Bruins went as far as they did, but this is a new game now. There’s no guarantee any of that is going to carry over after a four-and-a-half-month layoff.

Rask himself has said that teams may not be able to ride one goalie for every minute of every game this postseason as they work to get up to full speed, and Rask fracturing a finger in his glove hand about a month ago adds another wrinkle to this equation, though he says it shouldn’t be an issue.

Cassidy said it is important to get Halak some game reps as well as Rask, so don’t be surprised to see them either split Thursday’s game, or for Halak to start a round-robin game, or both. Obviously the ideal scenario is that they both play well and allow the team to do whatever it needs to do with them going forward. But if, say, Rask struggles and Halak plays well, questions about a potential goaltending controversy could begin, especially with so little time to get ready for meaningful games.

Special teams

The Bruins didn’t really work on the power play and penalty kill until a little later in their return-to-play camp, as the first week or so was all about individual timing and execution and then five-on-five play. They also didn’t get to their normal power-play groups until this week when Pastrnak returned and took up his usual spot on the top unit, allowing Krejci to move back to the second unit.

The Bruins ranked second in the NHL on the power play and third on the penalty kill in the regular season, but, again, there’s no guarantee that they get right back to that level. They could use some game reps on both sides of the special teams equation, so they might not mind the refs being a little bit whistle-happy Thursday night.

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