Thursday. November 16, 2017. That’s the date it all changed.
Boston Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask was in the midst of one of his worst stretches in recent Bruins history as a starting goaltender.
Rask had started out the season with a 3-7-2, .897 save percentage and a 2.84 GAA. Those are putrid stats and while Rask is not fully to blame, you could not help but wonder if the plethora of soft goals Rask had allowed early in the season, crawled inside the minds of the skaters. They played uninspired hockey. The absolute worst kind of hockey.
Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, decided enough was enough. And placed the former Vezina trophy winner on the bench, and rode with the hot hand of Anton Khudobin.
The critics who were blaming the offense for not scoring enough, or the defense for not giving Rask any help, were quickly shut up. The team went on a four game winning streak and propelled themselves forward to 17th in the league, in terms of points.
The team played with more life in front of Khudobin, as he would fight and claw his way through the crease to make sure that the Bruins would sustain a 2-1 lead deep into the third period, something Rask was not doing early in the season. Cassidy felt as if the benching finally woke up Tuukka, and named him the Bruins starting goaltender at home against a struggling Edmonton Oilers squad. Even though the Bruins lost, Rask and the team played well that night, albeit allowing a couple breakaway goals on defensive breakdowns.
Cassidy stuck with Rask, and has not looked back, as the Boston Bruins keep on rolling.
Since November 16, the Bruins have a 22-3-4 record and find themselves fourth in the league in points. What has come since Cassidy benched Tuukka has every Bruins fan excited for the playoffs, and they should be.
Since November 16, Bruins fans quickly have stopped looking at the top prospects in the upcoming draft, to looking at how their team matches up with other top teams in the league. Bruins fans have a team that is a true Stanley Cup contending team.
Rask has some of his strongest doubters (including yours truly) buying in on him being able to lead the hungry Bruins on a lengthy playoff run with each solid outing he records. The mix of veteran leadership and youthful energy has been the key to this season’s unpredictable success, and while they eventually have to cool off (right?), they are showing no signs of slowing down.
The Bruins rank fifth in goals/game, while sacrificing no defense, as they rank first in goals allowed/game. Their power play is ranked 7th in the league, and their penalty kill is excellent as usual, ranking third in the league.
Go through their roster and line combinations, and while they have flaws just like any other team, the job general manager Don Sweeney has done, can not be overstated.
The top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak is one of the best, if not the best, top line in the league. When that trio is on the ice together this season during 5-on-5 play, they have outscored their opponents by a 22-3 (!!!) margin and controlled 60 percent of the total shot attempts.
The second line, manned by veteran center David Krejci, when healthy, still provides offense out of thin air. His rookie linemate, Jake DeBrusk, has had a solid rookie season as well.
Their bottom six forwards provide energy, toughness, while still being able to put the puck in the back of the net. Skaters like Danton Heinen and David Backes mesh well because of their complementary skill sets. The fourth line is absolutely relentless in their forecheck and wear the opponents out.
The defense has been a revelation for Bruins fans. Captain Zdeno Chara has found the fountain of youth (maybe he asked Tom Brady?), and has provided veteran leadership to a young defensive corps, while still playing at a high level.
Rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy looks like the real deal, and that’s understating it. He leads all rookies in time on ice, by a wide margin, has 25 points in 45 games and a solid +/- of +18.
Even defenseman Torey Krug, who was turning over the puck like it was his job early in the season, has been solid all around in this recent stretch for the Bruins. And I attribute that to the coaching staff, who probably had enough with Krug’s inconsistent play.
I still think the key to the Bruins’ success, if they hope to sustain this down the stretch and turn in a long playoff run, is the goaltender. If Rask reverts to early season Rask, now that he feels his job is secure again, this team will not make it far.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the Bruins are at their best when Rask is at his best, not Khudobin.
Cassidy has pushed all the right buttons thus far in his short tenure as the man behind the Bruins bench. I think he would have been a shoe-in for coach of the year, if not for the terrific work coach Gerald Gallant has done with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The job he has done this season will certainly not be forgotten however. Especially if the Bruins can at least win a round in the playoffs, something they have not done since 2014.
Get excited Bruins fans. You got yourselves a cup contending team.