WILMINGTON, Mass. – Once seemingly desperate for the return of Marc Savard, the Bruins’ power play might now have a difficult time fitting the star center in.
The Bruins were as inept as could be on the man advantage down the stretch of the regular season with one goal (in the meaningless regular-season finale) in their final 25 opportunities. Dating back to Savard’s March 7 concussion, the Bruins cashed in on just five of 53 man-advantage chances.
The playoffs have been a different story. Against Buffalo, Boston scored on its first try and then went 0-for-7 before closing out with five goals in its next 14 opportunities for a 6-for-22 success rate. The group of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Mark Recchi, Zdeno Chara and Matt Hunwick accounted for three of those six goals, plus a score by Recchi in a 4-on-3 situation.
“I think we’ve been moving the puck a lot better,” Bergeron said today after practice at Ristuccia Arena. “We’ve been shooting it on net and having some traffic in there. I think having that unit and being used to each other helps to know where each other is on the ice. We’re three guys [along with Recchi and Krejci] that like to create but also there’s an amount of traffic and stuff like that. It doesn’t matter where we are, we spot where we are and I think that’s what’s helping. We’re not always in one spot; we can be in either spot and do the job.”
Head coach Claude Julien and his staff was forced to use an endless number of personnel permutations because of injury and ineffectiveness. Until recently, Boston’s attempts to form two balanced groups get Bergeron and Krejci separate. But as general manager Peter Chiarelli explained earlier this week: “Ultimately if you can have the two balanced units, you go for it. But when you struggle, you look at all different things.”
Bergeron, when used up front on the power play, and Krejci bring similar skill sets. Playing together, with Recchi, has forced them to expand their man-advantage roles.
“We can play either position, and the same thing for Rex,” said Bergeron. “I can go in front and he can just take the slot or vice versa, so far that’s been the biggest help for us out there.”
Added Krejci: “We pay the price in front of the net. If I have the puck on the half-wall, he can go to the net. … Maybe before we were just looking to pass and other things. But I think now we’re looking more to shoot.”
The Bruins’ other quintet has come together better, with Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Wideman manning the points, and some combination of Miroslav Satan, Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder and Marco Sturm up front. Julien has shown the willingness to go with the hot hand up front, and it paid off big time in Game 4 when Satan scored the double-overtime game-winner on the power play.
So where does this leave Savard? Obviously Boston has to mix in the player who led the team in scoring three years running prior to this season. And the Bruins’ recent success can’t completely erase the memories of their awful production without Savard prior to the playoffs. Boston deserves the bulk of the credit for its man-advantage edge, but the Sabres obviously was as focused and determined a group on the penalty kill as they had been in the regular season.
You cannot break up Krejci, Bergeron and Recchi. They are rolling too well. There might be a temptation to slide Bergeron back to the point in Hunwick’s spot and insert Savard, basically putting Boston’s best offensive players on the ice. However, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are excellent shorthanded teams and you really need two blueliners to prevent the likes of Mike Richards and Jordan Staal from getting out in the open ice for a shorty.
That puts Savard somewhere on the second group, which would possibly mean a little less ice time but also a more-dangerous second group that will be able to keep the heat on opponents for as long as the puck stays out of the net. Ryder and Satan, a right shot and a left shot, would probably be the perfect wingers to flank Savard so he could work his dishing magic. As poorly as Sturm is going, he has to earn his power-play minutes back.
If the Bruins get off to another slow power-play start, Julien might be tempted to tinker. That’s his right. However, he should give these groups time to continue to jell.
“I think eventually we probably found a way after the regular season, there were times we were searching for personnel, for the right plays and for everything,” said Satan. “Now it seems like it’s settled a little bit and we found the right choices.”
You can’t underestimate the impact stability has had on the power play. Savard’s insertion should come with as little disruption to that as possible.