By Fluto Shinzawa
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
The Bruins are easy to play against
The Big Bad Bruins are dead.
For those who classify the 2019-20 Bruins as one of the heavier teams in the league, I would argue that previous iterations cloud their perception. That, or else they have not seen Washington play enough. The Capitals play mean, starting with the singular Tom Wilson and supported by Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic and Radko Gudas. Once you see that belligerent bunch bash everything in sight, you recognize that Washington sets the standard for what passes as physical hockey in today’s speed-first NHL.
But back to the Bruins. Under the vision of general manager Don Sweeney and the execution of coach Bruce Cassidy, an organization that once took names and numbers has evolved to emphasize speed, skill and hockey sense.
Of the 18 skaters who dressed against Columbus on Tuesday, two use physicality as their first tool in separating pucks from opponents: Brett Ritchie and Chris Wagner. The Bruins placed the former on waivers on Wednesday with the intent of sending him to Providence.
The remaining 16 use speed, positioning, smarts and stick skills to win pucks. This includes Zdeno Chara, the biggest man in the NHL. Others, like Patrice Bergeron, Danton Heinen and Anders Bjork, have never skated an angry shift in their careers. Demanding this group to play physically, to say nothing of fighting, is like asking a 100-yard sprinter to line up for a marathon.
This is in line with the rest of the league. Tampa and Toronto, the Bruins’ two closest Atlantic Division chasers, have rosters full of players who don’t hit a soul.
Roughhouse hockey is out. Youngsters banging on the league’s door prefer to dangle and celly and whip lacrosse shots. The GM who burns a lineup spot on an enforcer is one who lives in a cave and draws paintings on its walls.
So the Bruins’ behavior in Columbus on Tuesday aligns with their organizational evolution and that of the league. While cutting through the crease, Emil Bemstrom tagged the side of Tuukka Rask’s head with his left hand, which was gripping the butt end of his stick. Rask was diagnosed with a concussion. It was his second in the last 12 months.
Bemstrom’s intent is debatable. Partner Joe McDonald believed it may have been intentional. I think it was accidental. Bemstrom was not penalized. He will not receive supplemental discipline.
Nevertheless, the Bruins tried to convey their displeasure to Bemstrom. Joakim Nordstrom gave Bemstrom a few shots. So did Brandon Carlo.
Good for them.
Neither Nordstrom nor Carlo plays with bite. But they recognized the result of Bemstrom’s collision, deliberate or not, required notice. Nordstrom and Carlo exited their comfort zones to engage with Bemstrom. They showed character in doing so.
Bemstrom declined both of their invitations. That was his right. What grants gloves-off fighters honor is the mutual agreement that occurs, in most cases, before fists fly. Nordstrom and Carlo followed the code of letting Bemstrom be once he said no.
Otherwise, Nordstrom and Carlo would have heard from George Parros before landing the first punch. As league disciplinarian, the former enforcer has blazed a sketchy path toward justice. Parros’ two-game suspension of Edmonton’s Zack Kassian for addressing Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk’s dangerous hits certifies his opinion that gloves-off behavior calls for more punishment than full-speed recklessness on an unsuspecting opponent. As such, once Bemstrom said no thanks, he was practically untouchable.
The Bruins should then have turned toward Elvis Merzlikins.
The response would have been easy: Funnel pucks and people toward the net, slam on the brakes a bit late, make life miserable on the Columbus goalie. The Bruins did nothing of the sort. This has been one of their weaknesses all year. They do not get inside opponents and into the net-front danger areas with enough frequency or surliness for their bosses’ liking.
All of this is a long way of saying the Bruins are not built for street fights. The Bruins’ new-age way of being hard to play against is by skating furiously, rolling 18 skaters and eliminating opponents’ time and space. Each line and pairing has its own way of fulfilling this mission.
For now, that line is done. Ritchie will report to Providence if he clears waivers at noon on Thursday. David Backes, meanwhile, remains on the roster. Backes has been a healthy scratch in five of the last six games. He dressed against Winnipeg on Jan. 9 because his mother Karen was in town for the moms’ trip.
Otherwise, the other lines and pairings have not performed their jobs consistently. Fatigue, minimal roster turnover, light internal competition, a comfortable division lead and the Bruins’ inevitable qualification for the playoffs are all factors.
This may change. Tampa is closing in. Karson Kuhlman could be promoted to deliver a much-needed dose of speed, quickness and urgency. Trent Frederic likes the rough stuff.
Because here’s the thing: The Bruins are easy to play against.