Panic or Party? On the Playoff Bubble at Thanksgiving

Is it just me or has the topic of a team’s position in the standings at Thanksgiving been mercilessly pounded into our brains during every game over the last month?  I get it, 75% of teams in the playoff picture at Turkey Day end up in the dance.  It’s definitely a solid barometer, but it’s also not a crystal ball (although I think it’s fair to say we won’t be seeing Columbus this spring and Montreal is probably going to be in the mix). With the league and specifically the east shaping up to be exceptionally tight this year, (hot take alert) I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of shakeup between now and April.

So what does that mean for the B’s who currently (leading into the 11/25 matchup with the Wings) find themselves in a 4 way tie for both wildcard spots and only 2 points back of 2nd in the division?

Honestly, not that much…

It’s fair to say that this team is exactly where many of us thought they would be given the offseason moves and the makeup of the squad entering the season.  I’ve heard a lot of noise on both sides of this debate (admittedly more negative than positive) and I think it’s important to note that while this team is starting to trend in the right direction they’re far from a polished product.  So let’s take a step back, relax and stop overreacting.  Not every loss is a dumpster fire requiring immediate firings and massive trades to right the ship.  Conversely every win doesn’t necessarily mean the team finally “gets it” and will start kicking ass and taking names as they climb the standings à la General Sherman on a warpath to Savannah.  We’re essentially looking at a team that very well could make a charge up the standings, but could just as easily implode and drop out, it’s just too early to tell.

There is no doubt that this team has high-end talent in key areas, creating an extremely solid spine (coach, 3-4 top-tier forwards, goalie and a lockdown veteran D man).  The bottom line is that they are also an extremely young group with a lot of inexperienced guys being asked to step into key roles early.  As a result we need to be patient and understand that frequent adjustments will be made to find the right personnel groups and get everyone (even the vets) comfortable with a new system.

While I’m sure local media outlets will overthink and overanalyze the season to this point, making sweeping assumptions about the state of the team (I get it, keeping this dialog going is good for ratings and clicks) I would encourage you to tune out the noise and focus for on smaller sample sizes for now.  Eventually consistent trends will start to establish themselves and we can all either panic or celebrate at that point.

So for now let’s take a look at a few key trends from the week that was (SJ, MIN, TOR, TOR) that lead me to believe that this team may be in good (not great) shape:

  1. Leadership and a Collective Ability to Bounce Back: The team’s response to the “passengers” comments made by Brad Marchand after the dumpster fire loss to San Jose may turn out to be one of the most important moments of this season.  I’m not saying that he was the only one saying this, in fact I’m sure there were quite a few words exchanged in the room, but the importance of a guy in his position saying this publicly and backing it up with his play and effort has an immeasurable impact on the room.  I say this because, the young guys on this team know what to expect from the likes of Z, Bergey and Kells.  They’re established leaders who are expected to pipe up when needed and lead.  That’s not to say their messages are lost on this group, but hearing it so forcefully from someone closer to their own age really helps to hammer home the urgency.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Marchy get an “A” either this season or next as he represents a very important bridge between the younger guys and the vets and his ability to liaise between the two is invaluable to the continuity of the room and the prevention of factions as referenced with last year’s team.
  2. Reliable Special Teams Play: The B’s power play has been a very welcome surprise this year operating a league best 32% efficiency, giving many fans (myself included) a raging clue.  The penalty kill on the other hand has been an absolute abomination which until recently was the worst in the league.  Now operating at 74.7% efficiency (good for 28th in the league) we’ve seen a the PK start to look comfortable and effective for the first time all season.  Over the last 3 games they’ve gone 10 for 10 on the kill including a number of very timely and important kills.  I’m a huge believer in the idea that killing penalties is about attitude and effort within a defined structure.  As a result, even marginal less skilled players can earn ice time with effort and discipline on the PK.  So what’s changed over these past 3 games to facilitate this change?  It’s not the system as we have in Doug Houda arguably one of the best PK coaches in the game.  Rather it appears to be focus, discipline and effort.  Prior to these games we saw the PK unit failing to communicate coverages in the slot and in front of the net leaving players wide open in danger areas.  We’re now seeing a more focused unit that appears to be shifting with the puck and passing coverage correctly.  Additionally we’re starting to see the active sticks we’ve come to expect from Houda’s units taking away cross ice passing lanes.  From an effort perspective there were too many occasions where they were swarming the puck with multiple defenders and failing to win the battle, leaving guys open in dangerous areas.  If you’re going to play an aggressive system you need guys committed to these wall and corner battles and capable of digging out the puck when called upon.  We’re  now starting to see these units not only win these battles but also take a more aggressive approach to clearing the front of the net.  With the power play continuing to be a weapon and the penalty kill starting to gain some much-needed confidence and swagger I think we could start to see special teams become a real asset for this group moving forward.
  3. Defensive Stability: This is obviously the big elephant in the room, but I think this last week has shed a bit of light on what the D pairings could look like on a consistent basis down the stretch.  We saw some positive play between Z and Zach Trotman at the tail end of last season, but a rough start of the season for Trotman saw him scratched for most games leading up to the Kevan Miller injury.  Since getting back into the lineup he’s looked to be the solid presence many of us had hoped he would be coming into the season.  Dennis Seidenberg and Collin Miller also appear to be a pretty solid pairing with Seids looking very strong after the injury and Miller growing in confidence with every game (guy’s sneaky physical with a great hip check).  With Krug and McQuaid rounding out the third pairing you have 2 guys who have effectively played this role throughout their careers.  I know Krug was eager to occupy a top 4 spot this year and many of us figured he would, but using him in this capacity allows for him to be used in a more pronounced offensive role on the power play and against weaker 5v5 matchups.  This leaves Kevan Miller and Joe Morrow as the 2 extra defenseman who could be available if any of the young guys sputter or need a night off, but generally speaking I think we can expect to see this lineup more often than not moving forward if they continue to perform like we’ve seen over the last week.
  4. Ability to win different games in different ways: B’s teams in prior years have always been defined by their ability to grind down teams late, preserve leads, stifle speed and creativity and really dictate the speed and flow of a game to match their physicality and defensive ability.  This year’s edition structurally seems to be in a state of limbo when it comes to their identity, with a handful of speedy skill guys (Krug, Spoons, Marchy, C. Miller, Loui) partnered with a few physical grind it out type of players (Z, Seids, Hayes, Beleskey).  I actually don’t think this is as big of an issue as many seem to think it is.  Having guys like Krejci and Bergey who are able to adequately compliment literally any style of play helps provide the glue needed to bring both sides of the house together.  As a result we’re actually looking at a very adaptable team which on paper should be able to win games in a number of different ways.  This week we’ve actually seen this team start to display this adaptability with a comprehensive offensive display against Minnesota, a tough, grind it out 2-0 win over Toronto and a wide open, at times sloppy 4-3 shootout win again against Toronto.  Moving forward it will be important for this group to be able to learn from these wins and apply these learnings to similar games and situations in the future.  Again, this is a young group learning how to play and win at the NHL level and their ability to repeat these types of situational displays will be something to watch for going forward.

There you have it, don’t worry too much about the magical line of demarcation that is Thanksgiving in the NHL because this team is, and will continue to evolve. We’ll see if this group can continue to build upon some positive trends we’ve seen over the last week, and if so I think we could be looking at a very dangerous team down the stretch.

As always get in touch with us on Twitter @bruinsextra or reach me directly @mccarey18