2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Playing with fire: How Bruce Cassidy and Bruins plan to shore up a power play that operates on ‘risk’

Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta shrug your shoulders when it comes to playoff hockey.

During a spring that has so far seen all four division winners knocked out of the first round, it should come as little surprise that many a preconceived notion regarding certain clubs have gone out the window in a hurry.

Look no further than the Columbus Blue Jackets’ power play.

Ranked 28th in the NHL during the regular season with a 15.4 percent success rate, Columbus’ man advantage has been scorching opposing PKs so far in the playoffs — cashing in on five of its 10 chances against a top-ranked Lightning kill en route to a shocking sweep in the first round.

John Tortorella’s club hasn’t let up against the Bruins so far in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Entering Thursday night, the Jackets' power play was operating at an absurd 38.1 percent success rate so far this postseason. And even with Boston’s PK going a perfect 4-for-4 en route to a win in Game 4, the Jackets still managed to pepper Tuukka Rask with nine shots on goal during 5v4 play.

For as much as Columbus’ PP is in the midst of a complete 180, the Bruins are on the opposite end of the spectrum in some regards.

Even with its struggles to crack Sergei Bobrovsky on the man advantage through the first three games of this series, Boston’s power play hasn’t lost much of a step so far this postseason — scoring on 31.3 percent of its chances in the playoffs.

A lethal Bruins man advantage has largely carried over from the regular season — but so has the club’s tendency to relinquish quality looks down the other end of the sheet during those same stretches.

Even with Patrice Bergeron potting a pair of goals past Bobrovsky on Thursday, Boston’s power play continued to display the lapses in execution that often reared its head during the regular season — with that B's unit surrendering a league-high 15 shorthanded goals so far in 2018-19.

The results were ugly for most of Thursday night. After Bergeron lit the lamp at 7:18 in the opening period, Boston managed to fire seven shots on goal over its next four looks on the power play. A solid total, but offset by a whopping six chances generated by the Blue Jackets on 8:00 minutes of shorthanded TOI.

Boone Jenner feasted in particular against a mistake-prone Bruins power play — firing in three shots from an average distance of 23 feet out from Rask during the 4:16 of shorthanded TOI that he logged.

“That shouldn’t happen,” David Krejci said of Columbus’ looks during the B’s power play. "That just shouldn’t happen. Obviously we’ll look at some video and correct those mistakes, but that shouldn’t happen. Once in a while, it happens, but I think they had more than one or two odd-man rushes on our power play. That can’t happen again.”

For Bruce Cassidy, some of those odd-man rushes and shorthanded bids come with the territory on a top power-play unit that typically rolls out four forwards — and Torey Krug up top. There’s plenty of options for an opposing PK to strike against that group, especially when high-ice players like Krug, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak cycle along to the half wall in search of seam passes or feeds through the bumper.

But in most cases, the reward far outweighs the risk when Boston’s power play is humming in the O-zone.

“We’ve seen it a little bit this year,” Cassidy said Friday of Boston surrendering shorthanded bids. “We’ve played through those stretches. I think we gave up 15 shorties. Part of that is the personnel, when you have four forwards that have some risk in their game — not saying that I love that part of it. But they also scored a couple goals, so there’s give and take there and you’ve gotta trust them to play the right way.”

But something had to give on Thursday.

Multiple miscues contributed to Jenner and Co. generating quality looks against Rask during Boston's power play — but the most obvious culprit was Pastrnak, who has continued to struggle this postseason when it comes to his puck control. Whether it be the lingering effects of the thumb surgery that he underwent back in February or another ailment, Pastrnak has been plagued with whiffed attempts and other fumbles that speedy PKers like Jenner and Josh Anderson have pounced on in short order.

"I don’t like when we mismanage pucks at the blue line high," Cassidy said. "We’ve got to be harder on keeping them alive. That was a bit of the message there to Pasta — the one play. You’re gonna have some mistakes. ... But when you can dig in a little harder to keep a puck alive, maybe put it in your feet, try to hammer it down the boards and if they clear it, fine. You live to fight another day, but you can’t be light on it. Those are the situations, when you use four forwards, that you’ve got to be better at."

Other shorthanded chances for Columbus were born out of Boston's skaters failing to corral pucks along the half wall, leading to bouncing pucks up high. During the sequence leading up to Jenner's penalty shot on the Bruins' first power play of the evening, Marchand and Krug were crisscrossed while looking to recovering a skittering biscuit.

On yet another quality look for Jenner in the first period, it was a ricochet off the boards that both Marchand and Pastrnak — the two skaters operating up high with Krug activated down at the half wall — were unable to corral. Once again, Jenner was off to the races, with Krug in hot pursuit.

With a pair of high-danger, shorthanded scoring chances generated by the Jackets just past the midway point of the second period, Cassidy began to tweak his top unit.

The first adjustment? Promoting David Krejci to the top power-play unit. 

While Krejci is usually at his best operating near the blue line as the de-facto QB of Boston's second power-play unit, the pivot has more than held his own when slotted in at the elbow in place of Pastrnak. When Pastrnak was sidelined for five weeks due to injury, Boston's power play did not lag — operating at a 26.0 percent success rate from Feb. 12 - March 16 with No. 88 out of commission and Krejci taking his spot.

Adding Krejci to the mix on the top unit does take away a bit of that group's firepower when it comes to Pastrnak's devastating one-timer, but Krejci's poise with the puck can often offset any gaffes that Pastrnak has been prone to giving up, especially as of late.

"The Krech move was to calm Pasta down a little bit," Cassidy said. "I think one thing Krech does as well as anyone in the National Hockey League, is that he’s got great composure with the puck. So when it goes over to his side, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s going to make a good decision with it. We’d like to see him shoot a little bit more at times, but at the end of the day, he’s going to settle it down. That was the thinking behind it.

"We’ve given up a few chances. He played on that group when Pasta was out. We didn’t lose that much. He doesn’t shoot as well as Pasta, but probably makes more seam passes. There’s give and take there, so someone else will have to take control of the shooting. That was the thinking behind it. Pasta went right back out with the next group. We still trust (Pastrnak), just maybe a different look for him. With two (defensemen) out there, the way it was going, to be a little safer and still have his shot as a threat. From there, I thought we settled in a little better."

While Cassidy's shuffling saw Pastrnak leapfrog Krejci on the depth chart during Boston's final power-play chance in the third period, Boston's bench boss once again juggled his roster in an effort to prevent any odd-man rushes from leaking out — with the Bruins opting to deploy two defensemen out on Boston's top power-play unit.

Rather than go with the regular 4F-1D structure with Boston's big guns, Cassidy went a bit more conservative — as Matt Grzelcyk patrolled the blue line with Krug while Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron went to work down low. With Pastrnak set up in his usual spot at the left circle, the winger was able to one-time a shot in against Bobrovsky, with Bergeron tapping in the rebound to give Boston a 4-1 lead.

(In an effort to prevent loose pucks from turning into odd-man rushes, Cassidy sent out a pair of quick-moving blueliners in Krug and Grzelcyk to hang up high with Boston's top power-play group. The 3F-2D structure on PP1 worked out pretty well, to say the least.)

"We got a little more passive in the third, all of the sudden we score because we had two defense high and we just put it on the net and get a rebound," Cassidy said. "So maybe there’s something we learned from that as well.”

Boston's power play might have been burned on multiple occasions Thursday night, but Cassidy believes that there's still going to be a bit of give and take when it comes to finding the right formula to keep that top unit effective.

Does that mean keeping Krejci up top going forward, even if it diminishes the impact of the second unit? Or perhaps sacrificing a netfront option like Jake DeBrusk in favor of another defenseman providing a security blanket up top? Whatever the next step might be, it looks as though Cassidy is willing to once again tinker on the fly.

"We might put Krejci over there," he said. "He has a little more experience with being up around the blue line, we use him 6v5 up there. It’s just his game, his demeanor, he’s a little more, I don't know, poised, whatever word you want to use up there. So we'll have to consider that the way they’re killing. But we still don’t want to lose — that other group was out for two power-play goals, so that matters. ... We’ve got to balance it.”

Stats via Natural Stat Trick.