Day 8 of the Bruins’ “Return to Play” featured one of the largest squads that Bruce Cassidy and his staff have managed to assemble while navigating through the wide-ranging protocols under the “unfit to participate” designation.
But Tuesday’s skate and following scrimmage was still marked by the absence of a few key cogs in the B’s lineup, as Boston was without David Pastrnak, Ondrej Kase, Charlie McAvoy and Joakim Nordstrom during the club’s scheduled session at Warrior Ice Arena.
McAvoy has now missed two straight practices, while both Pastrnak and Kase have now been held out of seven of Boston’s first eight practices during Phase 3.
Boston has managed to circumvent – at least temporarily — the challenges involved with ramping things back up without two top-six wingers by slotting in both Anders Bjork and Karson Kuhlman next to the right of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, respectively, during drills and scrimmages.
But on Tuesday, Cassidy opted to shake things up a bit — bumping youngster Jack Studnicka up to the top line next to Bergeron and Brad Marchand during a number of shifts. It didn't take very long for Studnicka to make his presence felt in his new spot, with the 21-year-old forward carrying the puck through the neutral zone on the rush before eventually setting up Zdeno Chara for a goal from the slot.
While Studnicka — who has primarily played at center in his young career — remained at the pivot through the first week of Phase 3 activities, Cassidy explained that Boston's decision to keep the club's top prospect at his usual position was designed to ease him into what has already been a frantic acceleration of hockey activities in Brighton.
But given both the strides Studnicka has made so far in camp, coupled with the continued absence of Pastrnak and Kase, those training wheels could be coming off later this week.
"You get into the second week and you start to wonder about — 'Okay, chemistry, who fits best with who?' We have next week to do that as well. So Jack — when you go Bergey, Krejci, Coyle, Kuraly, Lindholm, the biggest strength of our team is our play down the middle," Cassidy said. So if Jack's going to have an opportunity to get in the lineup, we've got to look at him at the right wing. Now, Pasta and Kase aren't here. Wagner has missed a few days. So it kind of opens it up for him a little bit if that trend continues, so we put him on the right today.
"I liked his confidence. He made plays. Obviously made a play on Zee's goal, but in general, he seems to be a little more confident. That probably has to do with the full year of pro under his belt, played a few games for us. (He) knows he belongs. Obviously it's an unknown for him, what playoff hockey looks like, but we've had guys go through that, so that won't scare us off if he outplays guys, but we're a long way away from that. But we are going to give him a look on the right side. He does shoot right. Something else we're missing on our right side as well. So we'll see how that plays out the rest of the week and if continues to go well then we'll give him a look down the road and see if he's a better fit than then than another player."
While Pastrnak, Kase, McAvoy and Nordstrom remain out, Chris Wagner and Anton Blidh were given the green light to return on Tuesday. Cassidy noted that Wednesday will be a maintenance day for many of Boston's Phase 3 participants, but Thursday could be promising in terms of rolling out a full squad for anther competitive scrimmage.
"We went through some testing stuff that didn't work out exactly on our schedule," Cassidy said. "So hopefully tomorrow we're on time with that. We've talked about a maintenance day for the guys that have been here all along — so I wouldn't read into necessarily the numbers tomorrow. .... Thursday, hopefully, we're aiming for full numbers."
Here are the lines Boston rolled out on Tuesday:
Marchand – Bergeron – Bjork/Studnicka
DeBrusk – Krejci – Kuhlman/Blidh
Ritchie – Coyle – Kuraly/Senyshyn
Frederic/Carey – Lindholm – Wagner
Chara – Clifton/Vaakanainen
Krug – Carlo
Grzelcyk – Lauzon
Moore – Zboril
When speaking with the media last week, Tuukka Rask raised a few eyebrows when he was spotted with a splint on the middle and ring fingers of his left hand, opening the door for some speculation on whether or not the B's top netminder was already dealing with a nagging injury.
Cassidy, when asked for a reasoning for the splint, added some levity with his retort.
"Too much drums, I think," Cassidy joked.
Speaking shortly thereafter, Rask admitted that his ailment was not the byproduct of his best Lars Ulrich impression, but rather due to a fractured finger that he suffered while performing box jumps shortly before Phase 3 got underway. Still, Rask's isn't all that concerned with the injury, even with Boston heading up to Toronto in less than a week.
"It's getting better. So I'm not worried about it. ... I slammed my finger at the edge of the box, the ligament kind of fractured that finger. So there's a small fracture. It's not nothing major," Rask said. "But like you can probably imagine — not gonna feel great to catch pucks with that. ... I had the same kind of thing on my blocker hand when the pucks hit that and it just gets sore. But this is the glove hand now, so it's a little different — but I'm not worried about it. It's just one of those things that it's gonna linger a little bit. I mean, it's been what, two or three weeks now and it already feels a lot better. So I'm pretty optimistic that within a week, I'll have my normal glove on."
Rask didn't seem any worse for wear on Tuesday, as Rask and Boston's other three netminders withstood a barrage of shots from Studnicka and Trent Frederic roughly a half hour before the team's full-squad practice got underway.
There were a couple of injury scares throughout the session, with Marchand hitting the deck after taking a stick up high during the latter stages of the practice. He was no worse for wear, however, and finished practice without any issue. Jaroslav Halak was also stung by a shot from Anders Bjork, with the netminder skating over to the bench, hunched over, before obliterating his stick against the glass. After a few minutes on the bench, Halak returned to the ice and also finished the practice without any issue.
As has been the case for a number of practices now, Tuesday's session was often physical and chippy, with plenty of emphasis on puck battles along the boards and behind the net. Trent Frederic tucked home a goal early in the scrimmage, while both Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk have been standout performers on the blue line throughout Phase 3. Carlo might be known more as a stay-at-home presence, but he's continued to show much more assertiveness when it comes to handling the puck and pushing it into the offensive zone.
"Today was a little more competitive," Cassidy said. "I liked that a lot. Guys know it's week two, we're getting closer. A little more puck battles. Again, in the scrimmage, we've asked guys to start stepping it up a bit without punishing your teammates in terms of catching someone with their head down. Just make them earn pucks. ... Guys were getting a little feisty. So that's a good sign that they want to start getting battle-tested. Nothing can replace live action against an angry opponent that you don't know, but right now we're doing our best to try to simulate that."