Hockey can be an unforgiving sport.
For the players on the ice, the cruel reality is that for all of the hard work and hours put in on and off the ice — the course of a shift/period/game/season can all hinge on just a fortuitous bounce or two.
And for the writers up the press box (or, rather, watching from our couches in 2021), the unpredictable nature of the game often opens the door for narratives to shift from week to week — if not game to game sometimes. And as such, it often means we're forced to eat crow quite often the course of an NHL season.
Look no further than yours truly.
Earlier this week, I penned a piece examining the state of Boston's power play — examining the pros and cons of the B's switching between a traditional 4F/1D set-up on the man advantage and an unconventional, but intriguing, five-forward grouping.
Even though power-play units featuring either Matt Grzelcyk or Charlie McAvoy have fared well — to the shock of very few, considering these defensemen are feeding the puck down low to all-world scorers like Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak — there was a lot to like about the early returns of a five-forward grouping on Boston's PP1 unit.
After all, the early returns were positive, with a quintet of Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, Nick Ritchie and David Krejci generating rates of ...
Shots for per 60 minutes: 64.62
Goals for per 60 minutes: 27.69
Expected goals for per 60 minutes: 10.78
High-danger scoring chances for per 60 minutes: 46.15
Add in that the risky five-forward personnel didn't relinquish any quality shorthanded scoring chances down the other end of the ice, and what was not to like about Bruce Cassidy's latest switches on the power play?
Feel free to blame me for dropping that column and jinxing early Boston's power-play success, as the Bruins' man advantage (especially that five-forward group) has been stuck in neutral for over a week now — with the B's currently mired in an 0-for-10 rut, starting back to Feb. 5.
In the four games since Bergeron beat the Flyers in overtime off of a power-play tally, the Bruins' power play — often the most effective weapon in Boston's arsenal given their historically top-heavy 5v5 production — hasn't been able to generate much.
In total, during the 18:06 of 5v4 ice time that the Bruins have logged over the last four games, the numbers haven't been encouraging:
Shots on goal: Boston leads, 14-8
High-danger scoring chances: Boston leads, just 7-5
Goals scored: Opponents lead, 1-0
Boston's revamped power play saved its worst outing of the year for Saturday's regulation loss to the Islanders, going 0-for-2 on the evening and coughing up its first shorthanded goal of the 2021 season.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau's third-period tally, which iced the Isles' second win over the Bruins this season, came at the expense of that five-forward grouping — with both Krejci and Ritchie getting tangled up at the offensive blue line, giving Leo Komarov the chance to carry the puck out of the Islanders' zone and start the counter-rush that led to Pageau's second goal of the night.
To be fair, Boston's reliance on the 5F system on Saturday was more a byproduct of injuries than Cassidy stubbornly keeping that grouping intact — considering the B's were already down one of their top power-play options in Grzelcyk due to lingering lower-body injuries, and were forced to skate with just five D for most of Saturday's game after Jakub Zboril was shelved after the first period due to an upper-body injury.
Still, regardless of the five players out there on the ice, Cassidy was quick to acknowledge that the quality looks simply haven't been there for this unit as of late — with most of that stemming from a lack of movement with the puck.
"Yeah, it's a little slow. Funny part is, (against) New York (Rangers), our entries — their up-ice pressure was good," Cassidy said. "And the last game, we had three point-blankers on entries that we beat them up ice. Had some rushes. I think Smitty (Craig Smith) had one from the slot, Bergy had two looks. ... Someone came across with a one-timer that I think (Igor) Shestyorkin made a great save. So that part of our game broke down tonight — our entries. Sometimes when you have the five-forward look, which tonight was going to be the way it was, no matter what. Simply because we were running out of manpower on the back end. Johnny Moore hadn't played a lot of power plays. Zboril was out. Grizz is out. So it's basically Charlie that's seen the lion's share of it. But I don't think there's enough movement, either with the feet or with the puck. It's slowed down at the top there. So we'll address that this week. We'll have some practice time. We'll get it moving. See what we can do better."
(A look at the heat map during Boston's 4:00 of 5v4 ice time on Saturday night. Not exactly a good sign when the opposition has more shots in Grade-A than you on your own power play.)
Of course, while this recent power-play outage has been a concerning trend over the past week, it's far too early to devolve into a full-blown panic. Even with the issues up top on the PP1 unit, this group is far too good to remain stagnant for long, especially with guys like Pastrnak and Marchand down low ... right?
The status of Grzelcyk moving forward does loom large, given that Boston was generating looks at a steady clip when he was in the lineup.
Shots for per 60 minutes: 77.62
Goals for per 60 minutes: 12.9
Expected goals for per 60 minutes: 14.29
High-danger scoring chances for per 60 minutes: 51.61
Of course, the challenge with Grzelcyk so far this season has been staying in the lineup, with the defenseman plagued by a number of lower-body injuries out of the gate. Getting him back up to speed will be paramount for this club, as the 27-year-old defenseman's ability to walk the blue line, draw PKers out high and move the puck down to either Marchand/Pastrnak on the boards has been missed.
"I think we're a lot of one and done," Bergeron said of the struggles with the PP1 unit as of late. "I think, when we're good — we're retrieving pucks and we're first on a puck and we keep the puck in their zone. The penalty kill gets tired and that's when you get your looks that are opening up and the chances. So I think, again, we're gonna look at it. Obviously, I can't really comment on tonight. I'm gonna have to look at it. But over the last few games ... I think we can maybe shoot a little more. We can retrieve pucks better. Take what's there — sometimes we're maybe forcing plays. And that's it."
Fans back on Causeway Street?
As vaccine rollouts continue across North America, the prospect of fans being allowed back into arenas to cheer on their clubs could become a reality in short order — especially in areas of the U.S. that were previous ravaged by the pandemic just a few months earlier.
While there is nothing concrete in terms of plans to open up Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and TD Garden to spectators quite yet, the winds of change could be on the horizon, especially after New York announced plans earlier this week to allow some fans back into arenas. According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, stadiums within the state that hold more than 10,000 people can reopen with a 10% capacity limit starting Feb. 23 — with all attendees required to test negative for COVID-19 through a PCR test within 72 hours of the event. As expected, face coverings, social distancing and reserved seats will be required.
If New York is safely incorporate fans into game settings, perhaps Massachusetts might stand as the next domino to fall — with Charlie Baker offering a wait and see approach when asked about the possibility of spectators in the Fenway Park bleachers come Opening Day.
Of course, as has been the case with most decisions involving the ongoing pandemic, there are plenty of factors to consider when it comes to eventually giving fans the green light to return to games — with safety remaining as the primary goal here.
While some Bruins players have admitted that empty buildings haven't impacted their overall mindset all that much, especially after getting thrust into a similar environment up in the Toronto bubble, count Jake DeBrusk among those that have missed the energy and jump that a packed barn can bring — especially come the postseason.
Of course, we likely won't see TD Garden filled to the brim with 17,000 fans for quite some time — perhaps not until 2022. But even if a few thousand fans are safely allowed in by the time playoff hockey rolls around, DeBrusk will take whatever cheers that will rain down from the stands over the artificial noise currently pumped through the Garden sound system.
"It would mean everything," DeBrusk said of fans eventually returning. "I think that we all could agree on that. I think that's obviously exciting. It's one of those things where with COVID and everything going on and other teams dealing with it already and things — it's kind of hard to get hopeful for things like that. But it's one of those things that — I didn't understand how much the crowd, even on the road ... really kind of gets you going and kind of gets into the game. It's something that I think we all had to adjust to in the bubble as early as last year. But even still, it's one of those things where you have to really prepare yourself to play.
"They have crowd noise now, which is a little bit nice, but there's nothing better than hearing the TD Garden going when you score a goal. I missed that. I would love that. Obviously, hopefully there's protocols and things for the fans to be safe in there. That's obviously the biggest concern and then from there, just be as loud as you can — you watch on TV, the NFL and different stadiums, especially in the playoffs, there are fans and it felt weird to see — it's one of those things where times are crazy, but I would love it. I miss it so much."
Dental work comes with the territory
The Bruins have unfortunately become very familiar with the injury bug so far this season, with the club totaling 30 man-games lost through 14 games due to a myriad of ailments.
But even if they haven't been put on the shelf due to upper and lower-body injuries, just about every Bruins player is already nursing their fair share of bumps and bruises — some of which are more cosmetic than anything.
Look no further than Charlie McAvoy, who has managed to play in every game this season — but spent some time on Monday at the dentist's office after chipping some teeth during practice.
Of course, emergency trips to replace some chiclets comes with the gig when it comes to hockey players, with McAvoy being far from the only Bruin to spend hours upon hours in a dentist's chair over the years.
"I've had my fair share of stick to the teeth in practice," Charlie Coyle said. "I've lost a couple and chipped my front two ones here. I think my first four (teeth) - all from games and practices. It happens. It's hockey — it comes with it. It's unfortunate. It's just the work you have to do after. Charlie's got to get off the ice, go to the dentist and do that.
"I've been under it where I've been in practice and kind of like a day today where we practice and then go right on the plane and fly somewhere. And I've got my teeth knocked out then. So you got to rush to the dentist as fast as you can, get undressed, miss part of practice, get them fixed up as best you can and go right to the plane and hopefully don't miss the flight to, wherever you're going. So it's just not an ideal thing. But it comes with us. You just got to expect it at some point. It happens to everyone."
The Bruins have had some memorable moments when it comes to dental mishaps over the years, such as when former B's blueliner Johnny Boychuk retrieved some of David Krejci's missing chiclets out on the ice and handed them off over on Boston's bench.
You factor in David Pastrnak's chipped grin and some gaps in both Craig Smith and Jack Studnicka's smiles, and the Bruins certainly fit the mold of a prototypical hockey club — at least based on appearances.
But what comes after a player hangs up their skates for good? Are there any regrets for entering a post-hockey life with a shattered maw? No, of course not.
"It's never really crossed my mind," Coyle said. "I think there's so many different things you can do with them ... fake teeth. I've been lucky. I chipped mine. So you can just kind of add on a little bit. I don't have the best teeth, but I don't think I have the worst teeth. ... I guess it depends, what do you get in the mouth? How hard did you get hit? But it just comes with it. You learn to adapt to it and I don't really worry about it too much. It's gonna happen, It's gonna happen."