The 12-1-2 Bruins are no strangers to racking up points.
But Tuesday’s 5-2 victory over the Sabers was an outlier for Jim Montgomery’s team.
Despite their position atop the NHL standings, the Bruins haven’t necessarily made it easy on themselves when it comes to creating some breathing room on the scoreboard.
Of their fifteen matches this season, seven were decided by one goal.
Tuesday’s lopsided victory marked only the second time this year that Boston has lit the lamp at least five times. Last season’s record squad scored more than five goals in 25 of their 82 games.
Of course, it was expected that there would be a dip in scoring following the departure of several key forwards via retirements, trades and free agency last season.
But all it takes is a look at Tuesday’s scoresheet to see why Boston’s offense spiked against the Sabres.
On a night when the Bruins scored an early knockout and four different skaters buried their first goal of the 2023-2024 season, it should come as no surprise that the bulk of Boston’s offense was fueled by a D corps that peppered the Buffalo net.
Brandon Carlo and Hampus Lindholm were responsible for two of Boston’s five goals at KeyBank Center, while Charlie McAvoy chipped in with two helpers.
It was a step in the right direction for a Bruins team that entered the night with just four goals and 25 total points from their D corps.
But for Montgomery, getting his blueliners to buy into the best practices for a steady 5v5 offense remains a work in progress.
“Yes, but still not enough,” Montgomery said Wednesday of Boston’s defenders adopting a shot-first mentality. “I think we scored a couple of goals and then I thought we had time to hit the puck and now we’re up 4-0 or whatever and we’re trying to get cute.
“We need our defenders to be more shot-ready, and they all are. When there is traffic on the net and I think we have a team that is doing a really good job this year with our forwards getting traffic on the net, the D-men have to be more selfish. It’s not because they don’t want to score goals. We just need to create more consistent habits of getting pucks to the net.”
Carlo’s decision to enter the game in a 3-on-1 rush (orchestrated based on an aggressive poke check from Linus Ullmark) paid off Tuesday night.
But Carlo’s main job description, when he’s leaping the boards, usually revolves around anchoring Boston’s PK and shutting down scoring opportunities – rather than jumping into the rush.
Montgomery and his staff will certainly welcome examples of defensemen getting active and joining the game when the opportunity presents itself.
But if this quality fails to showcase itself against sturdier defensive structures, a solid contingency plan for creating Class A chances involves volley after volley of pucks coming in from the blue line.
The Hurricanes’ buzzsaw about a 5v5 offensive attack could be rooted in a suffocating forward line. But it’s often a volley of shots from an active and aggressive D-corps that increases Class A’s scoring chances – or a blistering puck that ends up in the rope.
Last season, five of Carolina’s D-men (Brent Burns, Brady Skjei, Shayne Gostisbehere, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin) ranked among the top 51 NHL defensemen with most shots on goal.
A team that brews a similarly potent mix of a punishing forecheck and a shot-heavy blueline? The Florida Panthers – featuring Brandon Montour, Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling rank fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in most pucks fired by a defenseman in 2022-2023.
The Bruins can attest to how dangerous (and demoralizing) it can be when a gifted playmaker like Montour can come into the attack with a banging shot.
As gifted as Boston’s D-corps is at both closing plays and pushing the puck in transition, firing pucks down the other side of the frozen sheet is a bit more of a trickier endeavor.
Hampus Lindholm (158 shots, 29th overall) was the only Bruins defenseman to rank in the top 50 among NHL blueliners in putting pucks on net last year.
Lindholm’s power-play explosion on Tuesday that bounced past Devon Levi was a welcome sight, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
This season, Lindholm ranks 140th out of a pool of 197 NHL defensemen in shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play at 3.33, by natural statistical trick. Only Derek Forbort (2.72, 167th) has a slower shot rate on Boston’s blue line.
“Quality over quantity” has been a hallmark of Montgomery’s O-zone approach since he took over in Boston.
Instead of taking pucks from every conceivable angle on the ice, Boston’s forwards have shifted their strategy in search of premium looks. They choose to be more selective with their shots to avoid giving up puck possession.
But as much as Boston’s forwards have adhered to that strategy by hanging in and around the opponent’s net looking for quality looks, fourteen other NHL teams have generated more high-risk scoring opportunities per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play than the Bruins’ rate of 11.75.
As evidenced by Danton Heinen’s first-period performance against Buffalo – a rebound goal generated from a McAvoy shot – an easy way to leverage that pace is for Boston’s D-men to hammer home the pucks early and often, at least as a mass at the crease, black and gold jerseys are parked.
“If the defender is outside the dots and we have two at the net, shoot,” Montgomery explained. ‘There is no one in your shooting range. The chances of that coming in if we have two at the net are really good. You don’t have anyone on the net? You don’t want anyone to shoot that puck.”
The Bruins’ O-zone offense is no longer anchored by two star players in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Proven top-six prospects like Taylor Hall and Tyler Berutzzi can’t keep defenses in check against rushing opportunities and net-front scrambles.
But as long as Boston’s revamped forward group continues to plant itself around the net, the Grade A chances will be there.
All it takes is a few shots from the blue line to set Montgomery’s plans in motion.
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