With the team at 5-6-0 on the season and struggling with inconsistency, Head Coach Claude Julien decided to mix it up.
“You know what, guys? Every coach, every team does that, so obviously there’s some guys that aren’t quite playing at their level and they’re struggling to find their game; some are just line combinations,” Julien told reporters following practice, before the team traveled to Buffalo to face the Sabres on Thursday night.
“So, we make changes.”
Reilly Smith, facing a slower start to the season than he expected, skated in a burgundy jersey on the fourth line with Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell.
Brad Marchand wore a gray jersey, with Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson. Matt Fraser filled in for Marchand, when he left practice early after “tweaking something,” according to Julien, who hoped he would be in Thursday’s lineup.
With those switches, Patrice Bergeron was flanked by Chris Kelly and Simon Gagne, all in the gold jerseys.
“You switch up the lines to try and spark some energy, create some new chemistry,” said Smith. “So it’s to be expected. Me, March and Berg haven’t had the same chemistry we had last year, so you mix things up and hope that something new will create and we’ll see next game, how it works out.”
Smith has two goals and two assists through the first 11 games, and has gone six games without a goal. Marchand has a goal and two assists through 11 games, with Bergeron recording a goal and five assists. Not being in sync has hurt their production.
“As the season progresses, you hit those slumps, you hit those battles and it’s just something I have to overcome right now,” Smith said, noting he needs to be stronger on the puck. “You kind of just have to stick through it. They’re going to happen, and it’s early in my career, these things you have to learn as soon as possible because you don’t want a couple of games to turn into 10, 15, 20.”
Thursday’s game will give Smith and the Bruins another opportunity to not only bounce back, and get back to. 500, but to build a sustained attack.
After getting goals from members of all four lines in the 4-1 win over the Leafs on Saturday, the Bruins couldn’t generate continuous pressure and outbattle the Wild in a 4-3 loss on Tuesday night that saw them allow three third period goals.
The line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Seth Griffith, which factored into all three goals against Minnesota (combining for six points), was the only trio to remain intact for Wednesday’s practice, donning their usual white jerseys. But, as the Bruins know well, one line can’t pull the weight.
Hence, the practice shakeup.
“I think when you do that, I think it’s to get a spark going and create some chances offensively, create some goal scoring,” said Bergeron. “And, obviously, [it] doesn’t really matter who you’re playing with on this team, it’s about doing your job, and helping your team.”
Just a few days ago, Julien was lauding the club’s more balanced attack.
There had been uncertainty up front to start the season with Krejci and Campbell injured. Players filtered in and out of the lineup from Providence trying to earn spots. Gagne was getting back into game action after a year and a half layoff. Smith had missed half the preseason during contract negotiations. It wasn’t decided yet who would assume the role on Krejci’s right wing.
By the time the Bruins put up their 4-1 win in Toronto, they were looking like the four-line team we were used to seeing. Griffith was gaining confidence, and turning one of the biggest question marks entering the season into one of the biggest surprises, on Krejci’s wing. Gagne solidified a strong, and more skilled, fourth line. Kelly, Soderberg and Eriksson combined to form a consistent and reliable third line. A healthy Kelly was producing.
Tuesday was a clear step back for the team.
“I think right now, it’s about establishing some consistency in our game, [not only] from one period to another, but also from one game to another,” said Bergeron. “And it starts from when one line gains the momentum or loses the momentum, it’s up to the next line to jump on the ice and grab it, or keep it.”
“So it’s really important to get back to playing that style of hockey and it needs to start [Thursday].”
No matter the line combinations, and what they will be on Thursday night in Buffalo, the Bruins will be expected to do two things: respect their structure and compete hard.
Earlier in the season, after the Bruins’ suffered a gut-check 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals at TD Garden, Chris Kelly was very vocal about the lack of effort. He noted that it shouldn’t matter who anyone is playing with, as long as you outwork the opponent.
“If you play together as a team and respect your structure and compete hard, you give yourself a chance,” Julien said. “So we’ve just got to understand that, and move forward.”
They’ll be moving forward with a healthy forward group, but a depleted back end that has lost Zdeno Chara (left knee PCL tear, out 4-6 weeks), Kevan Miller (dislocated right shoulder, out indefinitely) and Torey Krug (broken finger, out 2-3 weeks) to injuries.
Just as the forwards will need to compete hard and show consistency, the veteran blueliners, along with call-ups David Warsofsky, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow, will need to compete had and show consistency.
“I go back to what I said at the beginning - two things are going to help us through this, and that’s structure and compete level, so it doesn’t matter who you have in the lineup,” Julien said.
“My first year here, our team was way weaker than this team right now - we made the playoffs. So that, in a nutshell, should explain a lot.”
Practice Lineup 10/29
White Jerseys: Milan Lucic - David Krejci - Seth Griffith
Gold: Chris Kelly - Patrice Bergeron - Simon Gagne
Gray: Brad Marchand* - Carl Soderberg - Loui Eriksson
Burgundy: Daniel Paille - Gregory Campbell - Reilly Smith/Matt Fraser
Dennis Seidenberg - Dougie Hamilton
Matt Bartkowski, Adam McQuaid
David Warsofsky, Zach Trotman
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Niklas Svedberg