We are about to find out who the 2023-24 Bruins really are.
After opening the season with seven straight Western Conference opponents – and presumed lesser lights at that – 10 of their next 12 games will be against Atlantic Division foes, starting with the much-improved Detroit Red Wings at the Garden on Saturday.
The B’s identity will soon becoming into focus.
“We need to find out,” said coach coach Jim Montgomery after Friday’s practice. “We’ve got three real good teams coming in (Florida is in on Monday and then Toronto on Thursday) and we’ll see where we stand in our division. We’ve had a good start to the year and I think our division is really strong, really competitive all the way top to bottom. It’s going to be a good test coming up for us and it starts (Saturday).”
Detroit arguably represents the most intriguing opponent. The once-proud Wings have missed the playoffs seven straight seasons but they’ve started hot at 5-2-1. Led by big free agent acquisition Alex DeBrincat (nine goals), they are second in the league in goals scored at 4.38 goals per game and will go against the stingiest team in the league thus far (1.57 GAA). The B’s are 6-0-1, with the only blemish being the big honking zit of a loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. The B’s had not allowed more than two goals in any of the six games before that.
If the Wings are to end their dubious run as a playoff have-not, they will no doubt have their sights sets on a team like the B’s, one of the Atlantic Division haves.
“These are the games we hope we’re going to play at the end of the year and these are the fun games,” said Hampus Lindholm. “We have a really strong division and there’ll be some really fun games coming up here. I think all the guys are super excited.”
There is literally no one in the division who is a pushover. Even the still-rebuilding Montreal Canadiens, whom the B’s will see twice in November, have started the season 4-2-1. These next dozen games will go a long way toward deciding how the playoff race shapes up.
“ You want to create some separation within the division and we’re all well aware of how good the opponents are and we want to make sure we want to start on the right foot,” said Matt Grzelcyk.
“It’s a bit of a measuring stick. If you want to make the playoffs, you put yourself in the best situation going in, you’ve got to create some separation from the next few teams, especially Detroit, they’re up and coming and they have a lot to prove. We want to make sure that we’re playing well at home and avenge that loss from (Thursday) night.”
Grzelcyk, who had not been a regular contributor on the penalty kill in his career, has been seeing some time on the PK this year. He’s not exactly been a workhorse like Derek Forbort or Brandon Carlo, but he is averaging 1:11 of shorthanded ice time.
Montgomery’s reasons for employing Grzelcyk there are two-fold. First, he thinks it helps to keep him involved in the game (Grzelcyk’s not on either power play unit). Secondly, the coach thinks he’s good at it.
“We think the way we kill now, being able to use your feet is more important than blocking shots. His brain is high end, his ability to defend is high end and his reads are high end. So he should (do well),” said Montgomery. “And he’s doing it. We’ve seen it. We told him last year to work on it in practice and he’s carried that over to this year and he’s really helping us on our PK.”
Grzelcyk must be doing something right. Having killed 29-of-30 penalties, the B’s lead the league on the PK.
“You have to know your strengths,” said Grzelcyk. “I’m trying to anticipate the play more and make reads. I think our penalty kill is best in general when we’re being aggressive and reading plays before they can develop. I’m not going to be boxing too many guys out in front of the net and I know that. So if they get the puck on the half wall, maybe I’m a step quicker than normal. I know I’m going to be out there against the second unit so they’re going trying to get pucks from those areas, so I’m just trying to close plays as quick as I can.”
The Wings come in with the second-ranked PP at 38.7%.
Lindholm is not having the same start to the season he did last year. He has yet to produce a point and he was on the ice for all four goals against in the 4-3 overtime loss to Anaheim.
But Montgomery believes he’s playing better than stats would indicate.
“I think Hampus is playing really well,” said Montgomery. “I look at the two previous games to (Thursday) night, he’s had an abundance of chances. He had a great chance in the first period. He’s too good of a player, too much of an impact player in this league, he’s an elite player. If he keeps putting himself in those situations, he’s going to have success. It’s a small sample size right now….Offensively, he’s a lot better than what he’s showing now, but it’s coming. And we see it in how dominant he is. He’s still defending really well. I know he was a minus-4 (Thursday) but to me those are one-offs, with how much he’s helping us win. You can just look at our goals against and he has a huge impact on that.”
The easy-going Lindholm wasn’t overly concerned about the goose egg next to his name.
“I feel like I’ve been creating some good chances, even (Thursday) I hit a post,” said Lindholm. “It’s a long year. Obviously (Thursday) sucked a little bit more because of the way we lost the game. Putting one of those in there probably would have made us win the hockey game. Those are the ones that sting a little bit. But I just have to keep harping on it and those will come.”
Brad Marchand did not practice on Friday but Montgomery said it was just a maintenance day and he’ll be good to go against the Wings. … The B’s made a several transactions that appear to be of the paper variety as they look to save pennies against the salary cap. Forwards Jesper Boqvist and Patrick Brown to Providence, while defensemen Jakub Zboril and Mason Lohrei were recalled. Some further machinations are expected Saturday.