Bruins notebook: Joe Sacco earns kudos for penalty kill

Some pretty impactful differences stand out between this year’s Bruins’ team and last year’s, but some constants remain.

They may not be able to score at will, and the old reliable names no longer patrol the middle of the ice. But they still have excellent goaltending, team defense is still the foundational rock the team was built upon and, perhaps most surprising of all, the penalty kill is still a shining light.

One reason is, though they’ve lost some key personnel from the PK from a year ago, one constant remains – assistant coach Joe Sacco, the Medford native who runs the highly successful unit.

After their 4-for-4 effort against the explosive Red Wings’ power play on Saturday night at the Garden, the B’s are now 33-for-34 on the PK, with the only goal coming in garbage time of the 4-2 win over the Kings in Los Angeles.

When the subject of the PK came up after the B’s 4-1 victory over Detroit, Sacco’s name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

“He does a great job. It’s plain and simple,” said coach Jim Montgomery. “We were No. 1 last year and this year we’re off to a great start again. Obviously our goaltenders have a great deal to do with that but I just think his game plan, his execution, and the players, they understand his game plan at a high level. Because we don’t have (Patrice) Bergeron, we don’t have (David) Krejci, we don’t have (Tomas) Nosek, (players) that were big part of our penalty kill as it was. So we’ve got new bodies in there and they’re still doing a great job.”

Sacco, who was a head coach in Colorado for four seasons and has been with the Bruins since 2014-15 back in the Claude Julien era, still has some stalwarts like Brandon Carlo and Derek Forbort on the back end and Charlie Coyle up front. But he’s also incorporated rookie center Johnny Beecher to take some of the key faceoffs that Bergeron and Nosek once did and is now even utilizing the quick feet and stick skills of the under-sized defenseman Matt Grzelcyk to get the job done.

It was the PK that helped set the defensive tone on Saturday. The B’s started off well as a team but when Charlie McAvoy took an interference penalty 6:08 into the game, it gave Detroit and its high-powered offense the opportunity to gain some momentum. The exact opposite happened. The Wings never mounted much of an attack on that PP and, by the end of the first period, the B’s had a 2-0 lead they would ride to victory.

“(Sacco) is awesome,” said McAvoy, who would later score a spectacular goal that held up as the game-winner. “He’s been there since I’ve been here… obviously the PK is his strong suit every year. We’re at the top of the league so we’re doing good things. And that always starts with him.”

Preparation, said goalie Jeremy Swayman, is the key.

“That’s a Joe Sacco special right there,” said Swayman. “He takes such pride in having the pre-scouts for us and having a great game plan. It’s something we take pride in as a team. Our four are going to outwork their five every time and it’s been a momentum builder for us. Any time we get on the PK, we know it’s going to be a momentum-shifter and that’s scary for teams coming to play us because we know that we’re going to get it done.”

Some of the players who aren’t part of the kill units know the frustration that the B’s PK can cause an opponent.

“They’re unbelievable. It’s terrible practicing against them. Some times you think your (power play) should get better when you practice against the best PK in the league, but our PP is getting worse from that,” said David Pastrnak with a chuckle.

Quick hits

The B’s have started to create more scoring opportunities in the last couple of games. Slowly, there appears to be some chemistry developing on the current first line of Pastrnak, Pavel Zacha and Brad Marchand, but there is still a ways to go in the chemistry. Pastrnak has played extensively with both players at different times of his career, but not at the same time. And the move of Zacha to the middle is big step.

“With Marchy, the chemistry has always been the same exact thing. With Zach, the only difference is he’s playing center instead of wing and that is definitely harder. That’s much harder. In our system the centerman works much harder, in the D-zone they work much harder,” said Pastrnak. “So it’s a little different. We’re working on it, communicating, trying to get better at it. But it will take some time. I can’t imagine if I would become a center. It would take a while to know how to win a faceoff, and overall to learn where to go. Centerman is not an easy position in out organization, but we will get there.” …

Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Adam Johnson, the former Pittsburgh Penguin who was tragically killed on Saturday while playing in the British Elite Ice Hockey League when he was cut in the neck by a skate blade. It is an awful reminder of the inherent risks and dangers every player must deal with every time they step on the ice. Think twice the next time you want to call a player “soft” or worse.

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