The Boston Bruins have won three games in a row.
That statement in and of itself has been a rarity for the Bruins during their inconsistent 2016-17 season. They’ve only compiled two other streaks of equal length this year, and both topped out at three games. Both previous runs also came against largely inferior teams and thanks to heroic efforts from goaltender Tuukka Rask.
So, unsurprisingly, Boston bucked the trend, reeling off wins over two division leaders immediately after long-time head coach Claude Julien was axed during the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade. Under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins not only scored 14 goals in three games, but they also picked up just their second win of the season with someone other than Rask between the pipes. The team looked rejuvenated, flying around the ice and showing a constant hunger for the puck that hadn’t been present under Julien for some time.
Cassidy spent the past five years coaching the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence (he was last at the NHL level in 2003, when he was fired by the Capitals after an 8-16-1 start to the season). He consistently led Providence to playoff seasons, which may explain why many young Bruins who previously played under Cassidy enjoyed a second wind last week; Julien was, after all, oft criticized for his inability to cultivate young prospects. Frank Vatrano tallied almost a quarter of his season’s points (one goal, two assists) against Vancouver, and fresh call-up Peter Cehlarik dished out a pair of assists in his second career NHL game on Sunday night. Veteran backup goaltender Anton Khudobin, who recently spent a couple months in the AHL to shake off a cold streak, also made 29 saves against the Canucks in his first start in goal since December.
It may make sense for players who developed under Cassidy to get a boost upon the interim coach’s arrival, but the likes of Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron also saw an uptick in their play after Julien’s departure. Chara captained the defense to a shutout over the Canadiens while also showing nifty hands to pot a goal, and Bergeron exploded for four points against the Sharks. Even Rask shook off his typical struggles versus the Habs, turning away 25 shots en route to the 4-0 win.
Hockey is a sport that values the abstract concept of “momentum” so much that it engages in fisticuffs for its sake, so perhaps the intangible kick in the rear that comes with a coaching change was to be expected in Boston. Yet I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that—in an extremely limited sample size—the Bruins transformed under Cassidy. They have been a middling, fringe playoff contender for much of the year, but they looked like a potential postseason force last week. But the obvious question remains: Can this last?
The answer is likely no. Any team that is in enough turmoil to fire a tenth-year, Stanley Cup-winning coach will probably have trouble mounting a championship challenge. Nevertheless, Cassidy does seem different from a typical interim solution. He possesses an NHL pedigree, has been involved with the franchise for many years, and is already familiar with the majority of players on his team. More importantly, Cassidy inherits a squad with a strong veteran core in place. If he can spark the Bruins, the pieces are there for Boston to play well into the late spring months.
But after the hot start, Cassidy must brace himself for the team’s weeklong West Coast swing, which has the potential to throw cold water on a hot streak under any coach. While it may be premature to let optimism rage so soon into the interim regime, any overnight transformation is worth celebrating—and next week may be the litmus test for whether that metamorphosis is legitimate or not.
For now, Bruins fans can consider Cassidy’s home debut as an encouraging teaser. We don’t know what the final product will look like yet. Boston gets nearly a full week of practice before its next game, however, and Cassidy’s system will be on full display in San Jose. We’ll start getting real answers come Sunday.