Even though the Boston Bruins are blasting through the NHL this season with the league’s best record, one of their hallmarks has been not getting satisfied.
It’s why the Black and Gold have roared out to a 36-5-4 record a little more than midway through the season, and why they are atop the NHL in just about every statistical category imaginable on offense, defense, special teams and goaltending. But they are always seeking to improve and get better, and part of that is an ongoing effort to coax more offense and production out of the defensemen group that’s been really, really solid from a two-way perspective this season.
Stressing that area has paid dividends recently on the New York road trip as both Charlie McAvoy and Derek Forbort scored goals in Boston’s win over the Islanders, and Connor Clifton finished off a 2-on-1 odd-man rush after jumping out of the penalty box in Thursday night’s 3-1 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
That's ̶C̶l̶i̶f̶f̶y̶ Connor Clifton Hockey. Roofs it off the rush to make it 3-0 pic.twitter.com/vSHKD11lHE
— Patrick Donnelly (@PatDonn12) January 20, 2023
Matt Grzelcyk has two goals in his last four games as well, including a game-winner late in the third period in a statement victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs last weekend. Certainly, it’s something that Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery was preaching about while pushing his blueliners to shoot the puck more with Boston’s aggressive system pinching in the offensive zone.
“[The defensemen have] got to have a shot-first mentality,” said Montgomery. “We’ve got a lot of defensemen back there that have great vision and they have really good shots, but you wouldn’t know it a lot of times because they’re just looking to pass too often. That’s an area of our game as we continue to grow as a team that we’d like to see improve.”
Perhaps the greatest example of it, though, is Forbort’s goal pouncing on a loose puck rebound after Pavel Zacha rocketed a puck off the crossbar that was dancing around behind Semyon Varlamov.
Zacha hits the post, but Derek F̶o̶r̶b̶o̶r̶t̶ Scorebort crashes the net to put it home. pic.twitter.com/4OwflcB6wo
— Patrick Donnelly (@PatDonn12) January 19, 2023
The stay-at-home B’s defenseman, who has been a beast blocking shots in the last couple of games, would never have been able to get to that net-front puck if he wasn’t the weak side D-man venturing down to the face-off circle dot down close to the net. It’s an extremely aggressive positioning of that defenseman in the offensive zone and it’s taken some adjustment from the B’s blueliners after playing more conservatively in the past, but it’s slowly turning into more offense for the Black and Gold as the players get comfortable with that high-risk spot.
“It’s really encouraging,” said Montgomery. “A lot of it comes from how we want to play, the weak side D being very active. The Forbort goal’s the best example of that. The other part is we want them to shoot more pucks and look at the net first because I think we have a lot of defensemen that see plays but they’re looking to see plays more than they’re looking to see net.”
It’s something McAvoy is certainly looking to do more with three goals in 32 games after blasting one from the point against the Islanders on Wednesday night. He didn’t score against the Rangers, but his four shots on net were indicative of the more assertive, shot-taking mindset that the Boston Bruins coaches have been preaching that’s turn into goals like the Forbort one.
“Structurally, [Forbort] was right we’re he’s supposed to be, and he gets rewarded for it,” said McAvoy, of Forbort drifting down low to be in prime scoring position when he found the loose puck at the net. “As long as we keep doing what we’re being told to do and keep learning and keep implementing it, it’s paying off.”
The Bruins are certainly enjoying some offense from the back end as Hampus Lindholm is on pace for double-digit goals and over 50 points, and McAvoy is pacing in the 50-point neighborhood despite missing the first month of the season. Even Clifton is on pace for career highs in all offensive categories as well.
But the uptick in offense from the Boston Bruins defensemen corps is another piece of evidence gathered in the B’s ongoing effort to optimize themselves and keep building down the stretch in what’s become a pretty special season.