Haggs: McAvoy Becoming Leader, ‘Predator’ For These Bruins
BRIGHTON, MA – With captain and legendary leader Patrice Bergeron out of the lineup to start these playoffs, there were going to be a need for other key Boston Bruins players step up and fill the breach on and off the ice.
Many have answered the call, including Brad Marchand rising to the occasion as a de facto captain in Bergeron’s absence and scoring three goals in the four games while Boston has taken a commanding 3-to-1 lead over the Florida Panthers in the best-of-seven playoff series. But in the same breath as No. 63, workhorse B’s defenseman Charlie McAvoy has been every bit as vital as somebody elevating his game to the highest level, on and off the ice, at a time of year when every hockey player needs to be at their best every time they leap over the boards, address their team or execute a play.
It’s all been magnified during the first four games while No. 37 has been recuperating from his upper body injury.
“You definitely feel a little more pressure from that leadership standpoint. When [Patrice Bergeron] is around I definitely feel more comfortable just being in my role. When they’re not here, it’s hard to fill that void,” said Brad Marchand, of both Bergeron and David Krejci being absent from the lineup. “They’re two incredible leaders on and off the ice, and they are two big holes that you are not going to fill.
“It definitely falls on the rest of us to step into that role at some point and to try and take over and lead a little bit more by example. But it helps having other guys like [Nick Foligno], who has been a captain before. And Chuckie McAvoy is trying to take that next step to be a good leader and it really helps to have him back on the D-corps to do that. You do it by committee and that’s why you see other guys step up.”
If you don’t believe this humble hockey writer, then just ask Matthew Tkachuk after he got Mac-trucked in a Game 4 win on Sunday afternoon that turned very physical and nasty with a Panthers team desperate to find something to alter momentum.
Charlie McAvoy just Mack-trucked Matthew Tkachuk pic.twitter.com/VDTjLXVxPn
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) April 23, 2023
“Guys will follow when you have guys doing the right things and playing the simple way. It’s playoff hockey,” said Boston Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark. “There’s going to be some big hits both ways. I’m lucky I’m not a forward on their side when Charlie [McAvoy] is coming down.”
It hasn’t even been about the offense for McAvoy in this series as he’s got just a single assist and three shots on net in four games, and is still sitting at a negative plus/minus with a minus-1 after having a rough, rough night (minus-3 when the ice chips had settled) in the Game 2 loss on home ice. But McAvoy responded to a subpar performance at home last week with a team-high eight punishing hits in Game 3, including a tone-setting, bone-rattling body check on Eetu Luostiranen in his first shift of the game.
Charlie McAvoy with a tone-setting hit on Eetu Luostarinen: pic.twitter.com/RRMOyoCGyT
— Evan Marinofsky (@EvanMarinofsky) April 21, 2023
That trend continued in Game 4 as McAvoy continued to be a heat-seeking Boston Bruins missile looking for Panthers victims while playing a physical, blue collar game that shows exactly why he is a rarity as an NHL defenseman. McAvoy has all the puck-moving skills and could be a player simply intent on piling up points and quarterbacking a power play if that’s what he wanted to be, but instead he’s developed himself into the classic blueliner that can beat you every which way including blowing somebody up if they put their head down for even a fateful, hot second.
Charlie McAvoy with a huge open-ice hit on Anton Lundell and Aleksander Barkov tackles McAvoy: pic.twitter.com/d4AJViaI5A
— Evan Marinofsky (@EvanMarinofsky) April 22, 2023
Anton Lundell also found that out the hard way.
“I kind of just like to play that way. I don’t look at it as a retaliation-type of thing. It’s just how I play at this point,” said McAvoy to Boston Hockey Now after Tuesday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena. “It’s just the playoffs in general. It’s more emotion, it’s more energy…the stakes are high. It makes it more fun, the physicality of the game, the momentum swings, all of that.”
That kind of defenseman gives the Boston Bruins a different dimension in a series where the Panthers have been trying to intimidate B’s blueliners with a fast, heavy forecheck that’s regularly been right on top of them.
“The team showed the faith in him last year with his contract and that he was going to be the next guy to step up and lead this team. He’s shown that he’s taking the steps to be one of the best defensemen in the league,” said Marchand. “I think that’s the one thing that separates him from other skill defensemen: He plays a very physical game and he can be a predator out there. He’s one of those guys where you need to know where he is and can be extremely hard to play against.
“I was even saying to him [after Game 3] that I don’t think guys realize how difficult he is to play against and how strong he is to battle. The way he can throw guys on his back and break pucks out, it’s fun to watch. Those are defensemen that are really hard to play against. Guys that can skate and see the ice really well, but are extremely physical. You need to know where he is. He’s the type of defenseman in the playoffs that can lead your group and he’s done a great job thus far.”
The leadership piece has grown over the years for McAvoy, who has become somebody that mixes the vocal with leading by example as a now-experienced 25-year-old All-Star-level defenseman that’s already been to a Stanley Cup Final. Certainly he’s in a different place now than he was as a 21-year-old still learning from Zdeno Chara during the run to the Cup Final in 2019 against the St. Louis Blues.
“I’m trying my best to be a voice on our bench, even though it’s something I’ve already been trying to do,” said McAvoy, of elevating his leadership efforts with Bergeron out of the lineup. “Mostly I feel like leading by example is something I take to heart more than vocally leading. I definitely don’t enjoy Bergie being out, but I am definitely trying to step up and be the best [leader] that I can be [in his absence].
“Everybody has their own leadership style. Mine is a little bit of both. I think sometimes I’m of a belief that words can only be words unless you’re able to do something about them or lead by example. Whether I’m on the bench or in the locker room, I like to be vocal. But we have a ton of those guys that are vocal leaders. Rarely is it a quiet room or there’s a risk of us losing being in the moment. Somebody is always going to grab us back.”
In McAvoy’s case, he also has the back of everybody else in a Boston Bruins uniform with the way he attacks from the D-man position.
It’s only a few games into this postseason for the Boston Bruins, but arguably the most important ingredient to a Stanley Cup team is a franchise No. 1 defenseman in the prime of his career to lead the way. It’s what the Black and Gold had in 2011 with Zdeno Chara when they won it all 12 years ago, and the 25-year-old McAvoy is raising his game to that level early in these Stanley Cup playoffs to a place where he’ll need to maintain for the next couple of months.
Every bit of evidence looks like he’s going to be able to do it as he continues to be better and more impactful in the first round against the Florida Panthers.