Connolly Goal Could Be Pivotal for Struggling Forward

If you thought Brett Connolly would score the game winning goal for the Bruins on Monday night, when they took on the Flyers in Philadelphia, you probably hold optimistic the belief that Charlie will someday score a date with the waitress on the Philly-themed comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

To those who raised their hand, good for you, the world needs more of that attitude. So keep fighting the fight.

Of course, Connolly scored the winner for the B’s on Monday with 1:54 remaining in what turned out to be a 3-2 decision in favor of Boston. Connolly’s first goal on a shot contested by a goaltender (he scored an empty-netter on Jan. 15 in Buffalo) since Nov. 27, the goal erased a 23-plus game drought. And he didn’t even have to write a musical to do it.

Through 45 games, Connolly now has seven goals in what has been a frustrating campaign in the attacking zone for the 23-year-old. Acquired from Tampa Bay at the March 2 trade deadline in 2015, the hope for the winger was he would inch closer to the potential seen when he was drafted sixth overall in 2010, one pick shy of a top five that included Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, and Ryan Johansen while being one pick ahead of Jeff Skinner and ten prior to Vladimir Tarasenko.

The signs of Connolly starting to realize that potential in the NHL were beginning to show in Tampa during the 2014-15 season, scoring 12 goals in 55 games for the eventual Prince of Wales Trophy winner. Numbers not eye-popping, but progress, as entered the season with six goals in 79 games.

There was reason to believe growth would continue. Connolly’s goals-per-game rate tripled during his 2014-15 slate of games in Tampa, up to 0.21 from 0.07 from his 2011 debut to the end of the 2013-14 season. Again, to say he’s nowhere close to approaching Seguin/Tarasenko territory would be to state the obvious.

The pessimist will say he’s regressed in Boston. Not an outlandish statement. The goals-per-game rate that spiked to a rate of roughly a goal every five games, a pace of 18 over an 82-game season (WE KNOW HE’S NOT SEGUIN, STOP BRINGING HIM UP) has dropped to a 0.14 rate over 50 games in black and gold, which equates to 11.5 over 82 games. So 11 if you don’t like him, 12 if you do.

Signs for Connolly are pointing up based on his recent play. While he just three points in his last nine games, one of which coming of the empty net variety, the point total doesn’t do his game justice, as don’t most when a player is ‘snakebit’. He’s a plus-six while logging much of his time alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, a line that has been highly-productive over that stretch.

Based on his talent, Connolly belongs up top with those two. He’s a big, strong winger with a top-six skillset. It’s what made him a high draft pick in 2010, after scoring 40 goals in 81 games over two WHL seasons going into the draft. He went back in 2010-11 and scored 46 in 59 for Prince George, where he’d starred for the prior two seasons.

While his potential of replicating New York Rangers winger Rick Nash (whom Connolly drew many comparisons to as an amateur) looks to be out of the equation at this point, the window for Connolly to be a productive NHLer remains open. And his offensive woes, the primary point of criticism, should be helped by getting on the board.

The psychological barrier overcome by getting that goal should show in the coming games. He’ll continue to skate alongside Bergeron and Marchand the proverbial monkey off the back shows on the scoresheet. That will only enhance his total.

There’s plenty of examples over the years, where goals have come in bunches following droughts. There’s plenty examples of the latter case as well.

Bruins fans need not look any further than the case of Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, a pair of forwards who endured stretches of being unable to generate crooked numbers in the “G” column of the scoresheet.

Beleskey, while not carrying nearly the same pedigree as Connolly from his amateur days (he was a fourth-round pick in 2006), was similar to the 23-year-old forward in that he experience a career-year in 2014-15 as a member of the Anaheim Ducks, his 22 goals doubling his previous high (11, 2009-10) and 32 points surpassing his career-high of 24 (2013-14).

After his performance carried over into the Stanley Cup playoffs, where he scored eights goals in 16 games as Anaheim made a run to the Western Conference finals, Beleskey signed a five-year, $20 million deal with the Bruins. It didn’t begin well.

Beleskey scored just two goals in his first 21 games as a Bruin, including a 13-game drought, which came to an end on Dec. 4, scoring in a 5-4 overtime loss at Calgary. The two-point performance kicked off a 13-game stretch in which he scored five goals, a productive stretch that was preceded by a stretch of strong play that didn’t show in the box score.

However, Beleskey has cooled back down, with just a goal in 12 games. His 0.17 goals-per-game this year (eight goals in 46 games) is half of his pace last season (0.34).

Hayes is an even better comparison when suggesting what Connolly could do in the coming games. Hayes was traded to Boston over the summer after scoring a career-high 19 goals for Florida the year before. A big, strong forward who has the ability to create havoc around the net, there was a belief he was only getting better. It didn’t look that way for a while.

Hayes scored just four times in his first 27 games in Boston. A goal in a Dec. 16 win over Pittsburgh erased a 15-game scoring drought. He now has seven goals in his last 19 games. With 11 goals in 46 games, his pace of 0.24 goals-per-game matches his output in 125 games with the Panthers from 2013-15, when he scored 30 goals, a goals-per-game rate that matches his 2015-16 number.

The comparisons with Hayes and Beleskey could prove helpful or misleading. As state before, there’s instances of goals coming in bunches, as well as goals coming few and far between. We’ll see in the coming weeks.

But getting on the board was a good start for Connolly.


On Bruins Injuries: Who Can’t the B’s Afford to Lose Next

The Boston Bruins are a model of attrition in the battle of attrition that has become the Atlantic Division.

While 11 players up and down the lineup have participated in at least 34 of the 37 games completed on the 82-game schedule, it would be far-fetched to suggest the team is the envy of its rivals insofar as health is concerned.

David Krejci is one of the most distinguished members of the 34-game club. Suiting up in 35 games, the pivot is second on the team with a 11-22–33 line. Krejci missed 35 games in 2014-15. The Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. He’s currently out ‘week-to-week’ with an upper body injury.

Defenseman Torey Krug missed his only game of the season last Sunday, a 3-1 loss to Ottawa, with an upper body injury. Veteran blueliners Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg have missed time over the past few seasons with various injuries, and began the regular season on the shelf. Meanwhile, defenseman Adam McQuaid is one the four Bruins with perfect attendance through 37 games. That’s the same McQuaid that missed 87 games in three seasons prior to this one, suggesting a bill of health too good to be true.

Bottom-six forward Joonas Kemppainen has missed the last 11 games with an upper-body injury, though he could be back as soon as Tuesday. David Pastrnak, out since Oct. 31 with a foot injury, was on the cusp of getting back into the B’s lineup when he injured his finger representing his native Czech Republic in the World Junior Championship.

So, you get the point. The Bruins are reeling on the ice, with losses in four of their last five games. To add injury to insult, the trainer’s room is no desolate wasteland.

With Krejci out, others hobbled, and veterans who are no spring chickens, here’s the players whose absence could spell doom for the Bruins, who are clinging to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, with Ottawa and Pittsburgh (both two points behind) lurking closer.

1- Tuukka Rask. The Bruins lifeline to the Stanley Cup playoffs stands between a pair of iron pipes. Rask is closest thing this roster has to the paramount in the world at his respective position. The Bruins have been fortunate in the crease over the past 15 years in terms of health (though mediocrity – sorry Steve Shields, post-lockout Andrew Raycroft – is another topic). The nearest brushes include the 2009-10 season, when ace goalie Tim Thomas struggled in net due to a torn labrum in his hip (which wasn’t disclosed until after the season), and in March 2012, when Rask was sidelined with a strained groin. In the former case, Rask stepped in and tended the B’s net on an elite level. The Finish netminder was a backup to Thomas when he injured his groin in 2012.

The Bruins have been relatively catastrophe-free with their ace goaltending (when they’ve had it) since Byron Dafoe’s back-to-back seasons of futility in the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons, when injuries and a 1999 contract holdout limited the 1999 Vezina Trophy finalist to 89 games over the two seasons, his .898 save percentage over that span much lower than the .911 he posted over his five seasons in Boston from 1997-2002. The Bruins missed the playoffs both seasons, two of just three times the Bruins missed the playoffs between the 1967-68 season and the 2004-05 lockout.

2- Patrice Bergeron. Unlike Rask in the world of goaltending, Bergeron is not held in the same ilk as peers John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, or Evgeni Malkin, fair or unfair as it might be. That said, there’s not a more adept 200-foot forward in the world. His 26.6 shifts per game are tops among B’s forwards and 10th among NHLers this season. He’s taken 928 of the team’s 2,322 faceoffs (40 percent), winning 56.6 of them. Bergeron is the only Bruin to average more than 2:30 per game on the powerplay (2:53) and penalty kill (2:33). New Jersey center Travis Zajac is the lone NHL forward who can hold such a claim.

3- Zdeno Chara. Trade him? Yeah, OK. After missing the first two games of the season, the veteran ace defenseman has averaged 24:21 per game while posting a 5-14–19 scoring line and leading the Bruins with a plus-nine rating. The minutes will need to be scaled back as the season progresses for Chara, who turns 39 in March, but there’s no denying the value the captain brings to the team.

4- Brad Marchand. Look no further than the Winter Classic, when Marchand – serving the first game of a three-game suspension for his hit on Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki last Tuesday – was out of the lineup. Brendan Gallagher – who plays a similar style to Marchand – was back in the Montreal lineup after missing 17 games. A Habs 5-1 win, Gallagher had a goal and an assist against a Bruins team that lacked not only Marchand, but also a pulse.

Marchand, who some might line up on the left wing in a game of ‘put any five players on the ice for a faceoff’, is not just an elite 200-foot wing with 30-goal capability, he’s the Bruins sparkplug. The Canadiens were 2-11 in the final 13 games of Gallagher’s absence. A similar fate could befall the B’s should they miss Marchand for an extended period of time.

5- Dennis Seidenberg. This one might have you scratching your head. But experience can never be overstated. Like Chara, the 34-year-old can still play big minutes, albeit not at the level he used to. Unless the Bruins add another defenseman, the blueline corps going into the playoffs (provided they make it, of course, which is a big if) would be Chara, Seidenberg, Krug, McQuaid, Kevan Miller, Colin Miller, then Zach Trotman/Joe Morrow. Chara and Seidenberg combine for 210 games of playoff experience, while the other six aforementioned players combine for 92, 81 of which are accounted for by McQuaid (54) and Krug (27). Seidenberg has 69 playoff games to his credit, experience that isn’t easy to replace.

6- Ryan Spooner. Julien’s teams have always been largely predicated on two things, in particular: depth up the middle, and secondary scoring. Spooner provides both those things from the No. 3 spot, a role he’s flourished as an NHLer. Playing against weaker opponents, Spooner can use his skill and speed to his advantage. His 25 points, which ranks fifth on the team, is a big part of that.

7- Matt Beleskey. A big, physical forward who can put the puck in the net and create offense, there’s not a player like Beleskey in the Bruins line up. He’s been the player the Bruins thought they were getting when they signed him to a five-year, $20 million deal over the summer. Now he’s starting to score, with five goals in his last nine games.

Stat of the Day: First Bruins Game With Three Multiple-Goal Scorers Since 2001

When Jimmy Hayes scored in the final second of regulation for the Bruins on Tuesday night against Ottawa, it put an exclamation point on the B’s 7-3 win over their Atlantic Division rivals. It also gave Hayes his first NHL hat trick.

But in terms of reaching a statistical milestone not recorded in quite some time – or in Hayes’s case, ever – the job had already been done.

With Hayes’s three-goal night along with two-goal performances from Patrice Bergeron and Matt Beleskey, the Bruins had three multiple goal scorers in the same game for the first time since Dec. 28, 2001.

In that game, the Bruins defeated the Florida Panthers, 7-1, on the heels of two-goal performances by Bill Guerin, Mike Knuble, and Glen Murray. The other goal scorer that night was Rob Zamuner.

Also in that 2001 game, Joe Thornton notched five assists, which has been done by a Bruin just once since, when Bergeron assisted on five goals on Dec. 19, 2006 against Ottawa. Overall, there have been 25 such performances since the night Jumbo Joe had a helper for each hand.

While there was no five-assist performance on Tuesday night, there were certainly no puck-hogs wearing black-and-gold, as 13 Boston assists were recorded on the scoresheet, the highest since the B’s recorded 14 on Feb. 18, 2014, a 7-2 win over the Sens. Loui Eriksson, Torey Krug, Ryan Spooner, and Max Talbot each had two assists on Tuesday.