BOSTON — Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on Wednesday night gave rookie Charlie McAvoy a challenge usually given to an elite, veteran defenseman: play close to 30 minutes and shut down the NHL’s leading scorer.
Unlike most rookies, McAvoy rose to the task and excelled at both ends of the ice as the B’s held on for a 3-2 win over a high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning squad that came into TD Garden with the league’s best record.
McAvoy played a team-leading 28:11 of ice time, and a good chunk of it came against arguably the most skilled line in hockey — the Lightning trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov. Stamkos leads the league in scoring with 37 points, while Kucherov’s 17 goals rank second and Namestnikov has 18 points of his own.
“They’re hard to contain,” McAvoy said of the Lightning’s top line. “They’re gonna get opportunities, and you need to just kinda damage control — they’re gonna get their chances, like they did on that power play. They make plays. They got unbelievable skill. It’s really about minimizing those opportunities, and we were able to not give them too many looks.”
Those Lightning stars were ineffective against McAvoy, who also scored a goal and added an assist.
The 2016 first-round draft pick played 13:34 of 5-on-5 ice time versus Stamkos, and the Bruins had a 22-8 shot attempt differential during that span. The Bruins had a 19-6 edge in shot attempts in the 12:24 of 5-on-5 McAvoy was matched up against Kucherov, and a 16-6 advantage during the 9:06 versus Namestnikov in the same situation.
Stamkos (three shots on goal), Kucherov (one) and Namestnikov (none) were held to less than five shots on goal for the entire game. The Lightning did cash in on the power play when Stamkos trimmed the B’s lead to 3-2 with a third-period goal, but to hold these elite forwards scoreless at even strength and take away the time and space they need — which isn’t much — to fire pucks on net truly is impressive, especially when it’s led by a 19-year-old D-man.
“Playing against Stamkos and Kucherov and that line was something me and (Zdeno Chara) were matched up against, and they ended up splitting those guys up a bit in the third,” McAvoy said.
“Kinda trying to pair with both of them, and play with both of those guys, along with any other line. It gets late in the game there, and to see (B’s coach Bruce Cassidy) call me back out there, that’s something I’m really appreciative of.”
Cassidy no doubt will try to lessen McAvoy’s ice time. He’s playing in his first full pro season and the Bruins don’t want him to hit a rookie wall after the All-Star break.
“Charlie got a lot of work. And he’s an efficient player,” Cassidy said. “He can handle it, but 28 (minutes) is a lot. We’ll have to take a look at that and try to get it at a more reasonable number.”
At the same time, the experience McAvoy has gained over the last week playing a lot of minutes against four of the best players on the planet in Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and now Stamkos and Kucherov should make a positive impact on his development as a legitimate top-pairing defenseman.
“(McAvoy) is getting it. He’s getting a good look. Brandon (Carlo) got some of it last year. It’s only going to make them better if they can succeed playing through it, and (McAvoy) has,” Cassidy said. “Brought some offense (Wednesday night) as well. He’s a special player. We don’t want to put too much on him. We asked a lot of him tonight. It’s going to happen from time to time, but that stuff doesn’t bother him.
“He wants those situations, and that’s what you want out of a player. You want them to enjoy the moment, and he really takes it on.”
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