BOSTON -- After the Bruins were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs Sunday, nearly every player was in agreement in identifying the turning point of the season:
The coaching change.
The B's went 18-8-1 in the regular season after Bruce Cassidy replaced Claude Julien and rallied to make the playoffs after a late-season, four-game tailspin had them in danger of missing out for the third straight year. And despite being ravaged by injuries, they showed fight and spirit in pushing Ottawa to six games, including a road victory in a double-overtime, Game 5 thriller, before eventually succumbing in overtime, 3-2, on Sunday.
Certainly there were moments of sloppiness -- ill-timed penalties, moments when the Bruins simply couldn't bust through Ottawa's 1-3-1 trap -- but Boston's gutty playoff showing, coupled with the regular-season surge, makes it seem clear Cassidy deserves to be awarded the full-time head coaching gig.
Several Bruins players voiced their endorsement of Cassidy on Sunday, lauding him for bringing energy, offensive thrust, and open-mindedness to using younger players.
"The results speak for themselves," said David Backes, who played some of his best hockey in Games 5 and 6 once he was paired with center Sean Kuraly. "We were climbing uphill when [Cassidy] took over and we made our way [to the playoffs] . . . [He] certainly did a heck of a job."
And how does Cassidy -- who had gone more than 13 years since his last NHL head coaching job before replacing Julien on an interim basis, and spending the previous eight seasons at the AHL level in Providence -- feel?
"Absolutely. 100 percent," said Cassidy, when asked if he wanted the Boston job on a permanent basis.
And if he got it, perhaps those improvements would continue.
"Maybe a full year with him, he changes a few things," said Backes.
"That will be determined going forward by management whether I continue to be the head coach, and what players will be here will [also] be determined by management," said Cassidy. "So it's a tough question to answer [on what improvements need to be made]. I think we scored some goals this year. We were good on the rush as well and the power play . . . and we were always a good forechecking team. This series took on a personality that we were going to have to score on the forecheck.
"I thought that's why you see guys like [Noel] Acciari and Kuraly get into the lineup and really contribute. It's the strength of their game, and maybe less so from other guys that are more line rush guys. Don't forget, we had a lot of neophytes going into this series in terms of National Hockey League playoffs. So there's a learning curve for them and that's part of the growth process that we hope that, if we're sitting here next year at this time talking about advancing, that they learn something from this year. That's what every team goes through and the [David] Pastrnaks of the world, [Charlie] McAvoy . . . pick your players that are new to it, and [they] have to learn from [it]."
The decision to start Anton Khudobin in Brooklyn late in the regular season after the Bruins had lost four in a row was a turning point-type move, where Cassidy certainly pushed some buttons with No. 1 goalie Tuukka Rask. And his insertion of Kuraly for Ryan Spooner in Game 5 worked on every level, and probably prolonged the series. So give him credit for both of those things along with the pumped-up offense he helped orchestrate in the final few months of the regular season.
The Bruins won't be making any public statements or pronouncements on Monday, but one has to assume Cassidy holds the inside track on the job after guiding the team back into the playoffs for the first time in three years. Certainly there may be courtesy interviews for other candidates like Providence College coach Nate Leaman, but it's difficult to see anything else Cassidy would have to accomplish to be fit for the position.
As Backes said himself, the results speak for themselves.