Shinzawa: Jim Montgomery of the Bruins runs away with a Jack Adams award

It was very easy for Jim Montgomery to leave the lineup on Sunday. The Bruins were coming off a 4-2 win over the Sharks. They were playing the Ducks, whose 67-goal margin going into the game was the worst in the league.

But the Bruins coach changed all four lines, swapping goalies and taking out Yakub Zboril.

Team Montgomery responded with a 7-1 win over the Ducks to complete a 3-0 sweep of California.

All has been going well for the Bruins since Montgomery replaced Bruce Cassidy behind the bench. This is no accident. From on-ice strategy to in-game adjustments to the environment for nurturing his players, Montgomery excelled so much that his Jack Adams award is practically tucked in the trunk of his car. Through 40 games, the Bruins have a 32-4-4 goal difference plus 68 goals, twice better than the second-place stars (plus 34).

Montgomery’s last act of magic was coaxing the seven-goal rush from a lineup playing its second game in less than 24 hours — after travelling, no less. This is not usually a problem for the Bruins during their visits to California.

Last year, for example, the Bruins staged a 7-0 defeat of the Kings on February 28, 2022. After the win, the Bruins took a bus down Interstate 5 to check into their Anaheim hotel. The next night, the Bruins lost to the Ducks, 4-3.

The schedule wasn’t like this this time. Not only was Sunday’s game at 5:30 p.m., but the Bruins also had to travel from San Jose to Anaheim instead of doing the usual SoCal commute. The schedule was one of the reasons Montgomery rearranged his lineup.

“We want to distribute the minutes tonight three out of four, with last night’s travel,” Montgomery told reporters in Anaheim before the win. “Our start time, unfortunately, is 22 hours after last night’s start time. All of those things came down to the decision.”

Those were not the only reasons.

This was not how Craig Smith saw progress in his contract year. The veteran right winger was injured, scratched, relinquished, and benched. He had just one goal and three assists as a starter.

But when Smith scored against the Sharks, Montgomery identified an opportunity. It included, of all things, the line-breaker every coach would love to have.

Jim Montgomery during the Bruins-Sharks (Tony Ding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s not just that Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pasternak have a long history of flammability. In San Jose, the three connected on a tic-tac-toe hit. In other words, the seniors, who had reunited in part due to the absence of Jake Debrusek, were re-acquainting themselves when Montgomery separated them.

Even so, the first-year Bruins coach likes to reward players when they play well. Montgomery saw an opportunity to give Smith the confidence he’s been missing for most of 2022-23. So Pastrnak went down to line number 2 with Pavel Zacha and David Krejci. Smith, previously in the fourth line, stepped up to ride in the first line with Marchand and Bergeron.

Smith played a season-high 14:11. Pastrnak clocked just 14:19, his lightest workload of the year. That didn’t stop him pumping three pucks after John Gibson. Pastrnak scored seven goals and one assist over four games and was named NHL First Star of the Week. The right winger has 32 goals, which puts him just short of league leader Conor McDavid going into Monday’s game.

“You’ll never get old,” Pasternak said of scoring a hat-trick. “You score goals in the best league in the world. It’s not easy. I will never take it for granted. My job is to score goals. It still makes you happy.”

Krejci, who scored a goal in the first two games of the trip, scored a goal and two assists. Chris Wagner made his season debut against his former team and hit six goals of the game with 12:36 of play. Hambus Lindholm, also a former champion, scored his first goal since November 3, 2022.

Now, the Bruins can play their sticks upside down and still make the playoffs. Part of Montgomery’s challenge is getting them to play with good habits so the real games can start in April. This is not an easy question. It was a long time ago for Montgomery to demand excellence from his players.

But one of Montgomery’s strengths is the eradication of inaction. He did this by making line-up changes, rewarding good play and encouraging attacking creativity. As a result, the Bruins play much more freely than they did with Cassidy. DeBrusk, Trent Frederic and Brandon Carlo are at the front of the line of players who breathe easy and play lighter with their new coach.

On Wednesday, the four coaches whose teams have the highest point percentage in each division will head to Sunrise, Florida, for the All-Star Game. Montgomery and Cassidy will be there as bonuses for half the season’s work.

Both may be in contention for Coach of the Year honors at the end of the year, too. But at this point, losing Montgomery is a prize.

(Photo: Fareed Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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