The Bruins missed their chance Thursday night to clinch a playoff spot and they did it in rather unspectacular fashion, no matter what thrills a 3-2 overtime loss might misstate. Their game was dull most of the night. They were without urgency, swagger, jam, moxie - all the elements they boiled in their Stanley Cup-clinching brew last season - for the better part of three periods.
Mostly they were without goals, until the Capitals bolted to a 2-0 lead midway through the third period, and that’s when the defending Cup champs looked more like the team that finally has regained its feet in the last couple of weeks. Until then, though, they were too much like the team that wandered aimlessly for a couple of months, too often falling behind on the scoreboard, rarely able to gain a lead, those ominous black sweaters a lighter shade of pale.
“I think we were a half-step behind,’’ noted coach Claude Julien, his squad needing but one more point in the standings to avoid a DNQ. “And a half-step can be big - it can be what a minor leaguer lacks in not being able to make it to the NHL. What seems small can actually be a pretty big thing.’’
The key half-step left out of their game was best illustrated on the Capitals’ second goal, by Marcus Johansson, with 9:54 gone in the third. Racing down the left side, Alexander Ovechkin laced a pass by Zdeno Chara deep in Boston’s end. Chara’s big stick just missed cutting it down. Racing down the right side, Johansson had a half-step on defenseman Andrew Ference, allowing him to close toward the right post and smack home Ovechkin’s feed.
“I think the teams were in kind of a little chess game for the first two periods,’’ said Chara. “Then they got the two goals, and it was good then that we responded and found a way to tie it.’’
Julien is not one to make excuses, but he looked and sounded as tired as his team when the night was over. He referenced general fatigue and a demanding second-half schedule as reasons for a night that never quite got on track. A little bit of the down performance, he said, also was because the club lost the services of Adam McQuaid with six minutes to go in the first, the big blue liner smoked into the boards by a hard-charging (and boarding) Jason Chimera.
A short bench. A demanding schedule, one that Julien termed the toughest he’s ever confronted in his coaching career. All of it translated into a team a half-step out of synch and 1 point short of closing out the protracted playoff race.
“It catches up,’’ he said.
Five games to go. That’s all that remains of the 2011-12 regular season for the Cup-repeating hopefuls. Two weeks from now, they will be a game or two into Round 1 of the playoffs, and they will have to be far better than they were once the mid-January blues hit them. They’ll also have to a bit sharper than they were against the slightly more desperate Capitals. They played their way into Game No. 77, tied the Capitals on goals by David Krejci and Ference, but rarely can clubs survive in the postseason with games that need 50-plus minutes on the Bunsen burner to heat up.
Chara dismissed the thought that perhaps being on the doorstep, right on the verge of clinching a playoff spot, played any influence on the squad’s mediocre performance.
“We can’t be thinking, ‘All we need is 2 points here to get in the playoffs,’ ’’ said the towering captain, who logged a meaty 29:30, in large part due to the absences of McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg, who was sidelined by cut on his leg that is infected. “The goal of our team is much bigger and higher than that. We have to play desperate hockey right to the end now and be ready for the playoffs.’’
It’s a fairly simple recipe that is the secret to Boston’s success. The Bruins are significantly better, and have a much greater chance to win, when they score first. Not so last night.
Lead time is important to them. They won five of six games going into the match with the Capitals, and averaged some 38 minutes in lead time, virtually two periods, in those five wins. In the loss, 2-1 defeat in San Jose, they never led for a second - exactly what happened when they posted a season-worst four losses to the Capitals, Penguins, Lightning, and Panthers.
When they get the lead, they are better able to implement their strong defensive game, shut down teams in the neutral zone, rely on No. 1 netminder Tim Thomas. Thomas was strong again last night, though was uncharacteristically easy to beat in the shootout when he was burned by Matt Hendricks, Alexander Semin, and Brooks Laich. Hendricks, the first Washington shooter, had Thomas faked and flat on his back when he popped the puck into a wide-open net.
“I bit so hard on his fake shot,’’ said Thomas, “and that’s what happened.’’
That little bit off, the half-step behind, Thomas suffered from it, too. The days of the regular season are now few. The Bruins acknowledge they’re tired, they are slightly banged up, and could use a break before the grind of all grinds begins anew. Maybe that will come this weekend. And if not, these lost half-steps could be the ones that wear the boots that kick them in the backside.