E-ZPass in hand, potentially a full weekend off to rest and enjoy the city at their leisure, the Bruins made a mess of things Friday night at the Garden. They opened with a lack of desperation and poor execution, a sure cocktail for disaster most nights in the regular season and a surefire abomination come playoff time.
“We got away from our game,’’ noted coach Claude Julien, whose squad will make its way back to Toronto on Saturday for a Game 6 at the Air Canada Centre Sunday night. “And it took us 40 minutes to get our game going.’’
Question is, why? It’s obviously wired deep into their brains, or perhaps their DNA. The Bruins in 2011 went to Game 7 three times en route to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Then they lost a Game 7 to Washington in Round 1 last spring. Now they seem intent on flirting with another Game 7, after springing to a 3-1 series lead with a two-game sweep in Toronto this week.
Poor, unfocused, sometimes even careless, lackadaisical play gift-wrapped two goals for the Leafs, leaving them with a 2-0 lead by 1:58 of the third period. From there, as if smacked across the kisser, the Bruins finally turned on their heavy, big man’s game, drilling 19 shots on goalie James Reimer over the final 20 minutes and summoning once more the game that had the Leafs drying up and flaking off the vine at the Garden in Game 1.
All it took to tease that game out of the Bruins was the 2-0 deficit. Tough way to go about business. They also fell into a 2-0 hole in Game 4 at Toronto, but they did that in the first period, which allowed them enough time turn it on again, erase the Leafs’ advantage and eventually win in overtime.
“They were a desperate team and it showed at the beginning of the game,’’ said Julien, crediting the Leafs. “Hopefully, it doesn’t take a score [i.e. deficit] to make our team desperate. That’s what we have to understand.’’
The first of Boston’s big, bad boo-boos came toward the tail end of a power play, with Andrew Ference filling in at point duty because Wade Redden was shelved with an undisclosed injury. Ference fumbled with the puck inside the blue line, lost it to Tyler Bozak, then chased him down ice toward Tuukka Rask. Bozak won the race, and the shootout, stuffing the puck through Rask’s pads with 11:27 gone.
The second miscue was a tag-team act of futility, with Johnny Boychuk dishing a poor pass for Nathan Horton up the right side. Horton then gave it up to Clarke MacArthur, did barely nothing to try to get it back, then MacArthur whizzed by Boychuk on his way to cutting in to sweep a backhander by a defenseless Rask. The play lacked only a Volkswagen Bug and a dozen clowns.
“If you just look at how we passed the puck,’’ said Dennis Seidenberg, “it wasn’t us. All we were doing was passing our problems to the next guy. We are a better team than that.’’
True. The Bruins are better than that. They are also better than the Maple Leafs. They have better goaltending. They have bigger, stronger, better defensemen. And they have a better collection of forwards. Which is why, in part, they also have a 3-2 series lead.
But they are not doing nearly enough with that talent. Over the last two games, they have held a lead for all of 44 seconds, when David Krejci briefly delivered a 3-2 advantage in the second period of Game 4. They never held the lead in Game 5. Meanwhile, the Leafs held a lead for slightly more than 30 minutes in Game 4 and followed that Friday night with 48:33 more.
Lead time, of course, wins nothing in and of itself. But it serves as a gauge to how teams are playing, just as shot totals reflect where teams are spending their time.
“Tonight, we won our fair share of battles,’’ said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, who went on to add, “we skated . . . and I all I ever said was skate and be competitive.’’
Later, no doubt sensing some confidence in his team after the win, Carlyle said, “I am sure we have poked the Bruins. And I am sure they are going to be a desperate hockey club on Sunday — and we have to be equally desperate.’’
Maybe. Maybe not. In 2011, the Bruins patented desperation and minted a Cup. The year before, after taking a 3-0 lead over Philly, they frittered away a Cup run with four straight losses. Last year, playing in Game 7 for the fifth time in their last six series, they were rubbed out by the Caps.
On Sunday, they could pick up their game with the same power and fervor they showed in the third period of Game 5.
Or they could come out once again flatter than that big Spoked-B logo that decorates the neutral zone at the Garden.
Which will it be? Who knows? It’s the playoffs, and again the Bruins are proving, game to game, there’s truly no knowing how they’ll play. They know their identity. What they don’t know is how to sustain it, channel it, turn it into an asset that banks victories with ease. Their talent is of championship calibre, but their focus is spotty, their execution inconsistent. They’ve proven that over the last three playoffs.
“Now,’’ said Julien, “we have to lick our wounds and get ready for the next game.’’Kevin Paul Dupont can be contacted via email at email@example.com. He also Tweets too often @GlobeKPD.