Unless drastic movement takes place between now and Game No. 82, the Bruins will start the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. It will be hard for them to catch Pittsburgh. They’re comfortably ahead of Tampa Bay.
Comfort, at this time of the year, is not always a good thing.
Aside from a second-period charge of offense and emotion, the Bruins submitted a decaf performance in their 4-2 home loss to Washington Saturday. It was their second straight loss to a team currently out of the top eight in the East. They lost to Buffalo, the worst team in the NHL, in overtime Wednesday, 5-4.
The Capitals are fighting for playoff entry. The win put them a point behind the Flyers, who currently man eighth place in the East.
“We know we don’t have time to make mistakes,” said Alex Ovechkin (two power-play goals, nine shots). “Every point right now is a big point for us.”
The Rangers, the Bruins’ opponents Sunday, are not in the safe zone, either. The Rangers lost to the Flyers Saturday, 4-2. New York has 69 points, just two more than Washington. The Rangers are desperate for points.
“We should know that these last 20-plus games are going to be very intense,” Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara said. “Every opponent is going to play their best. So we should definitely be up for these games and be better.”
The Bruins are not in that position. They want the regular season to be over. Their focus is on playoff preparation.
Between now and mid-April, the Bruins want to figure out whether Dougie Hamilton can be a shutdown strongman alongside Chara. They’re looking to determine if the No. 3 line can be a consistent offensive threesome. They’re trying to learn whether Matt Bartkowski can be a dependable second-pairing defenseman for multiple playoff rounds. Answers to these questions are more important than wins.
The trouble is the Bruins started their busiest month Saturday. It was the first of 17 games in March. When a team plays with bad habits in such a busy stretch, it becomes harder to eliminate those mistakes if they’re not addressed immediately. It’s not easy to turn around a leaky aircraft carrier that’s steaming toward dangerous waters.
The Bruins’ only push against the Capitals took place in the second period. They had fallen behind by three goals.
They started their rally with a Patrice Bergeron power-play goal at 10:54. Three-zone effort by Gregory Campbell helped bring the Bruins to within one goal. Campbell triggered the play by backchecking hard on Brooks Laich and gaining control of the puck. He chipped the puck off the wall to Daniel Paille to start the counterattack. Campbell completed the rush by going hard to the net, sucking in Mike Green, and helping Shawn Thornton score his fifth goal, at 17:32 of the second.
“I thought after Bergy scored, our compete level went way up,” Thornton said. “I thought for the majority of it, we were the better team after that. But we gave them opportunities and they capitalized on all of them. You give a team like that those kinds of opportunities, they’re very dangerous. We can’t be doing that.”
The comeback fell flat in the third. The Bruins couldn’t put any regular heat on Braden Holtby. They torpedoed the rally when Johnny Boychuk got caught deep in the offensive zone without support at the point. Torey Krug blew a tire. Eric Fehr pulled away. At 10:53 of the third, Fehr tucked a breakaway goal past Tuukka Rask to close out the Bruins.
“I think the issues were the breakdowns defensively,” coach Claude Julien said. “You outshoot the team. You have the puck more than they did. But at the end of the day, you made more mistakes than they did.”
When his boys are rolling, Julien knows what to expect. He can depend on his defensemen keeping tight gaps. He can count on his No. 1 line playing with down-low presence. Julien can look to his third line to sustain offensive momentum generated by the top-six forwards. He can trust Chad Johnson to be dependable if not outstanding.
Two games into the stretch run, the coaches don’t know what they’re going to get.
Against Buffalo, Kevan Miller’s slack gap cost them a goal. Jarome Iginla (two shots on Saturday, zero on Wednesday) has played two light, nonabrasive games. Chris Kelly, Carl Soderberg, and Loui Eriksson were good against the Sabres. They combined for only five of the Bruins’ 67 shot attempts Saturday. Johnson’s C-level play cost the Bruins a win in Buffalo.
The Bruins will get a jolt when they acquire blue-line help before Wednesday’s trade deadline. The defenseman they add will be motivated to mesh with a team expected to push for a Cup. The rest of the roster is experienced enough to prepare for the playoffs.
“It’s to do the little things correct at all times,” Campbell said. “Because those are the things that matter going down the stretch. I think that’s where we want to put our focus on right now.”
The pre-playoff stretch is when top-flight contenders want to showcase good habits. It’s not vital to record points. But it’s crucial to play the game the right way. Allowing nine goals in two games says the Bruins are doing things wrong.