Life in the NHL’s Toronto bubble is a pleasant, temperature-controlled experience. It was a near-perfect summer’s day in southern Ontario on Wednesday, with daytime temps in the low-70s and a light breeze off Lake Ontario. Not much of a strain on the AC units in the hotel, team buses or Scotiabank Arena.
As for the Bruins, their game thermostat again was stuck on chilly. They fell behind by two goals in the first, rallied back to tie by early in the third, and eventually left the building as 3-2 losers to Tampa Bay.
Totals after three games of bubble hockey: three losses and exactly 00:00 in lead time, setting up a date against one of the top two teams that were forced to qualify here for the start of real Stanley Cup hockey on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
The Bruins, the only team to amass 100 points in the regular season, arrived here seeded first overall in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Now 0-2 after two round-robin games, their stock sinking, they’ll finish either third or fourth.
Home ice doesn’t matter in 2020 because there is no home ice in bubble hockey. There is no one in the stands. These games could be played on the moon, or inside a Houston studio, and the location wouldn’t really matter,
What matters, as always, bubble or no bubble, home or away, is how a team is playing on the eve of the playoffs. No one wants to be playing like the Bruins.
Right now, with but one round robin game remaining (Sunday vs the Caps), the Bruins are playing too cold for comfort.
“That part sucks, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Bruce Cassidy, acknowledging how the No. 1 seed slipped through his team’s hands. “But that’s the situation this year with the stoppage of play [due to COVID-19). We knew the rules going into it . . . we are where we are now, and we’re just trying to win a hockey game.”
They were closer to a win on Wednesday, showing familiar flashes of their No. 1 overall form, but not nearly close enough for a team looking for a return visit to the Cup Final. They were slow to start, only heated up after the Bolts delivered a couple of cheap shots, and then were victimized by their own slipshod coverage on Tyler Johnson’s winner with 1:27 to go in regulation.
A work in progress? Sure. Of course. Every team is a work in progress right up to the moment the work progresses to a pair of sweaty hands clutching the Cup.
The question now becomes whether the Black and Gold have enough time to get their act together by early next week. If they’re still cold when the stakes are the hottest, they could be rendered Round 1 knockouts for the first time since losing to Ottawa in 2017 amid Cassidy’s first playoff stand behind the bench.
Thus far, they have scored four goals in the bubble: one vs. Columbus in last Thursday’s exhibition; one vs. the Flyers on Sunday in the start of round robin play; and the pair (Charlie McAvoy and Chris Wagner) vs. the Bolts.
That’s Chris Wagner, folks, dogged fourth-liner, who now tops the Boston goal scoring chart with . . . two goals. All against a backdrop in which the opposition has led for a total 115:41 of the 180 minutes the Bruins have been in the bubble. No way to win.
“For us, it’s always about how we defend and take care of the puck in our own zone,” said Patrice Bergeron, asked his opinion of where the Bruins most need to improve. “When we start doing that better, we seem to get out clean and spend less time and less in energy in [our] own zone.Then you’re back out on the offense.”
For the most part, that was missing in the first period of all three games in bubbleville.
“I think there have been too many times that we don’t manage the puck the way we usually do,” added Bergeron. “Then you spend the rest of that shift in your own zone. I guess we’ve got to rectify that and simplify our game on those plays — and the same goes in the opposite zone. When we’re doing that in the offensive zone, we’re seeing some results because we’re getting the puck on net.”
Cassidy wanted to see a more committed, aggressive, passionate effort against the Lightning. He got it microbursts, with the likes of undersized defensemen Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk stepping up to scrap when they objected to high, cheap hits by the Bolts.
But overall, for the third time in as many games, it wasn’t nearly the kind of performance that had Vegas odds-makers pegging the Bruins as the favorite to win the Cup.
The Vegas wise guys often know things the rest of the world doesn’t know. Perhaps when next week arrives we will see the Bruins of old, the March 2020 iteration of the Bruins, who were quick to warm, typically relentless in holding a lead, and most nights confident with the puck for 60 minutes. Or more.
If that team is in Toronto, it’s time to dial up the thermometer, board the bus and get to the rink. If not, the bus will be headed home.