The Bruins remain in first place in the East Division, and still have one of the best records (10-3-2) in the NHL, but their goal scoring has slumped of late and their compete factor has slipped.
Slump and slip are not a winning combination.
That failed equation was on full display Thursday night at the Garden, where the Bruins were trimmed, 3-2, by the Devils, leaving them with their first loss on home ice this season. Coupled with Saturday night’s 4-2 loss on Long Island, it also left the Black and Gold with their first back-to-back regulation losses of the season.
To add to their troubles, the Bruins also lost veteran center David Krejci to a lower-body injury at the start of the second period. His condition will be assessed Friday morning, and there’s a chance he will not accompany the club west on an early-afternoon flight to Lake Tahoe, where the Bruins are scheduled to face the Flyers Sunday afternoon (2 p.m.) in a nationally-televised outdoor game.
“Tough start, you know,” said David Pastrnak, one of the Bruins goal scorers, along with Jake DeBrusk. “Mostly our first period was not even close to where it should be, from getting our legs going. We spent almost the whole period in our D zone … it just seemed we couldn’t get anything going. It starts with little things, like winning battles, and I think they won more battles than us.”
The Devils, now 2-0 since shutting down for two weeks over COVID issues, connected three times in the second period, led by a pair of strikes by Kyle Palmieri, followed by the knockout punch by Pavel Zacha later in the period that built the insurmountable 3-1 lead.
Pastrnak’s goal, his first in five games, came with 66 seconds remaining in regulation, the Bruins pulling goalie Jaro Halak in favor of an extra skater on a power play and attacking 6-on-4.
The Bruins lone scorer in the second was DeBrusk, who connected for his first goal of the year on a power-play strike at 12:36. It cut the New Jersey lead in half, 2-1, until Zacha riveted one home with play at 4-on-4 only 3:01 later.
“Nice to score, and obviously you’d like to do it in a win,” mused DeBrusk. “But I feel like it was one of those tough games and I feel I was part of the compete factor [issues] — I was trying to get in on pucks, trying to get there, and felt like I was losing a lot of battles.
“I don’t think anybody feels good about their game after that game…. I think they just outcompeted us. They were around pucks and frustrating our D-men pretty hard and winning battles.”
It was Palmieri, the former Duck who potted New Jersey’s first two, first with an even-strength tally at 1:34 in which he finished off a 3-on-2 break following mismanagement of the puck in Boston’s attack zone. Palmieri finished off in the slot, with a backchecking Nick Ritchie unable to catch up in pursuit.
Palmieri was back for second helpings at 10:39, racing in alone on a shorthanded breakaway. The puck popped over Charlie McAvoy’s head along the Bruins’ offensive blue line and the 30-year-old Palmieri was off to the races, finishing off with a doorstep forehander through Halak’s five-hole.
DeBrusk, who began the night at right wing on Patrice Bergeron’s No. 1 line, finally scored his first of the year with help from a Palmieri miscue. Eager to clear the puck from around his own net, Palmieri tossed out a blind backhander from near the goal line, only to see it catch DeBrusk right on the tape. A quick snap inside the left post and DeBrusk finally had his first goal of the year. It was one of the very few mistakes the Devils made all night.
The two sides were skating four apiece when Zacha fired in a blistering wrister from near the left faceoff dot, wiring it home after Andreas Johnsson set him up with a pinpoint feed from the opposite dot.
The Bruins carried the 3-1 deficit into the second intermission, the first time since Feb. 1 that they trailed at the 40:00 mark. It was only the fourth time in 15 games that they trailed going into the final period of regulation. They also didn’t work with a lead all night, posting a 00:00 for the first time since Jan. 30.
“Our inability to win one-on-one battles, to defend areas of the ice,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, enumerating the ways in which the night fell apart. “To give them access to our zone, to not keep forecheck situations alive, or even create.”
The Devils, added Cassidy, won races in all areas of the ice.
“We just didn’t want to do what it took to sort of get pucks back,” he said, “to win pucks, to hang on to pucks … and as a result they came at us and were the better team.”