The Bruins, looking very much like a fourth-place club, squandered an opportunity to make up ground in the East Division. They lost Thursday at TD Garden without much of a peep, 4-1, to the Penguins.
The gap between those teams was 9 points at the close of business Thursday, the visitors tying the Islanders and Capitals atop the standings. The Bruins (18-10-5) have four games in hand on the latter two, and three on the Caps.
The way they are playing, it does not appear points will fall into their laps.
“We’ve had trouble executing for a while now. It’s one of the reasons our offensive numbers are down,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, his club 22nd in goals per game (2.61) and 30th in 5-on-5 scoring (52 goals). “We’re not clean. We don’t take care of the puck well enough.”
It wasn’t just the young players getting a chance to show their stuff, though they ranged from ineffective to miserable (Jeremy Lauzon will want to burn the tape of Mike Matheson, the Penguins defenseman, walking around him for the 2-0 goal). The momentum-destroying carelessness with the puck went right to the top of the lineup. Three minutes after Brad Marchand (14th goal) made it a one-score game in the third period off a Patrice Bergeron feed, David Pastrnak coughed it up at center ice with Charlie McAvoy standing by, and the Penguins shoved it right back at the Bruins to make it 3-1.
“A lot of it was our top guys tonight,” Cassidy said. “Yeah, our younger guys are learning the ropes here a little bit. But you’ve got to do a better job taking care of the puck.”
Pastrnak has been quiet of late, with zero goals and one assist in his last five games. It’s hard to fault Bergeron for his play of late — his feed to Marchand followed a one-man rush up the ice — but he submitted his ninth straight game without a goal (0-3—3). Marchand and McAvoy (29:45, three shots, seven attempts, two blocks) are the team’s MVPs at the moment.
“I’m not frustrated with those guys,” Cassidy said. “I’m disappointed that they don’t recognize the value of the puck and where we are in the game, and they haven’t stepped up a little more. I get frustrated with younger guys that make the same mistakes, or can’t get their shot through from the point.”
That was a bugaboo for inexperienced defensemen Jakub Zboril, Connor Clifton and Lauzon, each of whom had a shot blocked. The latter, however, threw it into Penguins forward Bryan Rust’s pads and committed an interference penalty as Rust broke the other way. The Bruins, down by two goals, were on the penalty kill, 31 seconds into the third.
“It’s frustrating when teams collapse against you, and you get it low to high and you look like you’ve got some action and you get a shot blocked, and back they come and you’re in the penalty box, and you lose momentum,” Cassidy said. “That’s the frustration. That’s just the learning curve for some of them. Some of them will learn it and be better off for it. Some of them won’t, and they won’t be here.”
Regardless of their play, the Bruins may need them to patch holes. They played with five defensemen for the final 40 minutes after Brandon Carlo left with an upper-body injury. He skated a regular shift in the first, playing 6:59. It was unclear what happened to Carlo, playing his second game after missing 25 days in March with a concussion. Cassidy had little information to share: “Hopefully have better news tomorrow.”
Boston escaped a miserable first period (outshot, 7-2) and stayed in it thanks to backup netminder Dan Vladar (19 saves on 23 shots in all). The lanky Czech (6-foot-5-inch, 185 pounds) was under fire for most of his second career start.
“I don’t really care how the team plays in front of me. I want to win every single game. I want to save every shot,” said Vladar, faulting himself on the third goal for not picking up Jason Zucker, who smacked home a cross-ice one-timer from the slot. “If you score one goal, you can win with one goal if the goalie saves everything.”
The team in front of him couldn’t do much of anything for the first 30 minutes. Pittsburgh pushed them off the puck and out of the way, held them up, parried their advances. Breakouts were darn near impossible.
When the Bruins allowed the first two goals and looked headed for a shutout, Marchand and Bergeron got one back. The captain lugged the puck up the ice, doing the work that a few quick passes couldn’t accomplish, and into the zone. Marchand deposited his sharp feed with 8:46 to go.
But with 6:53 left, Pastrnak’s turnover came back at them. Cassidy pulled Vladar with 3:09 left, but Jake Guentzel flipped home an empty-netter a minute later.
“I trust this group to bounce back,” said Cassidy, his team due for another look at the Penguins Saturday (1 p.m.). “We don’t really go into these long stretches. We’ve had games like this, where we just don’t respect the process. We don’t respect taking care of the puck, and good offensive teams shove it right up …”
The Penguins came in with 10 losses in a row (0-8-2) in Boston, dating to Dec. 16, 2015, but came in smoking hot, even without Evgeni Malkin. They improved to 12-2-1 in their last 15.
The Bruins, who opened this year 10-1-2, know the feeling. Right now, they are lukewarm.