It is a well-worn story, one much older than even Nassau Coliseum: Teams that can’t handle the puck do not last when the playoff heat rises.
As such, the Bruins melted Wednesday night.
They became a puddle on a sweltering June evening, losing to the Islanders, 6-2, in Game 6 at the old barn in Uniondale, N.Y. At the most inopportune time, they had their first three-game losing streak of the season, in Games 4, 5, and 6 of this second-round series.
And now they’re done. They coughed up pucks, kicked out rebounds, and in front of delirious fans, wished their victorious opponents well.
“They were able to win when they didn’t have their A-game,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said when asked to name the difference in the series. “Doesn’t have to be pretty. I thought they were much more opportunistic than us.”
Without Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller (head injuries), the back end was “thin,” Cassidy noted. But even Matt Grzelcyk, an escape artist in tight spaces and a crafty puck mover, gifted a pair of goals to the Islanders in a three-goal second period that sealed the Bruins’ fate. The absence of Carlo and Miller in Game 5 led to a penalty-killing debacle (1 for 4) that set up this elimination game.
“Tonight, didn’t manage the puck very well,” Cassidy said. “Some of it was by guys who play a lot for us. It caught up to us. It didn’t help as well. They were able to stay relatively healthy. It makes a difference.”
The Bruins started a compromised Tuukka Rask (23 saves on 27 shots), believed to be dealing with a lower-back injury stemming from early March. Afterward, Rask declined to address any specifics but acknowledged offseason surgery is a possibility.
“He was healthy enough to play,” Cassidy said. “He wasn’t 100 percent.”
In Game 6, Rask had his issues with rebound control, which put a goal on the stick of Travis Zajac and forced Grzelcyk into a tough spot, letting Kyle Palmieri swipe the puck and beat Rask for a 4-1 lead. Minutes earlier, Rask mishandled the puck after stopping it behind his net, sending a hard pass into Mike Reilly’s feet. Josh Bailey picked up the turnover and fed Brock Nelson, who slipped it under Rask’s pad for the 3-1 goal. This was after Nelson picked Grzelcyk’s pocket and walked in for a 2-1 edge.
Rask’s game “wasn’t good enough to win,” Cassidy said, “but neither were we. This isn’t on Tuukka. This is a team loss, to me. All the way down the line.”
The second period was the Bruins’ worst of the postseason, considering the situation. Tied, 1-1, after 20 minutes, on a Brad Marchand goal late in the first, the Bruins allowed three goals and went into the third on the brink. For all the talk of special teams and penalty calls, the Bruins on Wednesday allowed a playoff-high four goals at even strength.
What followed was the Black and Gold’s second consecutive second-round exit, and the third in four years late in the careers of Rask, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci. The heavy-forechecking, stifling, strong-in-goal Islanders, meanwhile, got the same matchup with Tampa Bay they had last year. Barry Trotz has resurrected the legacy of Al Arbour, making back-to-back third-round trips since the Glory Era Islanders reached the Stanley Cup semifinals every year but one from 1975-84, winning the Cup four years in a row (1980-83).
Not quite that good, these Islanders, but stiffer, more alert, and healthier than the Bruins.
Marchand (two goals) didn’t go down without a fight. His second strike came at 5:38 of the third, making it 4-2. The Bruins were on the power play after Jarred Tinordi drew a penalty, the fourth tripping call of the night for the teams. There were no other infractions called, and there should have been.
The celebration was brief. Marchand was shown on TV looking at the clock. The Bruins had 14:42 to score twice.
The Islanders wouldn’t allow the Bruins anything. Marchand’s goal was the second shot on goal of the period for the visitors. They didn’t have another one until landing three in the final 1:22. In the final seconds, Cal Clutterbuck and Ryan Pulock sent home long-distance empty-netters to make it a laugher.
A chance that wasn’t: Taylor Hall’s two-on-one break with Craig Smith in the opening two minutes of the third. The execution was off on the attack, pass, and shot. It was like that all night for Hall, who went scoreless in the final three games of his first Spoked-B playoff run, and the offense. Chris Wagner led the Bruins with four shots on goal. David Pastrnak didn’t land one.
“We felt we had a group that could go really deep this year,” Marchand said. “I think it just came down to a couple breaks. They capitalized on a few opportunities they got. We didn’t on the other end. There were some games we really outplayed them and came up short.
“This is a tough one to lose.”