A distinct sense of melancholy framed that last glimpse of the Bruins Saturday night, their padded shoulders slumped, a few of them struggling to tamp down their grief, as they filed off the ice at PNC Arena.
Patrice Bergeron, their 36-year-old captain, gave each teammate a hug before he followed quietly, resolutely down the runway. Then came the coaching staff as the last to waddle off, the 2021-22 season officially brought to an unspectacular close at 7:19 p.m.
It wasn’t what they wanted, a visibly-spent Bergeron noted soon after in his media scrum, “but we did it together.”
Together, but perhaps for the last time with Bergeron, his unstated future plans a deep, undeniable thread weaved into the farewell’s somber narrative.
Bergeron is old by hockey standards, and his adieu is at hand. Be it now or later, it will feel painful, empty, and too soon — especially for a roster currently ill-suited and engineered to move ahead without him.
Change awaits every team, Cup champ or also-ran, at the end of every season. For the Bruins, after logging a 107-point regular season, their first-round playoff dismissal by the Hurricanes left them yet again far short of a Cup, vastly short of expectations, and perhaps forced to move ahead with Bergeron’s No. 37 off the roster for the first time since the fall of 2003.
Even with Bergeron aboard the last two weeks, the Hurricanes proved to be too much, even if the series ended in a Game 7. Yet again Saturday, as in all four games in Raleigh, the Hurricanes scored first, dictated play from start to finish, and never allowed their visitors from up north so much as a second to play with the lead.
Again, like failed runs against the Lightning in 2018 and 2020, and against the Islanders just a year ago, the Bruins’ greatest failure was up front among their forwards — specifically right at the offensive net, where scoring chances are manufactured, goals are scored, Cups won, within a stick length or two of those red pipes.
Be it because of lack of will or talent or inadequate approach (the No. 1 question now for Cam Neely and Don Sweeney to answer), the 12 forwards Bruce Cassidy dressed each night too rarely imposed their determination or touch where they were needed most.
While the Hurricanes’ forwards consistently came to the net like a swarm of yellow jackets to a summer picnic, refusing to leave, Bruins forwards time and time again flitted around the blue paint, zipped fruitless passes toward the front, approached the chore like a bunch of prized derby thoroughbreds when the task at hand called for hard-nose mules (top of the mornin’ there, Johan Franzen).
Missing in action, Games 1-7: the one guy among the dozen Boston forwards willing to stand in there, take a beating, do the grunt work needed to mash 6 oz. of vulcanized rubber by either of the Hurricanes’ two backup goalies.
The same, frankly, could be said of most of the Carolina forwards, but they consistently pushed to the front as a pack, hunting for tips or rebounds, a rugby-style approach. Hurricanes forwards were more of a pain, a greater threat, and in the end, more successful. That was glaringly obvious for the Bruins on PNC ice, where in four games the Hurricanes fashioned leads of 2-0, 4-1, 3-0, and 3-1 by the 40:00 mark or each game, respectively.
Hockey 101: failing to do the work up front usually leads to playing from behind.
So whether Bergeron is back or not (the gut read here, by the way, is that he calls it a day), it’s clear that the main job now for Neely and Sweeney is to add better, stronger, more willful forwards capable of scoring outside the comfort zone of an 82-game regular season that is dotted with an abundance of tomato can opponents.
Hand in hand, the coaching staff of Cassidy et al, have to develop more of a grind factor out of whatever forwards Neely and Sweeney bring to the table. Either they have to coach in the willingness for those forwards to pay the price or, perhaps more likely, develop more of that pack approach to the attack that the Hurricanes have dutifully accepted from Rod Brind’Amour.
Less style, but more speed, more chaos — and more desire.
Not all the offensive shortcoming falls to forwards, of course. Consider the disparity of production among the respective backline corps in the series:
The defensemen can’t be expected to carry the offense, but 9 points vs. 21 underscores, in part, how the Hurricanes approached scoring as a five-man unit and how the Boston defensemen were the caboose on a slow-moving scoring train.
Now, to supply needed context here: The Bruins lost prized acquisition Hampus Lindholm for 3 ½ games, the smooth Swede sent off to Palookaville by an Andrei Svechnikov hit in Game 2. Also, franchise No. 1 Charlie McAvoy sat out Game No. 4 with COVID-19. Had they both been at full health for seven games, the overall take from the back end no doubt would have exceeded 2-7—9.
Overall, though, this is a group that needs stronger, more committed and better finishers up front, which stands as the Neely-Sweeney No. 1 challenge in the off-season.
It’s equally the charge of Cassidy and the coaching crew to develop a different, harder attack, with a more active and engaged back end, that has a chance of making, say, a 50-win regular season, withstand the rigors and demands of winning 16 more times in the spring.
What we watched here the last two weeks wasn’t good enough, both in personnel and coaching. That’s true whether Bergeron is back for more or says his sad so long.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.