Game No. 50 of the regular season had the Bruins scheduled for a 7:08 p.m. puck drop on Causeway Street. The stage was set. It was a perfect, brisk New England winter’s night for hockey.
Every one of the 17,850 seats in TD Garden was filled. Todd Angilly banged out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Little kids in the crowd held up signs, mostly saying hooray for our side.
And then … the Bruins never showed up. Their Black and Gold sweaters, helmets, short pants, and long socks indeed were out there, but for the most part they skated and played like a legion of empty suits. The Flames, led by power-play strikes from Andrei Kuzmenko and Noah Hanifin rolled to an easy 4-1 win in what was the first game back from the All Star break for both clubs.
The loss, in tandem with Vancouver’s 3-2 win at Carolina, dropped the Bruins 2 points behind the Canucks in the taffy pull for the top spot in the NHL standings. (The Canucks visit TD Garden Thursday.)
It also was a night that should have left the Bruins wondering whether the roster has the kind of sandpaper, gumption, and pushback they’ll need come playoff time, when clubs will confront them with the edginess that the Flames presented. The Bruins were short on energy off the hop and never able to summon the requisite pushback that will be needed when it comes time to be the team left standing after culling four wins out of a seven-game series.
“We talked about being simple to start the game,” said coach Jim Montgomery, sounding miffed in the wake of his team’s whiff. “We didn’t do that, and then we talked about moving our legs so our brains would follow — because I thought our brains were not very good in the first [period] and we just talked about dumping every puck in the second period … we got a little bit better in the second. But marginally.”
Listless through two periods, the Bruins finally perked up and cut a 2-0 Flames lead in half on Pavel Zacha’s power-play goal on a two-man advantage 4:14 into the third.
It appeared all the momentum was on the Black-and-Gold’s side. Zacha had the goal and the Bruins still were working with a one-man advantage for a possible 3:26 (The Flames’ MacKenzie Weegar was in the penalty box for a double minor after high-sticking Brad Marchand).
And then, a ghost from the old Montreal Forum appeared. The Bruins, overly eager to get the score tied, were caught with too many men on the ice, a penalty that took a two-minute chunk out of their advantage.
“Well, the power-play units got a little mixed up because of the late change,” said Montgomery, explaining the manpower faux pas. “And then it’s just myself not communicating well enough to the players who had the changes. So that’s my fault.”
Worse, with play even at four-on-four, Jonathan Huberdeau outmaneuvered Charlie McAvoy for a puck in the Boston zone, turned, and sniped a wrister by Jeremy Swayman (25 saves) for a 3-1 Flames lead at 6:23.
Just over three minutes later, and working with a power play (Charlie Coyle off for slashing), the Flames made it 4-1 on Hanifin’s goal off the rush. The former Boston College defenseman blitzed up the right wing, carried deep into the near circle, and whistled a backhander through Swayman’s five-hole. The Bruins faced a three-goal deficit with 10:16 to go. And … goodnight.
“We weren’t good enough tonight and obviously the practice didn’t translate and they out played us,” said McAvoy. “Yeah, there were pockets where there was a lot of good stuff that we did and we got chances and hit a post — could have been a different game. But for 60 minutes, I don’t think we were the better team.”
Speed is a key element in the Bruins’ game, as it is for any successful team. They play with pace most nights. They lacked both speed and focus against the Flames, which led to a constant array of poor passes and worse execution. They never dragged themselves into the fight.
Rarely faced with a deficit the last few weeks leading into the break, the Bruins fell behind early on Kuzmenko’s power-play goal and went into the first intermission needing to erase a 2-0 Flames lead.
Kuzmenko, acquired days ago when Elias Lindholm was shipped to the Canucks, wristed in his first for the Flames at 4:20, less than a minute after Brandon Carlo was sent off for holding. Left unchecked in the slot, Kuzmenko beat Swaynan to the glove side.
In three of their previous four games — against the Jets, Senators, and Flyers — the Bruins didn’t trail for as much as a second. But it was clear with the drop of the puck they had some rust to chisel off after their protracted All-Star break.
Rookie Connor Zary, a first-round pick in 2020, made it a 2-0 game with 13:01 gone, and again the Bruins were guilty of allowing too much open air in the in their defensive zone. Cutting left-right across the top of the crease, and with no one in a black uniform objecting, the nimble Zary finished with a doorstep backhand tuck.
The Bruins still had nearly 47 minutes to fight their way back into it, but their legs and brains never came around.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.