The truth, as always, is in the middle.
Last Thursday, after grabbing a 2-0 lead against San Jose, the Bruins wilted under the Sharks’ heat. The result was a 7-4 stinker, leaving the Bruins with three straight losses in California.
Two days later, against the down-and-out Coyotes, the Bruins jumped on two first-period mistakes and giggled their way to a 5-2 win.
The Bruins are not as bad as they looked against the Sharks. Five of San Jose’s seven goals were deflections, including two off Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic.
Nor are they as dominant as they seemed against Arizona. They pumped four of their five goals past Devan Dubnyk (he was lifted for Mike Smith following the fourth), a goalie that the punch-line Oilers, of all teams, judged unworthy of tending their crease last year.
The Bruins are, as noted by their 72 goals for and 72 goals against, an average team — so far.
On Thursday at TD Garden, they will see a rolling Chicago machine (league-best plus-32 goal differential) that is anything but average. The Blackhawks have won six straight. They’re averaging 3.04 goals per game while giving up a league-low 1.96.
The Bruins (15-12-1) are scoring 2.50 goals per game, 10th-fewest in the NHL. They are 4-8-1 against teams currently in playoff position.
Help is on the way. At some point, the Bruins expect Zdeno Chara and David Krejci to return to the lineup. During the team’s four-game road trip, Chara and Krejci skated at Ristuccia Arena under the watch of strength and conditioning coach John Whitesides.
They won’t be enough.
Chara and Krejci are cornerstone players. There is no better shutdown presence in the NHL than Chara. Krejci is the team’s most offensive-minded pivot. Lucic is a scarier player with Krejci at his side.
Chara’s return will improve the Bruins’ defense. They are allowing 2.57 goals per game, No. 12 in the league. Tuukka Rask will be fine. The team’s net-front play, while not airtight, hasn’t sprung the earlier leaks that had coach Claude Julien looking for plumbers instead of players.
The question is how Chara and Krejci will help the offense, especially when, not if, more players get hurt. To this end, Krejci is the more critical component. Krejci’s vision and creativity give his line authority. In turn, rival coaches have to account for Krejci, Lucic, and whoever is riding on their right flank.
Without Krejci, opponents have trained their defensive sights on Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Reilly Smith. Arizona rolled out Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek against Bergeron’s line. Two nights earlier, San Jose deployed Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun against Bergeron. It was no surprise that Bergeron took most of his shifts with Drew Doughty shadowing him in Los Angeles.
The added defensive attention is showing. Bergeron has 5 goals and 14 assists, including 3 points his last two games. Only 6.4 percent of his 78 shots have hit the back of the net. It is Bergeron’s lowest shooting percentage since 2008-09, when he was at 5.2 percent in his first season back after a career-threatening concussion.
The quality and quantity of scoring chances for Bergeron’s line should rise if Krejci and Lucic can take away some of the heat. But the Bruins also need outside assistance, especially because offense is not coming from Loui Eriksson.
Eriksson is a good all-situations player. He’s a trusted penalty killer, usually paired with Chris Kelly. He has some touch on the right side of the power-play formation. But the Bruins didn’t target Eriksson in the Tyler Seguin deal to be a third-line wing. They believed he would be good for 20-plus goals and strength on the puck.
In 28 games, Eriksson has two even-strength goals. That’s not even close to good enough. That’s fourth-line production.
Eriksson has two of the Bruins’ 12 power-play goals. Scoring 17 percent of your team’s man-up offense is a good clip. But it doesn’t help when your team never goes on the power play.
As usual, the Bruins are the NHL’s worst team at drawing penalties. They have 66 power-play opportunities. In comparison, Detroit leads the league with 110. Assuming the Bruins stay on this pace, it will be the third straight season they finish with the fewest power-play chances in the league.
So far, the Bruins have used five games to evaluate David Pastrnak as a full-time contributor on the right wing. He has shown some promise. Pastrnak, who was assigned to Providence on Monday, went 0-1—1 while averaging 14:01 of ice time per game. Pastrnak landed 14 shots on goal. Only Chara (3.1) is averaging more shots per game than Pastrnak (2.8).
Had Pastrnak remained with the varsity, he most likely would have been a healthy scratch on Thursday, just as he was for Saturday’s win over Arizona. He needs to play, and he will do so in Providence’s back-to-back set Tuesday and Wednesday against St. John’s. Pastrnak has four more NHL games remaining in his audition before the first season of his three-year, entry-level contract is activated.
It’s unfair, however, to ask an 18-year-old to be the right-side man the Bruins have been without all year. The Bruins will have to seek help elsewhere, whether it’s Chris Stewart or David Perron.
Neither Ryan Spooner nor Alexander Khokhlachev, two of their up-front prospects, has shown much in their NHL windows to be high-end trade chips. Carl Soderberg, the team’s second-leading scorer (5-13—18), would be more attractive to a club willing to trade a shoot-first wing for a top-two pivot.
Smith and Torey Krug also would draw interest. And the Bruins have a good asset in Philadelphia’s 2015 second-round pick, which they received in the Johnny Boychuk trade.
The Bruins are fortunate. There are no heavyweights in the East. If they get their stuff together, they can hang with anybody. They just can’t wait much longer for that to happen.