Thirty games are enough for the Bruins to know who they are.
They are average, the word Claude Julien used to describe his team’s performance in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Ottawa at TD Garden.
The Bruins gained a point by surviving until the shootout. It was one more than they deserved against the Senators, who are two games into a coaching change.
One game after giving it pretty good to Chicago, the NHL’s best team, the Bruins took another step back to reveal what they’ve become.
This is a team that can’t score, prays like heck that Tuukka Rask can save the day, and looks to Patrice Bergeron’s line to generate the bulk of its scoring chances.
Rask almost made it work on Saturday with a 29-save performance. He was excellent, turning aside sure goals for Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris, and Colin Greening in the second period.
But Rask’s final move of the day was slamming his stick onto the ice after Bobby Ryan tucked the winning puck behind him in the shootout.
“It just keeps going up and down,” Rask said. “This is not the hockey we’re used to seeing night in and night out.”
In the big picture, 2014-15 is an anomaly for the Julien-coached Bruins. But the peaks-and-valleys performance this season is entirely consistent with what they’ve become — a team that’s fighting to stay among the East’s top eight.
Their gift point leaves them with 32, which was good enough to push them one ahead of Florida and Washington. But the Bruins leave for a three-game trip, which starts Tuesday, to Nashville, Minnesota, and Winnipeg. Without a fix via trade, they are setting themselves up for a continued tumble down the standings by the time they return for two games before the holiday break.
Their needs are on offense, both in forwards who know what they’re doing around the net and defensemen who can get them the puck. The Bruins are averaging 2.47 goals per game after Saturday’s two-goal output, which included a shorthanded Craig Cunningham softie that slithered through Senators goaltender Robin Lehner’s pads.
Lehner should have stopped Cunningham’s shot. But the Bruins rookie got his chance because Zdeno Chara’s clearing pass eluded Turris and rolled onto Cunningham’s stick. It was a rare opportunity of speed through the neutral zone for the Bruins. Cunningham took advantage of it. There weren’t many other chances.
“I didn’t think we moved the puck well from our back end,” Julien said. “When you don’t do that, it certainly takes away a good part of your offense.”
Once the Bruins gain the puck in the defensive zone, it takes way too long for them to advance it up the ice. By then, opponents have retreated into formation to fend off offensive advancements.
Like most teams, the Bruins need a Keith Yandle-like pace pusher on defense, someone who already is what Dougie Hamilton projects to become. But these players are hard to find and even harder to acquire. They would require assets, of which the Bruins don’t have many. They’ve moved enough young players to know that trading Hamilton, who is atop every wish list, will bite them in the future.
Their more realistic pursuit is up front, where they require presence in a big way. The fourth line hasn’t provided consistent offense in more than a year. Saturday’s third line of Chris Kelly centering Milan Lucic and Cunningham worked hard and skated well. But they don’t have the finish or creativity to make enemy goalies quake in their pads.
Loui Eriksson punched in a second-period goal. It was only his third even-strength strike. The right wing has scored twice in the last three games.
But given his previous body of work as a Bruin, it is not a rate he is likely to sustain. Because of David Krejci’s absence, Eriksson and Carl Soderberg are playing against better players — second lines and No. 2 pairings. They don’t have the space they’ve enjoyed when they’re grinding down bottom pairs. They don’t have the puck enough to go to work down low and in tight.
To that end, the Bruins are a different team without Krejci. The clever center commands defensive respect. He makes Lucic better. He gives the Bruins three offensive-minded centers.
But they can’t count on the gimpy Krejci’s return to set things right. He missed his 10th straight game Saturday. He’s hurt himself twice on previous comebacks. There’s no guarantee a third won’t take place.
The Bruins have been chasing Chris Stewart for months. It may be a fruitless pursuit. Buffalo’s asking price remains too high for the Bruins to pay for a supposed power forward (3-1—4 in 28 games) who’s been a healthy scratch for one of the league’s worst teams.
The Bruins would feel better if they showed signs of traction. They could believe they’re due for a hot streak if they showed any consistency.
But it’s been stop-and-go movement for too long. There are no such things as turning points, wake-up calls, or defining moments when you’re an average team.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in other years. This is the season the Bruins are in, and it’s not a good one.
“It’s not going to get any better if we keep talking about it,” Rask said. “We’ve just got to bury our heads down, work hard, and good things are going to happen. But it’s really frustrating when you look at the mistakes and stuff we’re doing night in and night out. It’s not Bruins hockey.”