COLUMBUS – When the Bruins were a good team, they made a 60-minute game seem a whole lot longer for the opposition.
They jammed sticks in lanes. They leaned on bodies. Their neutral-zone jamming required professional plumbing assistance to unstick. Their goalies turned sure goals into casual stops.
The Bruins were a hard, thorough, and frustrating team to play against.
They were nothing of the sort in a 6-2 rout at Nationwide Arena on Saturday. The Blue Jackets didn’t have to work very hard to score goals.
The Bruins have submitted a lot of disappointing results. They don’t get much worse than their latest system-wide breakdown. It featured every element: not enough commitment on the forecheck, unreliable goaltending, let-’em-in entrance through the neutral zone, sluggishness to loose pucks, and panic below the defensive-zone dots.
All this took place against a non-playoff team without its ace goalie and six skaters.
“We were not managing the puck well,” said Zdeno Chara, who was on the ice for three of Columbus’s six goals. “We were losing the races to the pucks and losing the battles. That’s how they scored the goals.”
For 20 minutes, the Bruins believed they were in the game. They played sleepy hockey in the first period. But 20 seconds after Scott Hartnell gave Columbus a 1-0 lead, Patrice Bergeron answered to tie the game at 1-1.
But the second period featured every kind of shortcoming. The result: four goals against, one starting goalie pulled, and 20 heads left shaking over how a formerly efficient unit has eroded into a game-chasing group.
The Bruins do not have enough skill nor speed to play without structure. On Saturday, they played with less structure than a bowl of chocolate pudding.
“The coaches do what they do and they put the game plan together. That game plan works,” Milan Lucic said. “It’s worked for the past seven years. It’s up to us as players to come together and, as individuals, step up all of our games and get it moving in the right direction. Because we’re starting to run out of time as far as playing catch-up hockey.”
Good goaltending can mask a team’s issues. The Bruins did not get that from Niklas Svedberg. In the first period, Hartnell scored because Svedberg couldn’t control Kevin Connauton’s point shot. In the final minute of the first, another bad rebound gave David Savard a good chance. A pad save by David Krejci kept the puck out of the net.
At 6:32, Svedberg faced what would be his final shot — a Connauton snapper from the point that he never saw. With his team trailing, 3-1, coach Claude Julien gave Svedberg the hook.
“I lost sight of it just before he shot it,” said Svedberg (12 saves on 15 shots). “I can’t blame that either. You’ve got to work hard to find the puck as a goalie. I couldn’t pick it up. That’s on me too. Those goals are going to happen. But unfortunately that was an important goal there. I ended up getting pulled, so obviously that’s not good enough.”
Svedberg didn’t get any help from his teammates either. Forwards stepped in front of releases just when Svedberg needed to see them. Defensemen failed to remove the Jackets from shooting lanes. Svedberg, and Rask after him (also 12 saves on 15 shots), was under assault until he left the game. There is not much a goalie can do when a defense is in all-out scramble mode in the corners and in front of the net.
“We made a lot of mistakes tonight — defensive mistakes,” Julien said. “Not boxing out, screening our goaltenders instead of fronting those pucks, not boxing out when we should have been boxing out. Even our puck management from our back end to make those passes out of our own end or through the neutral zone wasn’t good enough. A lot of mistakes were from our own doing.”
It wasn’t just that the Bruins ran around in the defensive zone. Everything is connected. Up front, they shot pucks wide that should have been aimed at Curtis McElhinney, who entered the night with an .895 save percentage. They should have chipped pucks in places where defensemen don’t like to go.
But the Bruins didn’t apply enough offensive pressure. Their forecheck arrived late. The Jackets moved the puck swiftly out of their zone to initiate the counterattack.
Once they revved up their wheels in center ice, the Bruins could do little to halt their advance into the danger areas. The Bruins were overwhelmed in every area of the ice.
“They were just strong on the puck,” Craig Cunningham said. “They got on the puck, won the battle, and got the puck up to the point. They found a way to get through. As wingers and guys in front of the net, we’ve got to find a way to get in the lane and not let those pucks get through.”
Before the Christmas break, the Bruins took two steps ahead by beating Buffalo and Nashville. They took a big step back on Saturday. This is who they’ve become: a peaks-and-valleys team that does not qualify as a top-eight group in the East. Opponents are learning that the Bruins are an easy team to play.