Even before the Bruins’ three-game whimper against Carolina, Ottawa, and Toronto, players understood they were playing for the right to continue wearing Black and Gold.
Two shootout setbacks and an overtime loss later, job security is even more precarious.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said Monday when asked if his players should be feeling uncomfortable in the dressing room.
Chiarelli is not satisfied. A 5-2 win over Detroit Dec. 29 in which his team played with pace, purpose, and desperation provided Chiarelli with some evidence that traction was coming.
Nothing of the sort has taken place.
“There were times in the first period [against Carolina] where it was tough to take,” Chiarelli said of Sunday’s 2-1 shootout loss. “We knew it was going to be tough. We’re in a back-to-back situation. The other team isn’t. We have to get through that period. I thought we should have had a better push. It impacts the rest of the game. We’ve seen a few those of periods in this three-game stretch. It’s disappointing. We’re still treading water, and that’s not acceptable. That’s the common denominator in those three games. You look at the Detroit game, you see energy and a consistent forecheck. That’s what we have to get to.”
Chiarelli was patient when his team struggled to score earlier this year as the Bruins were bit by the injury bug. He believed the team he had assembled to start the season would be good enough to contend, especially if he acquired help at right wing, which had an opening due to Jarome Iginla’s defection to Colorado.
David Krejci is back. So is Zdeno Chara, although the captain has yet to find his rhythm. Adam McQuaid returned on Saturday. Rookie David Pastrnak, who led his Czech Republic team in scoring at the World Junior Championship, was recalled Monday.
The 18-year-old will travel to Pittsburgh, but it’s unknown whether he’ll play against the Penguins on Wednesday. He is likely to dress on Thursday against New Jersey.
A roster that’s back in good health, however, might not be intact for long.
“It’s never fun to be in this situation — to try and improve your roster when you’re not in a real position of strength,” Chiarelli said. “There’s not a lot of activity going around. But you try and peck away and try to improve your team. At the same time, you hope these guys can string a couple games together. We have to watch this closely.”
The Bruins look like they’re several pieces away from a contending team. They require a goal-scoring presence up front. They need better play on the fourth line. Their defense is sluggish and methodical in moving the puck out of the defensive zone.
It is a series of related shortcomings. The result is a spitball offense, a nervous defense, and goaltending that needs to approach perfection to negate the team’s mistakes.
“What I see now is a team that’s quite tight,” Chiarelli said. “We’re tight in our own end, then we become tight transporting the puck through the neutral zone. You see our forwards being too high. Then we don’t get the puck and momentum going into the other zone, then we can’t sustain the forecheck. It’s a domino effect.”
The pieces could fall in the room as well. Chiarelli and his management team are exploring all options.
OT play is successful
At the end of regulation Sunday, the Bruins exhaled, knowing they had wrung out a point from a game in which they deserved none.
But they also regained their breath because they had reached overtime. It is a segment of the game — unlike others — in which the Bruins have played with offensive pace and confidence.
The Bruins have needed extra time in each of their last three games. They lost two in the shootout, including Sunday’s game against Carolina. They dropped Saturday’s game to Ottawa just 44 seconds into overtime when Bobby Ryan beat Tuukka Rask with a net-front goal.
But overtime remains a five-minute stretch in which the Bruins play like a contending team. They are 5-2 in overtime. They’ve landed 39 shots on goal, more than twice the number they’ve allowed (18). In comparison, the Bruins have recorded only seven more shots in regulation (1,165) than they’ve given up (1,158).
The Bruins own overtime. The question is, why can’t they find that same swagger in the preceding 60 minutes?
Against Carolina Sunday, the Bruins put two pucks on Anton Khudobin in overtime. That matched their entire output in the third period. They managed only four shots in the first period.
“In overtime, in my mind, I’m playing to win,” said coach Claude Julien. “When I say I’m playing to win, I want to avoid shootouts. I think it’s pretty obvious you want to avoid shootouts and do the best you can to win that hockey game.”
Part of the Bruins’ overtime success is because of four-on-four play. Having two fewer skaters leads to greater space and more opportunities for scoring chances. The Bruins have scored five four-on-four goals this season, all in overtime.
Also, the Bruins are one of the few teams that usually rolls out three forwards and one defenseman. Most teams choose to play two forwards and two defensemen. Julien likes the formation for overtime. He’s hesitant to use it in regulation.
“I think we’ve got confidence in overtime playing three and one,” Julien said. “Overall, I think we’ve lost two games since last season in that format. I think there is some confidence. It goes to show where we are with the rest of our game.”
During regulation, there are fewer opportunities for four-on-four play. Before overtime, Julien opts mostly for two forwards and two defensemen. Against San Jose on Dec. 4, the Bruins rolled out forwards Milan Lucic, Carl Soderberg, and Loui Eriksson with defenseman Dougie Hamilton. The Sharks scored 14 seconds into the shift.
“In a tie game or if you’re in the lead, playing with one defenseman, there is a risk,” Julien said. “Is it worth taking that risk when you have lots of time left in the game? Those are decisions you make on how your team is playing, what the situation is, and everything else. It’s certainly not something I haven’t considered. But I’d have to gauge the situation before I do the same thing I do four-on-four in overtime.”
The Bruins aren’t good in the shootout, where they’ve won twice and lost four times. They have a 21.7 percent shooting percentage, eighth-worst in the league. They’re desperate not to reach the shootout, where luck, more than skill, decides the outcome.
So they play with desperation in overtime. They’d be in better shape if they showed some of that hunger in regulation.
“We should take that attitude and play that way in the 60 minutes,” Hamilton said. “Play to win instead of playing to see what happens. Maybe that will help us.”
Chara out of synch
It’s been less than four weeks since Chara returned to the lineup after tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Twelve games in, Chara has yet to find his rhythm.
In overtime Saturday against Ottawa, Chara went down after throwing a hit on Erik Karlsson. He was slow to recover and was beaten by Ryan to the front of the net.
On Sunday, during a penalty kill, Chara made a questionable decision to steam up ice and throw a hit. It nearly allowed the Hurricanes to rush the other way.
“It’s just taking a little longer,” Chara said after practice at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington. “That’s not an excuse. I just need to get my game back as quick as possible.”
Chara always needed lots of practice, training, and repetition to play his style. He relies on proper mechanics to get the components of his 6-foot-9-inch frame to operate in concert. Missing almost two months because of his injury hasn’t helped.
“I still feel he’s one of the best defenders in the league,” Julien said. “Yet he’s coming off a major [injury]. You can’t tell me he’s 100 percent after being out for two months and having to make some adjustments with his equipment because of that injury. ‘’
“You’re seeing some flaws. It’s not his fault. It’s not because he’s not trying. Those are the challenges and realities we have to try and work through.”
Breather for Bergeron
Patrice Bergeron was given a maintenance day. Craig Cunningham replaced Bergeron between Brad Marchand and Seth Griffith. Reilly Smith remained alongside Lucic and Krejci . . . The Bruins are not sure when Simon Gagne will return to the team. Gagne last played Dec. 6 before taking a leave of absence because of the illness and then death of his father, Pierre.