SUNRISE, Fla. — The Bruins are in trouble.
After back-to-back, zero-resistance losses to Washington and Florida, the Bruins must win Game No. 82 on Saturday against Tampa Bay and have Ottawa, the hottest team in the league, lose in regulation on Saturday against Philadelphia. They could also get in if they get a point against the Lightning and have Pittsburgh lose or manage just one point in their final two games against the Islanders and Buffalo. The odds of all this taking place are not in Boston’s favor.
Things are out of their control. This is a horrible feeling.
“It’s tough,” Chris Kelly said. “We’ve been a proud group that’s always wanted to do things on our own. Now we’re looking for help.”
Nobody will volunteer to do the Bruins any favors. The Bruins learned this the hard way on Thursday night at BB&T Center.
Nine days ago, the Bruins just about ended the Panthers’ postseason dreams with a 3-2 come-from-behind win at TD Garden. The Panthers might have done the same by booting the Bruins out of South Florida with a 4-2 loss.
By 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, when the Bruins conclude the regular season against the Lightning, the game may not even matter. Ottawa plays Philadelphia at 12:30 p.m. If the Senators win, the Bruins might as well hit the nearest golf course instead of reporting to Amalie Arena for a go-through-the-motions game. Around Tampa, there are plenty of options.
Of the back-to-back gut punches, the Washington one hurt the most. The Bruins were coming off three rest days. They were still in control of their fate. They should have been fresh, hungry, and desperate. They were none of those things.
Less than 24 hours later, the Bruins’ tank was predictably empty. Few athletes, having gone through almost an entire marathon of a season, can dig deep after an early-morning arrival into tropical heat. For most of Thursday’s game, their legs were gone. The 2014-15 Bruins do not have the collective talent, experience, or energy to manipulate their minds and sticks into overcoming the lead in their skates.
“You get in at 3 in the morning, you know it’s going to be there,” coach Claude Julien said of weariness. “You’ve got to try and overcome that by making good decisions and not shooting yourself in the foot like we did in the third period. That’s the part I’m disappointed in.”
The Bruins started Thursday’s game with purpose. They forechecked well. They managed the puck efficiently. They went to the net.
After an Aleksander Barkov tripping penalty at 3:02, the No. 1 power-play unit stayed on the ice for the entire two-minute stretch. But they couldn’t put a single puck past Roberto Luongo. It would bite them later, especially after Brett Connolly’s offensive-zone boarding penalty at 8:18 of the first slammed the brakes on their momentum.
The Bruins allowed four goals because they made mistakes in the defensive zone, including Tuukka Rask. This team is built on the requirement that Rask, who made his 69th appearance, plays at Vezina level every game. This did not happen.
Barkov’s second-period power-play goal slipped through Rask’s pads. Early in the third, Jonathan Huberdeau walked the puck out of the corner and backhanded a riser over Rask to give Florida a 2-1 lead. The Bruins got caught chasing in their zone before Brad Boyes buried a shot from the slot for Florida’s third goal. The Panthers ended their scoring after Carl Soderberg’s backhand turnover gave Jimmy Hayes time and space to pick his spot and beat Rask at 15:14.
But the Bruins lost because their offense has picked the worst time to go missing. In the last two losses, all they have for scoring is a Patrice Bergeron power-play strike and a seeing-eye Brad Marchand goal that beat Luongo short side in the third.
The line of Milan Lucic, Ryan Spooner, and David Pastrnak, which once injected the team with offensive energy, went silent. Connolly, not up to pace because of the month he missed with a broken finger, had one scoring chance. David Krejci, who centered Max Talbot and Connolly on the fourth line, was reduced to a power-play point specialist.
At full strength, the Bruins have to work hard to score goals. Speed and skill do not come naturally to them. They play their rush game when they force turnovers and go on the attack. But it’s difficult to force teams that are responsible with the puck into mistakes.
The alternative is a methodical, station-to-station slog up the ice and into the offensive zone. Even when they gain entry, they’re missing speed and numbers.
In this league, it’s too easy to gum up the defensive zone, box out in the middle, lift sticks around the net, and ask the goalie to make the first save. It’s even easier when a legless team like the Bruins is missing the fight to will itself into the danger areas to create tips, bounces, and screens.
“We’re playing a lot of perimeter hockey right now,” Bergeron said. “We’re content with positioning and just managing the puck in their zone. We have to bring it to the net. Especially when they play man-on-man like that, once you have a guy beat, you should usually have a lane. We have to definitely find that final desperation. It’s all about winning that game now.”
The Bruins tried to push at the end. Rask was approaching the bench. But before he got off, the Bruins were called for too many men at 17:36 of the third.
“The third period there, we should have been dominant,” Marchand said. “We just weren’t. We don’t seem to have that killer instinct we once had and allowed us to be a good team.”
Marchand landed two shots and scored once in 16:29 of ice time. After the loss, Marchand briefly glanced at the scoresheet. Then he threw it in the trash.