The Bruins are stuck in the neutral zone right now, frozen between the team they used to be and the team they want to be. They’re in pucks purgatory, and it isn’t fun.
You don’t need Dante Alighieri or Don Cherry, both purveyors of divine comedy, to figure that out.
So far the Boston hockey reboot has failed to find the on switch and so the Bruins are off to their first 0-3 start since 1999. It’s only three games, far too small a sample size to condemn coach Claude Julien and the Black and Gold for the season. But you can practically see the Spoked-B spinning in place as the Bruins try to integrate new personnel and take a new approach for the go-go NHL under their old bench boss.
Change hasn’t been good for the Bruins.
When new general manager Don Sweeney trumpeted a more offensive look for the Bruins after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, this isn’t the use of the word he had in mind. Instead of a reboot, the Bruins were booed off the ice by the Spoked-Believers following a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Monday matinee at TD Garden.
The Bruins played a very unfamiliar brand of hockey for those who have watched them smother opponents and swaddle their own zone in defensive layers during Julien’s nine-year tenure. Monday, there were giveaways, soft goals, ill-advised penalties and even-strength ineffectiveness, all of which negated three power-play goals.
Not even the return of stalwart defenseman Zdeno Chara to buttress a work-in-progress defense corps could steady the Jacobs AC and prevent the squandering of a 2-0 first-period lead.
The most shocking part of the Bruins winless start is the way they’ve been abused during even-strength play, which has been a hallmark of their success. Boston has been outscored, 11-3, in even-strength action. It was 4-0 for the Big Bad Bolts in five-on-five play on Monday.
“It doesn’t matter what the situation is we’ve got to be better defensively,” said Julien, whose team has surrendered 16 goals in three games. “The amount of the goals, from the goaltender on out, defense and the forwards coming back, we’ve just got to be better. It used to be our strength and right now it’s our weakness.”
All you need to know about the curious and precarious nature of this Bruins’ bridge season is that Julien was asked a job-security question after Game No 3. And after the way the Bruins let him dangle last offseason for 53 days before finally re-hiring him for his job, expect a steady stream of such inquiries any time the Bruins hit a rut.
Sweeney and team president Cam Neely have put Julien in an unenviable position — built-in fall guy.
The question is will Julien stick with the prescribed changes from management to turbo-charge the Bruins’ transition game if he fears for his job? It’s hard to change course when you don’t change your driving force.
Right now, it looks like the Bruins can’t get out of neutral. They’re trying to assimilate new players and younger (i.e. cheaper) players, while missing reliable ones like Brad Marchand (concussion) and defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (back).
One of the defense pairings on Monday was Joe Morrow with Colin Miller, a pair of promising young puck-moving defensemen tailor-made for the New NHL.
However, the two entered Monday’s game with 18 combined games of experience. On Tampa Bay’s final goal, Morrow coughed up the puck deep in his own end. Both players finished minus-2 on the day.
Another Tampa Bay goal came via a ghastly giveaway from second-year winger David Pastrnak, still a teenager. Pastrnak made an ill-advised backhanded pass that was picked off by Hingham’s Brian Boyle, who then shrugged off Pastrnak Rob Gronkowski-style and scored on a breakaway that gave Tampa a 3-2 lead at 4:50 of the second period.
But you can’t just blame the neophytes.
Patrice Bergeron picked up a hooking penalty at 14:13 of the second, less than two minutes after Loui Eriksson’s second power-play goal of the game had tied the score at 3. The Lightning cashed in with a Steven Stamkos laser from the left circle, the 500th point of Stamkos’s already-illustrious career.
The real backbreaker came when goalie Tuukka Rask let in a cotton ball-soft Jonathan Drouin goal at 5:38 of the third, putting Tampa up, 5-3.
“When your team is balancing or trying to find that balance, then the goalie needs to step up and maybe make that one or two very big saves to give that extra boost,” said Rask.
Perhaps, it’s simply a case of too much change too soon for the Spoked-Bs.
When you’ve been successful playing a certain way it’s difficult to fully commit to changes. It’s also hard to trust players that you haven’t built an on-ice rapport with through board battles and playoff beards.
But Chara and Bergeron refused to blame the management-mandated playing and personnel changes for the team’s slow start.
“That shouldn’t be an excuse, that shouldn’t be,” said Big Z. “There are so many teams that are going through changes, made changes, and I don’t think they are 0-3. We can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves, we have to find a way to get better and perform better. That’s not the reason we are playing poorly right now.”
The Bruins are searching — for the right balance between the more nimble team they want to be and the stingy team they’ve always been, for the right combination of new and/or inexperienced faces in the right places in the lineup and for an identity.
There can be no halfway.
The Bruins are finding out the hard way that change isn’t easy, and it’s often hard.
But change is usually worth it in the long run if you stick with it.
It’s far too early for the Bruins to bail on change or for us to bail on them.