Of all the hammerings the Bruins absorbed during their 6-4 beatdown in Chicago Sunday, they escaped one punishment. They scooted out of United Center without being charged for admission for the first half of the game.
Whatever sport the go-go Blackhawks were playing for all of the first period and half of the second, the Bruins were left to consume it as spectators. The Blackhawks controlled the puck and the pace. The Bruins, down a six-pack with less than a minute left in the second, had no choice but to chase.
They’d better get used to it.
The Bruins enter the final week of 2015-16 in full chase mode. Detroit and Philadelphia, the two teams they’re pursuing, are 1 point ahead of Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division and for the final wild-card spot, respectively.
Never has 1 point seemed like a gap so great.
On March 14, the Bruins were in first place in the Atlantic Division with 86 points. They were 10 points clear of Philadelphia, the ninth-place team in the Eastern Conference, and 7 points ahead of the Red Wings. Since then, the Bruins have gone 2-7-0, while the Wings have gone 6-4-0 and the Flyers 7-3-1.
Call it a choke, gag job, or anything else that qualifies as such. In reality, their nine-game stumble is a mirror. The results reflect who they are: an unexceptional, top-heavy mishmash of players.
Their talent level puts them at risk for tumbles like the one they’re currently riding. It’s just that it’s happening at the wrong time.
It would be one thing if their recent troubles were about offense. They are averaging 2.9 goals per game, fifth-most in the NHL. They have 152 five-on-five goals, third-most behind the Stars and Rangers.
In small windows, scoring goals can be fickle, as the Bruins learned the hard way in their 2-1 loss to New Jersey on March 29, when they had a 64-29 advantage in shot attempts. They did not suddenly learn how to shoot straight in their next two games when they pumped in 10 total pucks against St. Louis and Chicago. Their offensive luck changed for the better.
It’s a lot harder, however, to make immediate corrections to defending. When the Bruins have allowed chances in bunches the way they have the last two games, it reflects many things gone wrong. They made bad decisions. They compounded their mistakes by letting a breakdown get to their heads. They ran around, tried to do too much, and ended up doing themselves far more harm than good.
“We have to clear up our little mistakes in our defensive game, especially in our D-zone,” David Krejci said after Monday’s practice at TD Garden. “Sometimes we were kind of everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We kind of worked on that today. Hopefully, we can keep the goals away from our net and keep scoring. That would be nice to do tomorrow.”
Ultimately, they played to the quality of their roster, which is not very good.
Up front, coach Claude Julien has opted for a power line by skating Loui Eriksson with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. It’s a risky move. When the line doesn’t score, opponents can take advantage of the bottom six, which includes two first-year pros in Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari, a slumping No. 3 center in Ryan Spooner (one goal and three assists in his last 12 games), and a right wing in Jimmy Hayes whose results (0-0—0 in his last 15 games) are screaming at high decibels in contrast to his hushed on-ice performance.
It’s even shakier on the blue line, where there are three dependable defensemen (Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug), one newcomer (John-Michael Liles), and a whole lot of Providence (Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow).
Dennis Seidenberg left Monday’s practice early after pulling out of a battle drill with Hayes. Seidenberg did not play against St. Louis or Chicago. Kevan Miller, injured against St. Louis, did not practice. Neither looks likely to be available against Carolina Tuesday.
“Obviously, be more tight defensively,” Chara said when asked how the team had to play this week. “We’re giving up some outnumbered situations, some scoring chances. We need to be more tight defensively.”
In previous times of crisis, the Bruins always retreated to a familiar spot. They would simplify their game, lock it down on defense, and progress from there. Seventy-nine games of data have shown that this is no longer a sure thing. They’ve allowed 2.77 goals per game, 12th-most in the league. They’ve allowed more shot attempts during five-on-five play than they’ve taken. Their penalty kill is No. 13 overall at 81.7 percent.
Julien still trusts that his players can think and execute the game properly in the final week of play.
“When a team wants to get itself back on track, which we have to do this week, you’ve got to trust whatever word you want to use — game plan, system,” Julien said. “You’ve got to trust it.
“You’ve got to respect it and go and do it so that everybody’s on the same page. That just minimizes breakdowns. That’s the focus we have to have this week. Let’s trust our game plan and our system here. Let’s execute it the best we can. The rest will take care of itself.
“We’ve got enough talent to score goals. We’ve got enough talent to defend. It’s just making sure we minimize the kind of mistakes you saw yesterday.”
Perhaps this is doable for one game. But the Bruins need three wins to do it right. They haven’t won three straight since January.