Approximately one-quarter of the NHL schedule has been burned off the calendar, and the Bruins’ record (11-3-4/26 points), second only to Washington in the East as of Wednesday morning, is testament that things are OK.
Now, is OK a problem? Viewed through the prism of Tuesday night’s epic collapse and shootout loss to the Panthers — the first time in franchise history the Bruins converted a 4-0 lead in the third period into a loss — it would appear so. They’re also winless in their last four (0-2-2) and aren’t sure how soon power-play quarterback Torey Krug will be back on duty.
Krug, injured Sunday vs. Philadelphia, may or may not have plugged the fast-leaking tire that occurred Tuesday night, but the swagger he brings to both ends of the ice was missed. The 5-foot-9-inch Krug may not be a classic stout defenseman — for whatever that means anymore in the flea-flicker NHL — but his gumption and feistiness have become increasingly vital to the team’s success the last couple of years, ratcheting up exponentially ever since ex-puck-moving defenseman Bruce Cassidy was dropped in as coach, fittingly on the fly.
Absent any push-back in the third period vs. Florida, the Bruins were pushed right out of their home rink, a place where at times through the decades they’ve been able to survive, even thrive, on that element alone.
They win with skill and roster depth as their strengths these days, but physical moxie and attitude are still essential — and both had left the building in the third period, as if stuffed in the back of the family station wagon with grandpa trying to make tracks down Causeway Street ahead of traffic.
“You give the other team some life, and then it snowballs,” said goalie Tuukka Rask, who ID’d himself as the game’s top disappointment. “At that point, you can’t regain your speed and confidence. Momentum just takes it the other way and you can’t recover.”
It’s Cassidy’s job now, following a day off Wednesday, to find a foothold, before 0-2-2 bleeds out to, say, a 1-9-3 mess that takes the Bruins from playoff lock to the doorstep of the wild-card race.
That idea would have been preposterous just days ago, when they were riding an 8-0-2 stretch between regulation losses. But like the play on the ice, everything happens fast in today’s NHL. Today’s four-game slump, if left to fester, can undo a team faster than you can say “2018-19 Buffalo Sabres.”
Prior to leaving the building Tuesday night, Cassidy identified penalty killing high on his “fix it” list. The Panthers struck twice on the man-advantage, which helped close the deficit to 4-3, and then Keith Yandle knocked in the equalizer with 1:30 to go.
It was that last goal, at even strength, that most troubled Cassidy. The game was there to close out, a team strength from the days even before he took over for Claude Julien. But with the 2 points there to pocket, in came Yandle from the back line to make a fairly easy put-away, albeit with the officials ignoring the fact (not opinion) that Jonathan Huberdeau had applied an arm lock on Patrice Bergeron in front of Rask, preventing Bergeron from moving the puck out of harm’s way.
The entire Boston defensive effort on that goal, which had his No. 1 line and top D pairing on the ice, left Cassidy gobsmacked.
“Doubt creeps into your mind, like, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” noted Cassidy, rolling through lost offensive opportunities and defensive lapses that played out in the third. “This is a team that’s closed out games for years, and the last goal, to me, putting everything else aside, is disappointing.
“We get beat one-on-one off the rush. Wingers circled out of the scoring area, knowing the game is on the line. I could sit here and argue that the guy is holding Bergy’s stick and he can’t clear the puck. But structurally we were bad on that last goal, and that’s the disappointing part. That’s where we are usually rock-solid.”
Without question, Rask has to be better. Florida shot 12 times in the third and scored on four of them.
“I should have been sharper,” Rask said “I let in soft goals and I let their team get some momentum. It’s a 60-minute game and I am sure a lot of it’s mental. But I definitely take most of the blame in that third period.”
Jaroslav Halak was in the Boston net just eight days earlier when the Bruins similarly booted away a 3-0 lead over the Penguins. Pittsburgh ripped off four straight goals in the second to take a 4-3 lead, before the Bruins battled back with a three-goal outburst in the third, with Krug leading the assault, for a 6-4 win.
Goalies are forever at fault — it comes with the job — but booting away three- and four-goal leads in the course of eight days is an art form that requires many artists.
“Montreal, I sucked,” said Rask, asked to review his last three outings. “Detroit, I felt OK. [Tuesday], last period, a couple of soft goals, so I can’t be too satisfied. But a lot of hockey left.”
True, lots. A total of 64 games, in fact, before the puck drops in the postseason.
The challenge right now for the Bruins, beyond getting Krug, Jake DeBrusk, and a whack of support forwards back in good health, is the mental game. Focus. To wit: When Cassidy is identifying top wingers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak as gone missing on Florida’s tying goal, he knows it’s time to raise the attention and commitment level, a first for him in the 209 regular-season games he has been on the job in Boston.
It’s early. As uncomfortable as they are at the moment, and perhaps a bit embarrassed, the Bruins remain in a comfortable spot in the standings as they prepare to face Toronto (Friday) and Washington (Saturday). They are smart, talented, and have a core of veteran leadership the envy of most teams across the Original 31.
All good. But lately, not nearly good enough.