Matt Irwin was a minus-3 Thursday night. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
If you were worried about the Bruins’ defense being a disaster with Dougie Hamilton gone and Zdeno Chara banged up, your worst fears were realized in Thursday night’s season-opening loss against the Jets.
The game actually didn’t start off too badly at all. The Bruins were on the attack most of the first period and the defense didn’t really give the Jets any good looks on the few occasions they did get into the Bruins’ zone.
But then the second period happened. The Jets’ first goal came off a combination of all three Bruins forwards getting caught up ice and Joe Morrow not putting enough on his pass into the neutral zone, leading to an easy interception for Dustin Byfuglien and an odd-man rush the other way.
The second came off a brutal turnover by Matt Irwin behind the Bruins’ net, as Andrew Ladd picked his pocket clean before setting up former Bruin Blake Wheeler right in front. The third resulted from another tough sequence for Irwin and defensive partner Zach Trotman. Trotman couldn’t get his stick on a pass through the slot that went right by him, and then Irwin compounded that by completely losing track of his man and allowing Drew Stafford an easy finish on the doorstep.
Things didn’t get any better in the third. After the Bruins cut the deficit to 3-2, Irwin got caught pinching in the offensive zone (as you’ve probably gathered by now, the UMass product did not have a good night) and David Krejci, who was the closest to being able to cover for Irwin, could not keep up with Chris Thorburn on the rush the other way. The Jets then made it 5-2 when Torey Krug couldn’t clear out 5-foot-9 Nicolas Petan and watched a centering pass bounce off Petan’s skate and in.
‘I think the examples are pretty clear of where we made those mistakes and where it cost us goals,’ Claude Julien said after the game. ‘It was clear right from the get-go there, so it’s going to be easy to show those kinds of things. We’re early in the season, you’ve got to show those kinds of things. We’ve got to work and rectify those things as soon as possible.’
It’s true that Thursday night was only one game. And it’s true that Chara probably won’t miss too many more games, if any. But Thursday night still has to be highly concerning for the Bruins and their fans.
This defense was projected to be a weakness for good reason. It’s inexperienced. It has guys who are best-suited for third-pairing roles playing on the second pairing (and with Chara out, the first pairing). It has stay-at-home guys who don’t contribute much offensively and offensive-minded players who have yet to prove they can be trusted with tough defensive assignments, with Chara being the only one you’re confident can do both.
All of those concerns were brought to light Thursday night. When you add in forwards cheating to the offensive side of the puck and a couple bad line changes, you get a total disaster.
‘All you have to do is do your job,’ Morrow said, echoing Bill Belichick. ‘We’re just trying to maintain things and get a little better every day, and with that experience will come better play and more comfortable defense pairings and little things like that. The performance tonight was inexcusable. It wasn’t what we wanted. It wasn’t nearly what we expected.’
The Bruins’ defense will almost certainly start to look at least a little better, especially when Chara returns. Even at age 38, he’s still a bona fide No. 1 defenseman who should almost single-handedly give the B’s a solid top pairing, even if it isn’t on the level of last year’s Chara-Hamilton pairing.
But how much better this group gets will be the biggest question the Bruins face all season. Thursday night dispelled the fantasy that maybe this group would somehow be way ahead of where anyone expected, that maybe some of these unprovens would grab top-four roles and run with them right from the get-go.
As it turns out, and as we all expected, the Bruins really are starting from scratch on the blue line. They have a long way to go, and Thursday night made that crystal clear.