So many things were in place for the Bruins to make a resounding, early statement about their season.
The B’s were chosen by the NHL and Versus network to tangle with the league’s most exciting player, Alex Ovechkin, in a marquee game showcasing the league’s best and brightest. The streets around TD Garden were teeming with hungry fans adorned in Black and Gold and ready to continue the magic carpet ride that suddenly transformed into a disappearing act during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
The vibe was enthusiastic and the focus was squarely on the Bruins in early October, a time when hockey is almost always second or third fiddle on the crowded Boston sports scene. A ferocious Bruins attack ensued on the ice for somewhere between 10-15 minutes Thursday night, but shortly thereafter sloppiness reigned in a thoroughly unsatisfying 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals.
In the end, Thursday’s home-opening defeat simply ranks as a severely missed opportunity for a Bruins team looking to keep making strides.
“It wasn’t a magical night,” said Marc Savard, who perhaps perfectly described what might have been, but clearly wasn’t. “We all went to bed this afternoon for a nap hoping that it was [going to be a magical night], but it didn’t happen tonight.”
It was easy to count the reasons why the final result wasn’t a magically delicious one for Savard and his teammates, and it all comes down to discipline, poise and puck intelligence.
The mistakes started at the top and sprinkled on down the roster. Sloppiness infiltrated through almost every player wearing a Bruins uniform on a night when there were no more dress rehearsals. Zdeno Chara did a fair job bottling up Ovechkin during 5-on-5 play, but took a bad cross-checking penalty at the end of the second period chasing after the Caps winger when he obliterated Mark Recchi with a vicious, open-ice hit. That penalty led to a power-play score for Brooks Laich and Ovechkin's so-called “sick” teammates.
Dennis Wideman kicked off the downward spiral when he felt pressure from the Capitals forecheck and blindly threw a pass toward the Bruins bench. It’s normally a no-no in the Bruins' Big Book of Doing Things, and this one resulted in a penalty for too many men on the ice, followed by a Washington power-play passing clinic.
“This will not be the team that you’re going to see night after night this year,” said a terse Claude Julien, who stressed that more practices with the full team could help to alleviate some of the issues cropping up Thursday. “That much I can guarantee you.”
A bad Bruins line change in the third period left Ovechkin as a free-and-easy trailer on a 4-on-2 Capitals breakaway, and he didn’t miss that opportunity either. Ovechkin finished off the night by piling up three points and five big shots on net. It was plain to see he was the best player on the Garden ice in an Eastern Conference showdown, and it wasn't even close. Ovechkin also had eight other shots blocked by B’s skaters and missed wide with another bid for 14 total attempts at the net during a very active night's work.
It was a pretty atypical evening for a group of Boston skaters that rarely beat itself last year, and was among the least penalized group in the NHL.
Too many shots in the offensive zone were either fanned on or completely missed their mark, and the numbers are pretty staggering. The Bruins managed a meager 20 shots on net in a wide-open, up-and-down game with the goal-minded Caps, but had an amazing 27 attempted shots either get blocked (13) or completely miss the mark (14) altogether.
David Krejci was beating himself up for not cashing in on a couple of excellent chances early in the game, but there were others who were far more off the mark than the 24-year-old pivot. The fact that he had a couple of Grade 'A' chances simply meant he was more effective on the ice than many of his celebrated teammates.
“We had some chances. Some of them were pretty nice, and if we had buried those chances it might have been a different game. We’d be talking about two points [for a win] right now,” Krejci said. “I’ve got to be better, and it’s my fault that we didn’t score. I’ve got to work on those shots and practice and be better.”
Julien chalked up some of Boston's unkempt ways to a team that’s held only three full practices together during a compressed training camp schedule. The coach knows there is a better team lurking behind the turnovers and neutral-zone butchery. It’s far too early to mention the departed Phil Kessel as a reason for the offensive struggles and power-play difficulties, but the Bruins didn’t look like a team that’s going to finish second in the NHL in goals scored again this season.
What’s inexcusable for a veteran team are the mental mistakes and frustration that crept into Boston's game by the second period when it was still only a 2-0 game. The deficit felt like it might as well have been a 47-goal chasm when Bruins players haphazardly began throwing the puck up the ice and giving it away in the neutral zone as if it were a live hand grenade about to explode on their sticks.
“It was disheartening,” Chara said after watching mental and physical errors sink his team. “We got kind of frustrated. We were doing what we were supposed to do, and then all of a sudden, I don’t know if we got frustrated because we couldn’t score a goal, but for whatever reason we just started to change the game plan.
“We were making mental mistakes.”
It’s far too early for the Bruins to be getting frustrated, but there should be some honest-to-goodness disappointment that a team with tall expectations shrank away from an opportunity to cash in plenty of good things happening on the NHL’s first day of work.
With that in mind, here are three things we learned during Thursday night’s debacle vs. the ridiculously talented Caps:
THE SILVER LINING CONTINUES TO BE PATRICE BERGERON
Through training camp and now after the first game of the season, when he scored his team’s lone goal, Patrice Bergeron continues to submit overwhelming evidence that he’s back to pre-concussion form. The 24-year-old was Boston’s best faceoff guy, played the aggressive, suffocating style of forecheck that Julien may call for quite a bit more this season, and finally injected a little scoring life back into a flagging bunch when he broke through for a goal in the third period.
Bergeron took a feed from members of the B’s impressive fourth line, moved in all alone on the cage, and faked out Jose Theodore before tucking a backhanded bid between the goalie’s pads for the breakaway score. The goal temporarily energized his teammates, but it was too little, too late with nothing more than 10 minutes remaining in a game against a quality Eastern Conference opponent riding high with confidence. It was perhaps inconsequential in the game's final outcome, but it pumped just a little more air into Bergeron's tires with another 81 games in front of him.
Bergeron was clearly more preoccupied with the team result on a night when so many things didn’t live up to prior billing, but the longest-tenured B’s player appears close to the form that had him score 31 goals and post back-to-back 70-plus-point seasons prior to the concussion suffered a the hands of the Flyers back in 2007.
It took Bergeron six games before he cashed in on that first goal last season, but there’s a world of difference strength- and comfort-wise between last year and this season's edition of the B's third-line center.
“It feels good to have the first one behind me,” Bergeron said. “But it’s a team game, so I’m not really worried about that. You’ve got to win games more than anything else.”
Beyond Bergeron’s encouraging play, Julien said post-game that David Krejci enjoyed a strong return in his first game action of the season after skipping the preseason, and Marco Sturm also appeared healthy and ready to perform in the wake of last season's knee surgery.
All that remains now is for the returning players to rejoin the normal flow of play and help get a disjointed Bruins offense back on track.
THE SPECIAL TEAMS NEED SOME WORK
The B’s power play was anything but powerful, going 0-for-5 with only one shot on net in as limp an effort as you’ll witness from a pretty talented bunch of offensive pieces. The Bruins battled to simply keep the puck in the offensive zone while on the man advantage, and several Boston players mentioned post-game that the team probably didn’t use the player manned on the half-wall nearly enough as an offensive option.
For Boston’s first PP unit, that half-wall player is Savard, and he had altogether too quiet of an evening. Both point men — Chara and Derek Morris — also did very little of note in this season’s debut performance. Add it all together, and there was no pop on a power play outclassed by the otherworldly Alex Ovechkin and the rest of Washington's big-name skaters.
“You’ve got to do the job [on the penalty kill] and the same thing on the power play,” Bergeron said. “You’ve got to get the job done on special teams. You can’t give [Washington] the seams like that [on the penalty kill] because they’re going to make them and hurt us.”
The Capitals also sliced and diced a Bruins penalty-kill unit searching to find an identity after losing contributors from last year’s team, and Bergeron bemoaned the loose structure that allowed Washington skaters to find seams all over the ice. Ovechkin and big-bodied Brooks Laich did all kinds of damage with tic-tac passing across the ice, and they credited their success to the scouting reports after the game. The B's clearly need to tighten things up down a player, and make it more difficult for attackers to find openings close to the net.
“We’re familiar with each other. That was the [PP] unit we had together last year and there’s a lot of talent out there,” said Laich after victimizing the B's for two goals. “We did some pre-scouting and we knew how to break Boston’s penalty kill down. We got a couple of lucky breaks.
“I got a couple of lucky goals just in behind. Maybe later on in the season Thomas will squeeze [those shots], but we’ll take them for now.”
THE FOURTH LINE IS PICKING UP WHERE IT LEFT OFF
Shawn Thornton, Byron Bitz and Steve Begin will never blow people away with their breathtaking scoring skills or deadly wrist shots from the dot, but the blue collar trio did check in as Boston’s most consistent line from beginning to end Thursday night. Like so many nights last season, the line dutifully provided the physical thump to the game, and Begin actually notched an assist helping spring Bergeron for his breakaway third-period goal.
“They did what they were supposed to do,” Julien said. “I thought as a line they did a great job with the forecheck. Shawn Thornton had good legs tonight. Bitz and Begin were just working hard, making things happen out there. That’s what we expect out of that line.”
The fourth-line shifts logged obviously allow Julien to rest to the other three lines, and Thornton also brought the Bruins a quick spark when he dropped the gloves with Washington tough guy John Erskine after Bergeron’s goal. The quick bout kept the momentum in Boston's corner just a bit longer, but the Bruins simply didn't have it against a Capitals team simply playing at a higher level early in the season. Thornton scored the solid victory after landing a couple of rights and then tucking Erskine’s sweater over his head for good measure.
The fourth line played modest minutes Thursday night and isn’t going to be confused with anybody’s top line, but last night’s performance does bode well for another solid year out of Thornton’s lunch-pail crew when it comes to rolling lines and rattling the boards.