The Bruins originally looked at their season-opening five-game homestand as a nice little stretch capable of getting the motor humming and heading into the proper direction amid a season of high expectations.
The competition was solid, to be sure, and games would be challenging after a nearly nonexistent training camp (the result of a Winter Olympics-shortened schedule), but Marc Savard and others expected at least a .500 or better homestand.
Instead the Bruins prepare to hit the road over the next two weeks, and their record sits stagnantly under .500 at a 2-3 record after five home dates — with lopsided losses to the Capitals and Ducks tossed in for good measure. The struggling club is now hopeful that the elusive answers it’s looking for can be found on the normally cold and unforgiving road.
There isn’t much of an alternative, however, after the B’s dropped an uneven, thoroughly frustrating 4-3 loss to the Avalanche on Monday afternoon at TD Garden (recap here).
With 15 full periods of hockey in the books this season, it’s no stretch to say the Bruins have played their kind of hockey in perhaps only six or seven of them. That’s simply not good enough in a system dependent on toil and teamwork, and wearing down an opponent over the course of three relentless periods.
The Bruins have allowed a whopping 19 goals in those five home games this season, and only three Eastern Conference teams (Panthers, Maple Leafs, Capitals) have allowed more goals and suffered more frequent defensive breakdowns during this young NHL season. That’s a far cry from the Bruins team that led the entire league in fewest goals allowed last season, and proudly marked defense as the bedrock of their team under coach Claude Julien.
Some of Boston’s players mentioned mental lapses and “buying into the system” following Boston’s latest bout with on-ice mediocrity, and one has to wonder how much of a sales job is required from Julien, the Jack Adams Award winner who one season ago led his team to the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
“It’s one thing getting beat 2-1, 1-0. We pride ourselves on defense and we are giving up quite a few goals here,” said B’s forward Blake Wheeler, who potted a game-tying goal in the second period Monday. “It’s not the goalie’s fault at all. Tuukka [Rask] and Timmy [Thomas] have kept us in a lot of games. They’ve done an outstanding job and we have kind of come out flat. So it’s all about buying into our system.
“We talk about it ad nauseum before games, during games — and it’s there sometimes, and when we do it well, we look great. When we do it poorly, the puck ends up in our nets and we look for answers again.”
Hint for those that missed Monday afternoon's game: the Bruins are searching for answers again. The 1 p.m. Columbus Day start featured a sloppy, uninspired opening period coupled with uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns and a man-advantage unit that couldn’t score if armed with a Rand McNally road map to the net and a "Power Play for Dummies" manual.
The power play went 0-for-5 on the afternoon despite better puck movement and more active bodies in the offensive zone, and now has failed to light the lamp in 17 man-advantage attempts.
“Our power play isn’t clicking right now and we are getting some opportunities but we are not [scoring],” Mark Recchi said. “You know, when you get chances to tie games or change momentum and then you don’t, that’s when [not scoring on] power plays hurt you.”
There were signs, of course, that the Bruins are on the road back toward last season’s more inspired play. Recchi ended his four-game scoring drought with a second-period goal that ripped the ice open for the Bruins. Patrice Bergeron had one of his best all-around games, setting up Recchi’s goal and dominating the Avs centermen in the faceoff dot by winning 13 of 18 draws.
The Bruins displayed some fight and determination in pushing back, and fared slightly better when they tied things up in the second period — a time in the game when it customarily started slipping away from them in the season’s first few losses. Other trouble signs, however, remain: ill-timed, uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns coupled with OK goaltending and an offense that’s been anything but dangerous.
The biggest problem is clearly the lack of defensive cohesion. Strong, responsible team defense is the foundation of Julien’s entire system, and it’s been betrayed by hurtful hiccups throughout the games.
“You’ve got to get back your identity. We used to be very good at [team defense], and until we can get that straightened out, we’re going to have to battle and come from behind all the time,” Julien said. “That’s what’s putting us behind the 8-ball in every game. We battled back in the second period, tied the game up. The next shift is crucial.
“We had a terrible shift, had a penalty, and they’re back at it, and then it’s 3-2. That shift has to be important and we have to bring the momentum and bring it back in their own end. The little things like that are game-changers.”
Never was the defensive confusion more obvious than on Colorado’s eventual game-winner, when Avalanche forward T.J. Galiardi attacked the B’s defense short-handed, and set up David Jones on the breakaway game-winner. Galiardi cut through the heart of Boston’s defense and drew Andrew Ference toward him before springing Jones with a perfect pass just as he was crushed by a Ference body check.
Ference admitted after the game he lost track of who was in front of him, and mistook Matt Hunwick for David Krejci on the ice. Ference thought Hunwick was with him and ready to cover the net once he converged on Galiardi, but he turned out to be dead wrong.
Hunwick was instead stuck out of position and up the ice, and Ference left Rask all alone on a one-man breakaway for Jones, who beat Rask high to the top right corner with a whistling slap shot.
“I counted wrong. I thought that was Krejci going into the pile, not Hunwick,” Ference said. “It was kind of surprising, so I honestly thought my partner was over there. I saw 4, the wrong number, obviously.
“Yeah, it was just really a little pile there and I just caught a glimpse of who was in there and I thought that it was Krejci and not my partner.”
It was a seemingly innocuous mistake by Ference and a hustle failure by each of the other four B’s skaters on the ice, but it allowed the Avalanche to nail the insurance goal that served as the eventual game-winner.
There didn’t seem to be this kind of defensive confusion last season with a team playing its second year in Julien’s defensively responsible system, but there have been brain cramps aplenty with a host of returning veterans on the ice this season.
The team seemed to dot all those 'i's and cross all the 't's in a highly anticipated revenge game against the Hurricanes last week, but has otherwise appeared as a rag-tag, disinterested bunch unable to concentrate for 60 full minutes of play. The intermittent malaise can start to slide into a habit if it’s not forcibly removed early in the season, and Recchi doesn’t want to see that happen in Boston.
He’s seen it way too many times before in his 21 years playing in the NHL.
“Sometimes when you have success you forget how hard it is to get success. It’s hard work to get to the top and it takes a lot of courage to get to the top. You have to be willing to pay the price,” Recchi said. “If you aren’t, then you are going to fester around .500. You might be a good team, but you are going to fester around [.500]. I know the guys want to do the right things in here, so I don’t doubt that in time that this team will turn around and start to go in the right direction.”
It’s time for the Bruins to turn up the volume on their season and leave the injury, rust and shortened-training camp excuses behind them along with the lackluster 2-3 opening homestand. Perhaps it will be easier to do that on the road with four of their next five games away from the Garden.
Here are three other things we learned from Monday’s loss to the Avalanche:
JOHNNY BE GOOD, AND JOHNNY WAS GOOD
Rookie blueliner Johnny Boychuk worked and stayed patient when he was a healthy scratch during the first four games of the B’s season, and he was finally rewarded with his chance on Monday afternoon. Dennis Wideman was knocked out of Saturday night’s game against the Islanders with a left shoulder injury suffered during the third period, and Boychuk was thrown out onto the ice with his former Providence Bruins defensive partner, Matt Hunwick.
It was also somewhat fitting that Boychuk suited against an Avalanche team that drafted and developed him as a player and featured plenty of old teammates and coaches from the blueliner’s past suiting up against him.
“After the first shift I felt pretty good, actually,” Boychuk said. “I got the nerves out of the way after that first shift. I just wanted to punish guys in the corner or wherever the case may be.
“I think I have to work on a couple of things, but overall it went well except for the game being in the loss category. Me and Hunny played together today, and we played on the same pair whenever he was back with Providence last year, so we had good chemistry.”
That pairing gave Boychuk, last year’s AHL Defenseman of the Year, an instant comfort level on the ice after some opening shift nerves. Boychuk finished a plus-2 and managed to steer himself away from many of the mental breakdowns that plagued the rest of his teammates while providing a steady physical presence all over the ice.
His jarring, aggressive hit upstairs on Galiardi in the first period — as the Avs forward tried to cross the blue line with speed — was exactly the kind of intimidating, gritty physical presence Boston has been lacking just about everywhere on the ice after five wildly uneven games.
IT’S TUUKKA TIME TWICE IN A ROW FOR THE BRUINS
It was slightly surprising to see Tuukka Rask skate off the ice first during pregame warm-ups Monday afternoon, the telltale sign that the rookie goaltender would get his second straight starting assignment against the Avalanche.
Rask was fairly solid, making 35 saves in Saturday night’s comeback victory against the Islanders, and once again was solid-but-unspectacular in Monday afternoon’s loss to Colorado. The 22-year-old finished with 18 saves but didn’t produce any game-saving stops after the Boston defense suffered its breakdowns in front of the net.
Rask also allowed a bad goal in the first period when he simply couldn’t control properly the rebound on a David Jones shot from inside the blue line. Rask tried to poke the puck away from the front of his net, but instead kicked it right to Scott Hannan for a rebound score to make it 2-0.
That goal didn’t seem to bother the young goalie nearly as much as Jones’ breakaway short-handed score that made it a two-goal advantage and changed the game’s momentum. Rask rightfully felt that the breakaway save is the kind of breathtaking stop that an elite goaltender makes to keep his team in a game they've battled stay involved in.
“Really thought I was there, but just couldn’t save that. That was the kind of save you want to make to keep your team in the game,” Rask said. “Power play, they get a shorthanded breakaway, you save that and you get the momentum back. They score and it’s a 4-2 game, everyone’s kind of down.”
Julien wouldn’t shed any insight on Rask’s second consecutive start while a Vezina Trophy-winning, $5 million-a-year player sat on the bench. It wasn’t necessarily because the B’s coach was bowled over by the younger goalie’s winning performance against the Islanders, so his reasoning is left up to speculation. Was it a message being sent to Thomas after a slow start from the All-Star goalie, or is there something else afoot? Apparently, it’s normal everyday business to leave a two-time All-Star on the bench with little to no explanation required.
“I don’t think I have to explain why I start different goalies. It’s not out of not wanting to say, but it’s the thing that we deal with our goaltenders,” Julien said. “We make our decisions on what’s talked about within the coaches and what we feel as a staff. That’s all it is. It’s not about over-reading.
“Through the course of the year, there are a lot of reasons why we start a goaltender that could be personal stuff. It’s not stuff that we want to get out in the public. There are all kinds of reasons. That’s why I don’t want to have to explain why. I thought [Rask] played well enough last game. I shouldn’t say that this is the reason he started tonight, necessarily.”
Interesting answer — bordering on odd — from the coach addressing a question that seemingly didn’t require that much of an explanation.
DAVID KREJCI IS OFFICIALLY ALL THE WAY BACK
There’s still a bit of hesitation and rust in Krejci’s game — and rightfully so after he missed nearly all the preseason while recovering from right hip surgery — but the slick center finally cracked the score sheet with a pair of assists in Monday’s loss.
The Krejci-Wheeler-Michael Ryder line got off to a bit of a slow start over the first four games, but both Ryder and Wheeler potted goals on Monday afternoon while Krejci finished with an encouraging plus-2. Even better, Krejci was engaged physically and playing with a little sliver of attitude while also visibly gaining confidence on the ice.
That bodes well for the offense once Krejci and Co. start clicking on the No. 2 line and take some pressure off their teammates. It all starts with defense for this Bruins team, though, and that's where they'll need to find their identity on the road over their next five games. They're hoping it's a lot better than their first five games already in the books.