Claude Julien mentioned several times during Boston’s fizzler of a 2-3 homestand that he didn’t like what he’d seen out of his team during moments of adversity. At the decisive points of a game arrived for his young-ish squad, the Bruins skaters flashed an alarming tendency to fold up their tents.
That happened again Saturday night in a 4-1 loss to an impressively defiant Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. The Bruins were essentially in an uphill battle all evening against the Desert Dogs in the second part of back-to-back road games set to the backdrop of the NHL southwest.
The Bruins battled and grinded to push themselves within a one-goal game in the second period when Mark Stuart’s screen-aided bomb from the left point eluded Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Boston’s one and only goal came midway through the second period and highlighted scattered pockets of pressure from a Boston offense fighting its way through the congested neutral zone.
But what happened following Stuart’s goal truly revealed the state of the team, and the fragility of Boston’s puck psyche at this early point in the season.
Finally handed a little piece of momentum, the B’s couldn’t sustain the pressure on Bryzgalov and the ‘Yotes defense, and perhaps simply didn’t even have the juice in back-to-back games to press things. Either way, Mark Recchi took a “new NHL” hooking penalty as he tried to slow former UNH standout Daniel Winnik from entering the zone and was immediately tossed into the box.
The penalty once again revealed one of the soft spots in the Black and Gold’s underbelly: the penalty kill.
Robbed of heady, slick veteran performers like P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle, a younger penalty-killing crew has struggled to produce results and Saturday night they allowed Phoenix two goals in four power play chances. Effort and determination wasn’t a problem for the young killers in their own zone, but they simply couldn’t hold on once the Coyotes dialed up the intensity and threw everything at the Boston cage in a power-play frenzy.
The killer turn of events for the B’s was a shrewd play by Shane Doan when the action got hectic in the B’s end just when it looked like Boston was going to successfully kill things off.
A calm, composed Doan – who managed three assists in the win – deftly kicked a loose puck in front of a scrambling Tim Thomas toward a rushing Keith Yandle. The Massachusetts-born defenseman and Cushing Academy product laid the hammer down on the one-time opportunity past Thomas for the backbreaking tally.
The Coyotes scored with only six seconds left on their power play amid the game effort by the Boston special teams unit, and it effectively ripped out the B’s heart on this night.
Phoenix added on with noted B’s killer Scottie Upshall less than a minute later when the grinding Phoenix forward forced his way up the left side, and unleashed a top shelf laser beam that Thomas had no shot at stopping – Vezina Trophy or no Vezina Trophy.
“You’ve got to give this team credit,’’ said Julien to reporters following the game. “They played extremely well. We just didn’t seem to have enough fight in us to counter that tonight. After the first period, it’s a 1-0 hockey game. But that goal in the second just took the wind out of us. The way they were playing, they weren’t going to give us an opportunity to get back into it.’’
Armed with a three-goal lead in a home arena that was three-quarters empty, a Coyotes team that seemingly has nothing to play for stayed disciplined and simply played within their defensive system long enough to earn a tidy win over a Boston team that – aside from a game second-period fighting effort by Johnny Boychuk that forced the B’s defensive corps to double shift for 10 minutes when he was lost – didn’t have much left to force the issue over the final 20 minutes of hockey.
So, it was one good one and one bad one on the first segment of a four-out-of-five games Boston road trip with a Wednesday night game against the Nashville Predators sandwiched in between road stretches. As Recchi warned during Boston’s first homestand, that inconsistency is simply not good enough to avoid becoming a .500 team.
The B’s are holding themselves to a much higher standard than that this season, and efforts like Saturday night’s continue to reinforce that they still have a long way to go.
With that in mind, here are three things we learned last night:
THE BRUINS NEED TO HIT UP A FINISHING SCHOOL
The Bruins forwards had plenty of opportunity to get themselves back into the game, particularly in a second period where the skaters showed plenty of jump, with some Grade A offensive chances. But the Boston forwards simply couldn’t finish things off against the Coyotes, and it’s been a variation on a goal-challenged theme this season.
Marco Sturm had a beautiful breakaway attempt after getting freed by a pair of crisp passes up the ice from Derek Morris and Marc Savard, but the German forward was knocked off kilter by a diving Ed Jovanovski. Sturm couldn’t fully regain his balance to muster a shot strong enough to move past Bryzgalov, and there was no forthcoming penalty for Jovanovski’s efforts.
Similarly, Chuck Kobasew had several bites at the scoring apple but couldn’t slam home a rebound attempt right by the right post and a Michael Ryder-to-Marc Savard connection – one that worked so well against Dallas on Friday – couldn’t make a connection in the desert on a prime 2-on-1 scoring opportunity Saturday night. Many times it appeared the B’s were simply out of sync or one step behind when scoring opportunities availed themselves, and that’s been true much of the season.
One thing that’s been clear about this particular B’s team in the early portion of the season is that the work ethic and willingness to get ugly are requirements if Boston is going to score goals. The B’s have scored 20 goals in their first seven games of the NHL season (2.86 goals per game), and are smack dab in the middle of the NHL in terms of offensive scoring after finishing second in goals scored (3.34 goals per game) last season.
Last year’s prolific bunch is looking more and more like a one-year phenomenon at this point. If that is the case, the B’s are going to need to refocus on giving their opponents nothing while hoping to score just enough to win.
THE PENALTY KILL NEEDS SOME WORK
The Bruins had themselves a solid blend of youthful zest and wizened experience on last season’s penalty kill unit, and managed to be successful in 82.4 percent of their short-handed special teams efforts last season. Last night the B’s allowed two power-play goals in four opportunities and haven’t really derived a lot of enjoyment from a seasonal success rate of 69.7 percent from their revamped penalty kill unit. The B’s penalty kill is ranked ahead of only the woebegone Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference. Among the 30 NHL teams, Boston ranks 26th (ahead of the Leafs, Kings, Predators and Stars) when down a skater.
The second Phoenix power-play goal was the actual killer, as the Bruins had just scored a goal and crept into the game. Almost as soon as the momentum turned, however, the team found itself on the defensive end killing a penalty.
The quartet of David Krejci, Marco Sturm, Mark Stuart and Andrew Ference scrapped while trying to hold on during the penalty kill, but there’s only so long a team can survive short-handed when the puck can’t be cleared out of the zone. Compounding the problem was the issue of protecting against the backdoor play from the Coyotes defensemen, a tactic that led to strikes from Jovanovski and Yandle.
“Both goals came from the backdoor D coming in and our guys didn’t react well enough to counter that,” Julien told NESN. “If we do that, then maybe we save ourselves a couple of goals.”
For a team bent on discipline and structured defensive play that means two different things. The B’s need to stay disciplined and simply keep out of the penalty box knowing that their PK is struggling at the moment, and the Bruins simply have to find a way to improve their 69.7 percent rate of success. A playoff team can’t survive giving up that many power play goals to the opposition, and Boston has a glaring weakness on the penalty kill.
THERE ISN’T A LOT OF LOVE LOST BETWEEN PHOENIX AND BLAKE WHEELER
It wasn’t all that surprising, but the scattered bodies at Jobing.com Arena wearing Coyotes gear let Blake Wheeler have it with scattered boos during Saturday night’s game. The announced crowd was slightly over 9,000 people and that even seemed to be a generous count of the hearty souls still pledging their support to a Dead Hockey Team Skating.
Wheeler eschewed the advances of his draft team, the Coyotes, when he opted to turn pro out of the University of Minnesota last season, and simply waited out the time period to sign with his draft team before coming to an agreement with Boston.
The rangy B’s forward said all along that he wanted to go to a traditional hockey market with true fans and the proper infrastructure, and so the 23-year-old essentially crossed the Desert Dogs off his list and waited until enough time had passed to bypass his draft team.
It appeared that Wheeler made the correct choice last season when he turned in a solid rookie campaign for a reborn Bruins hockey team, and that’s been cemented with the Coyotes soap opera that’s been playing out all summer.
Phoenix appears ready to pick up and leave a fan base that’s understandably already mentally checked out on the team. That can’t be comfortable for players on the ice no matter what the team’s success level.
So while the boos rained down for Wheeler from a crowd that felt like the youngster rejected them, it’s hard to argue that the talented young winger didn’t make the exactly correct read of the situation.