It’s taken nearly a month for the reality to sink in, but some things are becoming quite clear about the Bruins.
Minus the speed and game-breaking ability of Phil Kessel and without two of their best players (Marc Savard, Milan Lucic) for the foreseeable future, the B’s simply are not two or three goals better than many teams in the NHL.
The Black and Gold will battle, grind and muck — as they did Thursday night in a 2-1 loss to the Devils at the TD Garden (recap) — but this group of willing-but-not-always-able skaters is going to be involved in a lot of one-goal games and overtime/shootout scenarios.
Tim Thomas got a piece of both of New Jersey’s goals, but both pucks slid through the hole in his leg pads and trickled into the painted area, where David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus popped them in — Zubrus’ score coming with less than 90 seconds remaining in the third period of a tie game.
There will be nights like Thursday when Boston plays with good energy and discipline within the system and still doesn’t come away with the satisfying taste of victory.
“Sometimes you have good nights like that and you just don’t get rewarded,” B’s defenseman Derek Morris said.
That close-to-the-vest reality goes doubly against Jacques Lemaire’s Devils, who Thomas aptly described as “being masters at keeping the score down.”
After nearly a month of viewing the Bruins, this squad is much more like the scrappy, plucky, eighth-seed B’s team of 2007-08 that improved as the season went along rather than last year’s rare perfect storm of a team.
There isn't likely to be a 116-point total or No. 1 seed in store this season.
Instead, the Bruins will be buckling their chin straps as they did on Thursday night, and playing “heavy on the puck” hockey, as both coach Claude Julien and general manager Peter Chiarelli are fond of saying. The B’s will be hanging around most games and have already begun to build up that reservoir of confidence in the ability to mount a comeback — as they proved against the Senators and Islanders — but there’s going to be a lot of grinding for wins.
Some days, the team’s work ethic and willingness will merge with its talent level to produce wins, and some days it simply won’t be good enough. Conventional wisdom had the Bruins — with four days off before Thursday night’s game — ready to pounce on a Devils squad that lost a miserable Wednesday night contest against the Sabres and should have had wobbly legs in the third period of a back-to-back finale.
Combine that with a Devils team resting its Hall of Fame goaltender (Martin Brodeur) and missing its best defenseman (Paul Martin), gritty glue forward (Jay Pandolfo) and high-scoring forward (Patrik Elias), and it seemed that the Bruins were poised for a win.
Last year’s Bruins would have simply buried the Devils under an avalanche of goals and never looked back. This year’s squad simply doesn’t have that capability.
Instead, the B's battled a weakened-but-willing mirror image in the Devils, and the Bruins were just one bounce of the puck worse than their Eastern Conference rival. It’s a shame that the B’s weren’t awarded any points on a night they did a good job protecting the puck in the neutral zone and getting back to their basics, but it simply may not always be there this season.
“It is coming around. There are a lot of things that have to happen. There are a couple of our top-end players that are not at the top of their game yet. There are still some team injuries that will slow us down a little bit,” said Julien, who was more than happy with his team’s effort level on Thursday night. “What we are seeing are positive signs that the team is coming around. I am not trying to duplicate anything here, but we didn’t [get it] going last year until November.
“If people want to make those assessments, we were what we were last year at this time and we battled. You can’t make comparisons. Every year is a different year. You have to get bounces. You have to be healthy. There are a ton of things that come into play. You just have to take this year and work on making this year successful. That is all that we should be thinking about right now.”
One year ago today, the Bruins were 5-3-3 and on the verge of an identity-forging victory over the Stars filled with a flurry of fisticuffs and lamp-lighters. This season the B’s are 5-5-1 and still searching for that identity-altering moment.
Perhaps we’ve already seen it, and this is exactly what’s in store at least until Savard and Lucic are healthy and ready to go. That was then, and this is now.
With a realistic view of the Bruins for the next month, here are three things we learned from Thursday night’s one-goal loss.
PATRICE BERGERON HAS COME A LONG WAY IN TWO YEARS
The Bruins center scored his fourth goal of the season and registered four shots on net, and he looks far from a guy who nearly had to give up hockey just two years ago. Tuesday was the second anniversary of the hellish hit from behind that Bergeron took against the Flyers that nearly ended his career at the age of 22, but it might as well be 20 years ago with the way the two-way pivot is playing.
Bergeron has stepped back in time to be the player that B’s officials expected to carry the team once they traded Joe Thornton to the Sharks, and he leads the Bruins with eight points after potting his fourth goal of the season.
Bergeron also leads all forwards with an average of 18:14 of ice time each game, as Julien easily slides his best all-around center into any situation within each Bruins game. The pivot’s goal Thursday night was exactly the kind of score that didn’t come his way last season, as he simply went toward the net once Zdeno Chara had unleashed a heavy slap shot.
The puck bounced back toward Marco Sturm, and the left wing shoveled the puck backward toward the net where it bounced off bodies, sticks and skates before landing on the blade of Bergeron’s stick. A quick shot into the empty goal, and Bergeron had his fourth score of the season.
“I think [Bergeron] just has more confidence, you can tell,” said Marco Sturm. “As soon as he has the puck, you know it is going to be hard to take it away. I think when he came back, it’s normal, you are thinking a lot about your head and stuff like that. But he’s playing pretty well this year.
VLADIMIR SOBOTKA HAS RECEIVED THE MESSAGE
Julien had a brief conversation with his young forward prior to last weekend’s game against the Senators, and the message was clear: The Bruins needed more gritty physicality and punishing body hits out of their Czech Republic prospect.
The little pep talk seems to have worked. Sobotka slammed a game-high seven hits against the Senators and set up Blake Wheeler’s score in the comeback victory, and the 22-year-old followed that up with another frisky game against the Devils. Sobotka had a team-high six hits in an impactful 10:08 of ice time against New Jersey, blocked a shot and won 4-of-6 faceoffs while continuing to build chemistry with Wheeler and winger Daniel Paille.
“I tried my best, they were a frustrating team to play against,” Sobotka said. “They play defensively and they bottle up a lot. They played pretty good defensively. I think we had a good game, but we just didn’t score.”
CHARA NEEDS TO STAY OUT OF THE BOX
Chara had one of his stronger games defensively in Thursday night’s battle of defense-minded units, but he took the team’s only penalty of the game when he was whistled for tripping at the end of the second period.
The two-minute minor gave the reigning Norris Trophy winner his 21st and 22nd penalty minutes in his 11th game of the season, which puts Chara on a pace for 162 PIM on the season. The 32-year-old blueliner hasn’t logged more than 150 penalty minutes in a season since his first two years in the NHL with the Islanders and Senators and had trimmed the total to 95 during his career year last season.
Chara already is a quarter of the way to that total in the first month this season. He needs to cut down on the penalties for a depleted team that needs its best defenseman on the ice as much as possible.