Michael J. Fox, eat your heart out.
In their rendition of “Back To The Future,” the Bruins have turned the clock back three months, reverting to the punchless form that hamstrung them for much of the regular season. Over the course of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, Boston went scoreless over 134:12 while the Flyers have won three straight games to force a Game 7 at TD Garden on Friday.
Philadelphia capped the comeback on Wednesday night with a 2-1 victory in Game 6 at Wachovia Center (click here for the full recap). In the process, they became only the sixth team in NHL history to play a Game 7 after being down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series.
For the Bruins faithful, it has been difficult to watch.
Before Milan Lucic pounded a puck home with exactly a minute remaining in Game 6, the last time the Bruins had scored was last Friday with 31.5 seconds to go in the third period. That was when Mark Recchi forced overtime in Game 4.
“It’s obviously been disappointing that we haven’t been able to get that fourth win yet, but we can’t let that get to us right now,” Lucic said. “We’ve had three chances here so far and we haven’t been able to do it. They’ve been playing well, so we have to find a way to break them down.”
To think, Recchi could have ended the series in Philadelphia not much longer after that game-tying tally when he had a great chance on Brian Boucher in the extra frame to complete the sweep. Alas, it was not meant to be and the series turned when Simon Gagne came back for the Flyers and David Krejci dislocated his wrist at the start of Game 4.
The feeling around the Bruins is that they are once again playing like the team that could not score — and subsequently lost 10 straight games through January and February. Their forwards are not creating chances and the defense is having trouble getting pucks to the net. The Flyers, led by six blocks from Matt Carle, blocked 30 Bruins shots — 16 of which came from Boston blue liners. Blocked shots are a key barometer and are considered the “desperation” stat. The Bruins only had 10.
Not that Boston fell completely flat the way they did in Game 5 on Monday. The energy and chances were there at times, but Philly goaltender Michael Leighton was just good enough to turn away 30 chances in his first career playoff start. In terms of effort and energy, the Bruins were solid. It was just the results that were lacking.
“It’s a situation where the winner of the game moves on. Tonight, in the first three minutes of the game they really took it to us, but after that I thought we settled in and played hard,” coach Claude Julien told reporters.
“We didn’t probably get enough scoring chances although we had the puck in our end for quite a bit. In the third, we got more scoring chances and hit a few posts; the pucks just weren’t going in for us tonight.
“I’m not going to criticize my players’ effort. I thought we were ready, but somehow we have to find a way to score goals. They had about 30 blocked shots tonight, so we shot about 61 shots at the net and 30 of them got blocked. So they did a great job at fronting our shots. You have to give them credit for doing that.”
Here are three reasons the Flyers have fought back to put the Bruins on the brink:
FORWARDS GONE MISSING
Outside of Mark Recchi and Miroslav Satan, the Bruins have got almost nothing from their wings.
There just is not a lot of talent there anymore. Marco Sturm, even though he had not scored in what seems like months, was still a talented player for the Boston from the forward position. His knee was torn to shreds and Julien’s cupboard went bare when looking for someone to fill the gaps. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has benefitted from getting Simon Gagne back and has gotten inspired play from Ville Leino and solid contributions from Claude Giroux. Really, that has been the difference in the last three games.
Daniel Paille is not a scorer and might as well be a black hole on Patrice Bergeron’s left side. Michael Ryder has gone back into disappearing mode. Blake Wheeler had a strong Game 3 and that has been about it. The fourth line — with Steve Begin and Shawn Thornton — has never had any scoring pop with Begin’s goal earlier in the series something of an aberration.
Lucic has been decent but he’ll never be Cam Neely. He provided the only goal for the Bruins with a minute left but it was too little, too late. One has to imagine that with the better play of Lucic and the roster depth the Bruins would have if they still had Sturm and David Krejci, that it would be enough talent to get Boston over the Philadelphia-sized hump that now stands in their way of what seemed a certain birth to the conference finals. The Bruins are definitely a much better team when Lucic is hitting well and crashing the net, but he has next to no help outside the old men of the roster in Satan and Recchi.
“It was nice to get one past [Leighton]. I mean, he played great for sure, but then again, I don’t think we generated too many scoring chances,” Lucic told reporters. “We had a lot of shots, but a lot of them were outside shots. We gotta find a way to make good quality scoring chances and when we do, we gotta find ways to bury them. It’s important that we get a lot of traffic, and take away his vision.”
When things are going badly, look to the top for reasons.
Perhaps all those late-season minutes are getting to Zdeno Chara. He has been dominant for most of the playoffs, and played his heart out in Game 6 with five shots, five attempts blocked and one miss. But he was also on the ice for both Flyers goals (by Mike Richards in the first and Danny Briere in the second).
Going back to his days in Calgary, Chara has never won anything. He has not won a Game 7 at anytime in his career. And as the captain of the Bruins, he needs to be the guy that carries them through this tough stretch against the Flyers. Yet, despite his best efforts, Boston will see at least one more hockey game at TD Garden in 2010.
It is not just Chara. Johnny Boychuk may have been playing a little above his head on the top pair and has started coming back to earth in the last couple of games as well. As Chara’s other half, he deserves some of the blame. Richards — Chara and Boychuk’s primary assignment this series — has eight points through the six games (three goals, five assists) and Boston has done little to slow him down.
Richards has basically done what he has wanted this series, from crashing the net, like he did for the first goal of Game 6, to patrolling the neutral zone looking for big hits on opposing centers. He has absolutely dominated Vladimir Sobotka when they are on the ice together and, outside of a Sobotka hit in Game 5, has been more or less untouched when it has mattered (getting jumped by Marc Savard late in Game 5 not withstanding).
“We were ready to play tonight,” Richards told reporters. “We were blocking shots, we were doing everything for each other, we were helping each other out, talking and, even when they added a lot of clusters at our net, I thought we came back and kind of defended Leighton a lot, and when he needed to, he made the big saves.”
The big man is going to have to be the difference maker on both ends of the ice in Game 7 to make up for allowing the Flyers back into it. He has been clutching his stick a little too tight (the “nervous” comment from Game 5 was very telling).
TUUKKA HAS HAD HIS TIME
Richards’ goal was not Tuukka Rask’s fault. He made the initial save off a Gagne shot and Boychuk could not clear the puck out of the crease. As a result, the Flyers captain banged it home when it squirted through the slot.
But Briere’s goal was definitely Rask’s fault. Even though Philadelphia was on a 4-on-3 power play, Briere’s shot was not the type that Rask should ever let in. He crossed through the slot and sent a wrist shot on Rask from the circle that banged off the goaltender’s chest and arm to the top of the net. The power play provided Briere with some space to operate, but there was no one in front of Rask and the Finnish netminder tracked him across the ice the whole time.
“It was kind of a weird play,” Rask said. “It bounced to him there. I was a step behind, and I kind of exposed my glove side there. I got a piece of it, but not enough. I kind of let it be too open that side there.”
Briere has had good luck against Rask from the right side the whole series and the little Quebecoise has four goals and four assists to match Richards in point production in the series.
“I remember the first game in New Jersey our line wasn’t very good, but after that, after the first game, things started going better and better,” Briere said. “Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t. At this point, pucks seem to be finding the back of the net for me, so I’ve been trying to put as many pucks as I can on net.
“A perfect example was from the goal tonight, where I tried to pass it and when the puck came back to me, I just thought it was meant to be, so I took it to the net and I was thinking ‘shoot’ after that all the way.”
Through the last three games Rask has let in some uncharacteristic softies. When he struggles it tends to be stuff that gets up and under his arms, and Briere seems to know this because he seems to like going for the goaltender’s elbows.
Briere has also been another thorn in Chara’s side and is the exact kind of player that gives him trouble — small and speedy. With a good shot that is kryptonite to Rask, that gives Briere the advantage over Boston’s two best players when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net.
“I’m sure the pressure is mounting even more,” Briere said. “For us, we want it too, now that we’re here and now that we’ve climbed all the way back in this series, we want it too. We have to realize that the last game will be the toughest to leave with.”