BOSTON -- The Bruins are finding out just how mind-numbingly difficult it is to win in today’s NHL when your special teams abilities have completely deserted you, and it’s not a pretty picture.
In a stretch where the Bruins have lost five out of eight games and allowed the Tampa Bay Lightning to pull into a tie with them for first place in the Atlantic Division, the B’s have been dreadful on the power play and penalty kill. The B’s PK has allowed 10 power play goals in 27 chances over the last seven games and dropped out of the NHL’s top 10 on the penalty kill in the process.
The latest game of breakdowns arrived on Tuesday night when the Bruins went 0-for-3 on the PP and allowed a pair of power-play goals to Toronto in a 4-3 loss to the Maple Leafs at TD Garden.
How difficult is to win games in the NHL when both special teams groups are short-circuiting consistently?
“It’s almost impossible," said B’s goaltender Tuukka Rask, who is suffering through his own personal slump right now. "No matter how good you are five-on-five, your penalty kill has to be there. It has to give your team a chance, and lately it hasn’t been there as good as it’s been before. Then the power play, we’re getting chances but just not bearing down on those. It’s tough but you go through those struggles, and it’s a matter of how you recover and come back from that.”
When Rask speaks of struggles, he isn’t sugar-coating a major malaise for the Black and Gold.
On the power play, the Bruins are 0-for-16 in their last five games. They haven’t scored a power play goal since the calendar turned over to the year 2014. It’s an exercise in frustration when one of the special teams units is on the fritz for any NHL team, but it’s damned near impossible to win in today’s NHL when both the PP and the PK are so totally ineffective as they have been over the last couple of weeks.
The frustration is palpable inside the B’s dressing room where their penalty kill unit has traditionally been among the NHL’s top five in the league, but they’ve now dropped all the way to 12th with a success rate of 82.8 percent. Clearly the Bruins are down a couple of key penalty killers in Chris Kelly and Dennis Seidenberg, and the 10 PP goals allowed in seven games happened immediately after the German defenseman was out of the lineup.
But the Bruins have enough gritty, determined defensive players to hold things together on the penalty kill, or at least they should have enough of those kinds of skaters.
“I’ve been here for four years now and the penalty kill has always been really solid,” said Gregory Campbell. "It’s just an area that we have to rectify [right now], and we’ll do that. I think to be a good penalty killing unit, it’s a lot of the intangible things: the small things that add up to being successful. Whether it’s face-offs -- again that’s an area that I would like to help out my other two centermen more, or the other guys that take the majority of the face-offs.
“It’s face-offs, it’s getting the pucks deep -- 200 feet -- having good sticks. Tuukka’s [Rask] been great for us all year, so to leave him out to dry in some situations…that’s an area [where] personally I’m going to look at what I can do better and work on that.”
Campbell and Daniel Paille were the two penalty killing forwards out on the ice for both of Toronto’s PP goals on Tuesday night, and perhaps they did over-commit to Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel on one side of the PP formation.
That opened things up for a Jake Gardiner wrist shot from the right face-off dot that Rask got a clear look at, but he was unable to snare the puck with his glove hand. Rask freely admitted the Gardiner goal was his responsibility to stop.
And that’s when things really started falling apart for the Black and Gold.
Bruins coach Claude Julien did some shuffling of the deck on the struggling PP unit as well. He placed Zdeno Chara at the point position on the second power play unit to fill the absence of Dougie Hamilton. That subtracted Chara’s 6-foot-9 net-front presence from the top PP unit, and swapped in Ryan Spooner to the top PP group with similar results.
Neither could help their units finish.
The six shots on net for three Boston power-play possessions isn’t an overwhelming number, and was an unfortunate reminder of the struggling B’s power play days of recent past.
That shouldn’t be much of a surprise given that the B’s couldn’t convert on at least six breakaway/odd-man rush chances handed to them by the generous Toronto defense through 60 minutes of hockey. That’s just the way things are going for the Bruins as they slog through January with a special teams’ units that are both on their way out of the NHL’s top-10 after residing there for months.
“Our PK has been great for us this year; you go through tough stretches. I think if you look at every team, at different times during the year their special teams aren’t always happening,” said Jarome Iginla. “It’s not always on. We’ve had a great PK here for a long time, and we’ll get back at it we’re working at it we talk about and we go over things. Sometimes they just go in…somehow, you know one breakdown here sometimes you try too hard.
“On the other side of it our power play has been pretty solid this year. Unfortunately, at the same time, we’ve kind of hit a cold streak too there. Special teams are very important and we know that. We’re working at it, and unfortunately tonight on the power play side we had some good looks on some of them, some great looks. [It’s the] same in San Jose, and it’s been coming again. I think on both sides we’ll keep working at it, but we believe we can get it back to where it needs to be.”
When the PK and PP were rolling for the Black and Gold, it was hard to envision a time when both would suffer a complete brownout. But that’s what is happening, and it’s up to the Bruins to find their way out in a league where strong special teams play is mandatory for sustained success.