It might be pretty easy to sit back and think that the recent struggles for the Bruins are no big deal.
They’ve lost four out of five games and sit on the edge of the playoff picture in the newly-realigned Atlantic Division one week into the month of November, yet they have almost 70 games and five months left in the regular season.
A losing stretch or two is expected over the course of any season, but it could come back to haunt the Bruins if they don’t get their act together in rapid fashion. Since the 2005-06 season coming out of the lockout, there have been 112 playoff teams over seven full regular seasons. Only three of those teams have managed to fight back into a playoff spot if they were four points or more out of a playoff spot on Nov. 1.
Since 1993, the numbers break down into pretty clear trends: Roughly 77 percent of teams that held a playoff spot on Thanksgiving made the playoffs, 84 percent of teams with 17 or fewer points did not make the playoffs, and 89 percent of teams with 28 or more points qualified for the playoffs.
Teams that were more than a couple of points behind the playoff pace faced extremely long odds of pushing their way into the playoffs. That was all before the realignment new to this season, which brought an established Detroit Red Wings playoff team to Boston’s division and changed to a divisional structure for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
With the advent of the so-called “loser point” for teams in shootout/overtime losses, it’s just become too difficult for hockey clubs to overcome a prolonged period of struggle early in the season. The best strategy is to create a little separation from the pack in the division playoff race, and that’s something the Bruins haven’t accomplished thus far.
“It’s not one thing. It’s a number of things, and it’s not executing at certain times,” said Bruins center Chris Kelly. “It’s not being consistent. The effort needs to be the first thing. If you’re working then that’s great, but if you’re not working smart then it’s counter-productive. I think that seems to be the case.
“When everyone is doing their role and playing their part, then we’re a good hockey team. We just need to get back to that. Engaging in battles and competing is a strength in our hockey team, and it’s not where we need it to be right now. Everybody knows that. It’s one of those things we want to rectify as soon as possible.”
There’s a real urgency to make certain the Bruins are among those top four teams by Thanksgiving, which becomes a little more of a challenge given that there’s going to be at least one pretty good Atlantic Division that won’t make it to the playoffs this spring. The emergence of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the addition of the Red Wings to the Bruins’ division makes things that much more difficult.
It’s something Boston is keenly aware of now that they're smack dab in the middle of a pivotal month on the hockey calendar.
“The bottom line is that we have to find ways to do the job,” said Patrice Bergeron. “It’s about fighting our way out of it, and creating some results. We need to keep finding that killer instinct and keeping the foot on the gas pedal. When we do that, we get the result that we wanted.
“Even though it’s still early, we’ve always said that we’re shooting for [a playoff spot] by Thanksgiving. We need to find that groove. We need to make sure we do the job right and stick to our system, and when we do that, we have success.”
What’s the other reason for their the urgency this early in the season?
The B’s need to take advantage of a schedule that has them playing 10 home games at TD Garden during the month of November, and in the middle of their longest home stand of the season with five straight games at home. They kicked that home stretch off by blowing a one-goal lead late in the third period against the Stars. So it’s not off to a good start.
“We’re going through a phase right now that we go through every year,” said coach Claude Julien. “It’s not the best of times, so you want to turn the tide as soon as you can, and get back the game that you know the team has in them. It’s a bit of a struggle, and it's part of the yearly struggle we go through.
“Right now we’re just trying to work out of it the best we can. Like anything else you hope the next game is when you start turning it in the other direction. But it can just take one mistake sometimes, and then you’re back to the drawing board.”
All of this being said, the 2011-12 Bruins got off to a horrendous start in their Stanley Cup hangover season and eventually righted the ship before finally running out of gas in the first round versus the Capitals.
The Bruins experience these maddening, frustrating bouts of inconsistency each and every season, and they have always still been standing when the playoffs begin ever since Julien started manning the bench six years ago.
So there’s a level of security among the fans that the Bruins will figure it out, right the ship and keep things pointed toward the playoffs. The players aren’t feeling that same sense of certainty.
“If we start to feel that way then we’re in trouble,” said Kelly. “You can’t just turn it on with a switch. That’s not how it works. You need to prepare and play your best hockey through the course of the year to put yourself in the best position heading into the playoffs. We can play well in pressure situations and last year we did play well down the stretch.
“It’s a full 82-game schedule, so there will be highs and lows. But if you lose a game you want it to be because a team outplayed you, and not because they outworked you. You can’t give points away.”
But there are also very real problems that have never faced the Bruins in previous years.
Zdeno Chara is a minus-1 through the first month of the season, and the 36-year-old is beginning to show real signs of aging and fatigue for the first time in his career coming off last year’s long campaign.
The Bruins are undergoing growing pains while breaking in young defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug, and that will mean greater offensive productions along with defensive mistakes at key points in games. Jarome Iginla, Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith have been solid additions to the B’s lineup, but there’s little doubting that Boston’s team speed isn’t the same with speed-skating guys named Seguin, Peverley and Horton having moved on.
Close attention should be paid at how the Bruins handle the rest of November while they’re in the middle of an inconsistent, low-effort tailspin. It could make a major difference in where this edition of the Black and Gold is headed at the end of a long season.