Haggerty: Third-period meltdowns a disturbing trend

Haggerty: Third-period meltdowns a disturbing trend
March 13, 2013, 1:00 am
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PITTSBURGH – The Bruins haven’t lost many times this season: four regulation losses for Boston on the year to be precise.

But almost all of them have involved folding like a deck chair in the third period when things get a little bumpy, and that is not the kind of Bruins hockey people are accustomed to. It happened again on Tuesday night as the Bruins blew a two-goal lead in the final seven minutes of the third period, and dropped a 3-2 game to a surging Pittsburgh Penguins team at the CONSOL Energy Center.

“After the second period I told our guys we couldn’t just sit back and defend,” said Claude Julien. “In the third period it was about playing our best period, but there was some really bad decision-making by us that led to those goals. We gave that game to them.”

These kinds of things happen during a regular season to the best of hockey clubs. But it’s a shock to continually see third-period meltdowns from a team that has long owned the final 20 minutes of games. They have still outscored the opposition (21-15) over the balance of third periods this year, but it sure doesn’t feel like that right about now.

The Bruins alternate captain wasn’t biting on the fatigue excuse during the second night of back-to-back games.

“I don’t think it was about the energy. I think it was about the way we approached that third period,” said Patrice Bergeron, who assisted on Tyler Seguin’s first period goal and dominated Sidney Crosby in the face-off circle. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it’s not acceptable.”

The defeat kept the Bruins from taking sole possession of first place in the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference, and served as ample evidence that there is still work to be done.

Brandon Sutter snapped home the tying and winning goals while an unhealthy amount of chaos reigned in Boston’s defensive zone, but there admittedly were a few extenuating circumstances this time around. The Bruins looked and played like a tired hockey team on the second night of back-to-back games, with travel included, after not getting into their hotel rooms until about 2:30 a.m. from Ottawa.

Excuses or no excuses, it’s simply the truth.

They were admittedly on their heels while getting out-shot by a 12-4 margin in the third period, and there was zero snapping puck movement, little sustained pressure in the offensive zone and almost zero evidence of players actually moving their feet to generate some speed out on the ice.

Bergeron didn’t want to hear any of the fatigue excuses because the schedule is just going to get more grueling for a Bruins team that finally reached the mid-point of the season against the Penguins – the last NHL team to do so this season.

“That’s out of our control. We just need to play the schedule that’s in front of us,” said Bergeron. “I hope it’s not the case because we’re going to go through that a lot more through the rest of the year. It’s about finding a way. It’s about our approach in the third: we didn’t want to make any mistakes and because of that, we did.”

Big power forwards Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton both moved around like they had cement poured into their skates after the first period. The uncharacteristic turnovers and mental mistakes scream out fatigued minds in the final minutes of the game: it’s probably no coincidence Dennis Seidenberg made a bad pass that set up the winning goal when he played a team-high 25:48 of ice time in the game.

The other factor: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Some of the mistakes made by the Bruins were forced by a team that’s sitting atop the Eastern Conference. The Penguins have weathered the extended absence of reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin much better than anyone could have imagined, and are among the East’s power brokers.

Anton Khudobin looked good with 22 saves after two shutout periods against the Penguins, but things clearly changed once Pittsburgh dialed it up a notch in the final 20 minutes.

“We were sitting back way too much. They kept putting pucks in and they were playing at three quarters ice,” said Seidenberg. “At the end we were a little careless.

“There were too many turnovers in our own end like mine that led to [Pittsburgh’s] third goal. We need to make safer passes. It’s disappointing to let another lead slip away. We basically gave it away at the end.”

Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz hooked up for the first goal on a cross-ice pass that took a perfect shot from the right face-off dot, but turnovers and poor puck decisions hampered Boston’s defense in Sutter’s strikes. The most egregious was Seidenberg’s ill-advised cross-ice pass to Lucic in the defensive zone that was picked off by Sutter before he deposited a wrist shot past Khudobin.

Rather than win in regulation or at least hang on to overtime against a quality opponent to ensure a point, the Bruins were left disappointed they couldn’t somehow close out the last seven minutes. Rather than buoying their spirits after they killed a 5-on-3 power play for the Penguins, the Bruins crumbled and frayed until the buzzing Penguins finally broke through against Khudobin.

Could a high-end player like Jarome Iginla help the Bruins finish off an extra offensive play or two to potentially stave off some of these rallies?

Probably so.

Could a deal for a depth defensemen, like Ryan Whitney or Robyn Regehr, help stabilize their back end when there are times it starts looking like a 1990’s style mosh pit in front of the net during third periods?


But this isn’t about other players coming to fix Boston’s problems with a magical trade before the April 3 NHL trade deadline. There are some very real problems with proven, Cup-worthy players making winning plays and stemming the opponent’s momentum in the third period while nursing leads.

The Bruins had better hope the blown third period leads are a blip on the radar screen as Boston’s adjusts to their busy schedule over the final two months of a highly irregular 48-game season – or simply some of the routine learning lessons a hockey club goes through over the course of a regular season campaign.

Too many of Boston’s recent efforts have been just “good enough” for two points rather than a complete 60-minute display of Bruins hockey. Good teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins will expose them in the playoffs just as they did on Tuesday night if the Bruins don’t start straightening out the third period wrinkles.