It's Groundhog Day for Bruins

574518.jpg

It's Groundhog Day for Bruins

MONTREAL It certainly appears the Bruins are locked in the hockey version of Groundhog Day.

They keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Their will to win flags after the slightest hints of adversity early in the game. Their third-period bursts when trying to erase a deficit always seem to come up short.

That doesnt even take into account the brain-dead retaliation penalties they're being lulled into while playing catch-up a key element that helped again sink the Bruins in a 4-2 loss to the Canadiens at the Bell Centre Saturday night.

The loss capped a home-and-home sweep at hands of their arch-rivals and dropped the Bruins to 3-7. The start is the worst by a defending Stanley Cup champion since the Edmonton Oilers won in 1990, and then limped out to a 2-11-2 start to a 1990-91 season that eventually led them all the way to the Western Conference Finals.So there's hope for the B's, but a rough start has become a serious impediment to success in today's NHL.

I believe in this team, said captain Zdeno Chara. "I know that were in a deep hole, but if anybody can get out of it its this team."

Not if they keep following the exact same pattern, night after night after night.

Boston has stormed strongly out of the starting gate more often that not in the first 10 games, but theyve encountered serious difficulties finishing offensive plays.

Sometimes its the inability to hit a wide-open net or finish off a great pass, which was the case with Daniel Paille, Nathan Horton and Chris Kelly early Saturday night.

But more often its been about hitting posts rather than twine. Its what happened in the first period when both a Rich Peverley backhand and a Brad Marchand shot from the high slot dinged off the left post.

Once the Bs came up empty in both golden scoring chances, frustration crept in quickly.

The Bruins started getting out of their flow, both offensively and defensively, and got away from what makes them successful. Mix in a Brian Gionta power-play goal and a Lars Eller scorched strike that opened up when Horton stumbled on the ice, and the Bruins truly started leaking oil.

The frustration brought about the retaliation penalties, and thats when things truly went awry.

We want to be physical, but we have to be smart about it, said Chara. We can't be retaliating like that. Guys dont want to take bad penalties, but thats the way its happening right now. Im sure if you asked them, they would take those things back.

Its okay to play with emotions, but weve got to be smart about it.

For the second time this season the Bruins lost their composure in a game they were trailing that was still winnable. Andrew Ference was lulled into a roughing penalty in the second period while taking a quick punch at Habs defensemen P.K. Subban, who stirred things up with a bump behind the net. That led to a David Desharnais power-play goal and a 3-0 lead for the Habs.

But the Bruins werent done shooting themselves squarely in the foot. Eight minutes later Milan Lucic slashed at Subban when the Habs defensemen started messing with the Bs power forward, and once again the refs caught Bostons return volley.

The slash was less than three minutes after Lucic went upstairs with a wrist shot to put the Bruins on the scoreboard, so it wasn't exactly perfect timing.

Later, Horton put the Canadiens on the power play again when, after a battle in front of the net with Hal Gill, he cross-checked the behemoth blueliner.

We cant retaliate, said Brad Marchand. We have to be able to take it and hurt them on the scoreboard. We have to be better in that area. We know what we have to do to be better. Its just a matter of us finally going out and doing it.

What followed the penalties was the final trait that those around the Bruins have set their watches to this season: the mad, desperate scramble in the third period to make up for the shortcomings of the first 40 minutes.

The Bruins outshot the Habs 12-3 in the final 20 minutes, and even closed it to 3-2 in the final minute when Tyler Seguin stepped through traffic to snap home his team-leading fourth goal after they'd pulled Tuukka Rask for a sixth skater.

But it all turned into another futile third-period push for a Bruins team that isnt consistently playing hard, isnt playing well at all in front of Rask, and still has too many key players like Horton and David Krejci serving more as passengers than active participants.

The lack of urgency was underscored by this stat: Montreal defensemen Gill and Jaroslav Spacek blocked as many shots (12) by themselves as the Bruins did as a team.

Its frustrating to lose. We have some things we have to work on, said coach Claude Julien. When we all get on the same page and we start trusting each other thats when then things are going to get better.

Right now there is some hesitation in their play.

Its up to the coaching staff to monitor those things, and it was eyebrow-raising when Horton was back over the boards for a shift in the third period after mindlessly dropping Gill with a cross-check right in front of the referees.

Horton is the same guy who opened up the mindless penalty floodgates against the Carolina Hurricanes at home earlier this season, and his ice time in the third period shows the players and coaches dont seem to be learning from these troubling trends. Much like Seguins absence during the third period 5-on-3 advantage was underscored when the 19-year-old notched his fourth goal and 10th point later in the period.

So it all begs the question: What can be done about it?

Its difficult to see these Bruins suddenly shaking off the cobwebs and going on an extended winning streak. That means change is likely coming.

Last spring's ride through the NHL playoffs was magical, but far too many players arent playing with the same kind of fervent hunger this season. Winning inevitably brings comfort and can bump egos up a few levels, and that is sometimes when things like discipline, commitment and unselfishness take a little bit of a dip.

At this point, the only players who would appear to be safe are Seguin, Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas. General manager Peter Chiarelli is most definitely working the phones for a deal while his Cup-winning roster still has a sky-high value.

The number of trade calls and their intensity has elevated over the last week as the Bruins have plunged deeper into the post-Cup abyss, and it shouldnt shock anyone if a player or member of the coaching staff is no longer with the team when they suit up Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators.

One has to wonder if Bs president Cam Neely watched the Canadiens improve to 3-0-0 since firing assistant coach Perry Pearn, and wondered if a similar move would have the same kind of wake up effect for his hockey club.

Because the time has come for the Bs to turn it around by any means necessary before its truly too late.

Some questions and answers when it comes to Miller contract

jimmy-vesey-033016.jpg

Some questions and answers when it comes to Miller contract

BOSTON -- A day after the Bruins announced a much-maligned four-year contract extension for defenseman Kevan Miller, B’s general manager Don Sweeney held court with the media to equal parts explain/defend the $10 million deal. Sweeney pointed to the very high character of a hardnosed player in Miller, and the relatively low mileage given that he’s played only 159 games at the NHL level.

There was also mention made of the room to grow in Miller’s game, though it’s difficult to imagine a much higher ceiling for a 28-year-old player than what the former UVM produced showed in 71 games last season.

“Kevan brings incredible character. His signing provides us with the necessary depth on our defense that all teams need. His relative low-mileage, having just played 160 games, we identified that we think Kevan has room for continued growth and development,” said Sweeney. “We certainly saw that in his play this year when he had an expanded role. Relative to the free market place, very, very comfortable with where Kevan fits into our group, and this provides us with the opportunity to explore the marketplace in every way, shape, or form, in having Kevan signed.”

Here’s the reality: Miller is a 5-6, bottom pairing defenseman on a good team, and a top-4 defenseman on a team like last year’s Bruins that finished a weak 19th in the league in goals allowed. The five goals and 18 points last season were solid career-high numbers for a player in the middle of his hockey prime, but he barely averaged 19 minutes of ice time per game as a front top-4 defenseman. Miller struggles with some of the fundamental needs in today’s NHL if you’re going to be a top-4 D-man: the tape-to-tape passes aren’t always accurate, there’s intermittent difficulty cleanly breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and Miller was exploited by the other team’s best players when paired with Zdeno Chara at points last season.

Certainly Miller has done some good things racking up a plus-55 rating during his three years in Boston, but executives and officials around the league were a bit surprised by the 4-year, $10 million contract extension. It’s viewed as a slight overpay in terms of both salary and term, but it’s more the redundancy of the contract that’s befuddling to some.

“Miller is certainly a rugged guy, but you already had one of those at roughly the same value in Adam McQuaid. I believe that you can’t win if you have both McQuaid and Miller in your top 6 because they are both No. 6 D’s in my mind,” said a rival NHL front office executive polled about the Miller contract. “You look at the playoffs and the direction that the league is headed in, and you need to have big, mobile defenseman that can quickly move the puck up the ice. You have too much of the same thing with Miller and McQuaid, and I think you can’t win with that in this day and age.”

The one facet of the four-year Miller contract that might make it okay for some Bruins fans: the tacit connection to the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes. According to several sources around the league, the Bruins taking care of Miller now will very likely have a positive impact on their chances of landing Vesey when he becomes a free agent on Aug. 15, and makes them the front-runner for the Harvard standout’s services. Both Miller and Vesey are represented by the same agent in Peter Fish, and those are the kinds of behind-the-scenes connections that many times factor into free agent signings and trades around the NHL.

So many, this humble hockey writer included, may owe Sweeney a slight apology if paying a $10 million premium for a bottom-pairing defenseman in Miller now pays dividends in landing a stud forward like Vesey that’s drawing interest all around the league.

Sweeney: Bruins head to market seeking 'transitional defenseman'

haggs_tr052516_1280x720_692564547861.jpg

Sweeney: Bruins head to market seeking 'transitional defenseman'

BOSTON -- This isn't exactly a state secret: The Bruins are on the lookout for a puck-moving, top-pairing defenseman who can help their transition game, and aid them in more easily breaking the puck out of their own zone.

The B's basically had two top-4 defensemen on their roster last season -- Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara were the only two on the Boston roster who topped 20 minutes of ice time per game -- and tried to fill in the blanks with Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg and several other young blueliners. Their success, or lack thereof, is reflected in the fact they finished 19th in the league in goals allowed.

So general manager Don Sweeney said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters that the team is in search of a “transitional” defenseman, and will do whatever is necessary to acquire one.

In Sweeney's words, the Bruins will be “aggressive” and pursue improving the hockey club “in any way, shape or form".

There are plenty of signs that Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk could figure prominently in Boston’s trade pursuits this summer, and free agents Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski would be immediate upgrades in the “transitional defenseman” department. But the Bruins were also on a mission to get a “transitional defenseman” last season as well, and came up empty (aside from early season flameout Matt Irwin and 35-year-old journeyman John-Michael Liles acquired at the trade deadline).

They had grand plans to trade up in the first round of last year's draft and nab Boston College's Noah Hanifin. But -- after dealing Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames for three 2016 draft picks -- they were unable to move into position to draft Hanifan.

So it’s clear that making efforts to land that elusive defenseman, and actually closing the deal, are two extremely different things.

Toward that end, Sweeney also talked about looking for defensive help from within the organization. 

“We’ve had talks with (Krug, a restricted free agent) and we’ll find, whatever term that ends up being . . . we’ll find a contract for him," said Sweeney. "But we’re looking for balance. We’re also looking for players like Colin Miller to take the next step. We’ve got younger players that will hopefully push, and that’s what you want.

“You want the depth of the organization to be there for the younger players to push somebody out because they’re ready to play . . . (young players such as) [Matt] Grzelcyk and [Rob] O’Gara. And [I] just came back from seeing [Jeremy] Lauzon play. You know [we're] very excited about the trajectory of that player and the possibility (of his making the NHL roster) down the road, depending on what his development curve looks like and when he gets in here and [starts] playing against the men.

“We’ve got pieces in place that will hopefully push the group that we currently have and that’s what you want. You want that internal competition that players feel like they better perform."

But, he added, "we’re also looking outside the marketplace because we need to continue to transition the puck better.”