Meszaros, Bartkowski need to step up for B's well being

Meszaros, Bartkowski need to step up for B's well being
April 4, 2014, 1:45 pm
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TORONTO – Bruins coach Claude Julien has very clearly said this final few weeks of the season isn’t an audition process for the playoffs, and that would make sense for 90 percent of Boston’s locked roster. But there is still one defenseman spot that’s up for grabs among the top six to start in the playoffs, and both of the players vying for it don’t seem to want to seize the opportunity.

Andrej Meszaros sleepwalked his way through Wednesday night’s loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the kind of uninspired, laid back performance that will get a team killed in the playoffs. He watched Darren Helm blow by him on a shorthanded attempt, and then failed to show any real rush to get back into the play once the Wings started threatening to score. He made some poor decisions with the puck.

In short, Meszaros looked like the guy that had been benched by the Philadelphia Flyers for significant stretches this season. So perhaps it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise after a promising first month with the Bruins.

Matt Bartkowski followed that up on Thursday night with a rough minus-2 performance in the first 20 minutes against Toronto, a hole that the B’s never truly climbed out of against the Maple Leafs in a shootout loss.

It’s almost eerie that both Meszaros and Bartkowski both fell victim to the same type play in each of the games. Meszaros had a puck lost in his hockey pants, but there was no referee whistle before it eventually fell to the ice. The loose puck in the slot quickly turned into a goal for the Red Wings.

Bartkowski similarly couldn’t find a puck that dropped between his legs in front of the net in the first period against Toronto, and that one turned into a Leafs score as Paul Ranger cleaned things up. Worst still Bartkowski carelessly tried to rim a puck around the boards in the closing seconds of the first period, and that turned into extended Leafs pressure and a Tyler Bozak goal with 12 seconds remaining in the period.

It was the third time in the last four games that the Bruins have allowed a goal in the last minute of the period, and it’s been a nagging problem for the B’s throughout the season.

Claude Julien was trying out defenseman in spots at the end of a period where it’s normally going to be some combo of Zdeno Chara/Dougie Hamilton/Johnny Boychuk in those final minute situations, and it doesn’t sound it’s a look he’s going to feature in the postseason.

“Let’s put it this way: we’re in a position right now to utilize our whole bench. I can guarantee you there are situations right now late in the period that if we were in the playoffs it would be a totally different thing. So let’s not read too much into that stuff here.

You normally put certain guys out there in the last minutes, but I don’t have to do that right now. We’re just playing and utilizing everybody.”

With five games remaining, the past two losses to Detroit and Toronto put Julien in a difficult spot. Clearly there was more to the losses than one defenseman not being up to snuff, but they were making big noticeable mistakes that led to scoring chances in Julien’s stingy system.

Bad decisions and careless plays can be the difference between winning and losing in the hyper-intense world of the NHL playoffs.

“A lot of things early on weren’t happening for us,” said Zdeno Chara in accurately assessing the first 30 minutes of the game. “That was probably due to us not moving our feet and not making better decisions with the puck.”

Bartkowski is pretty clearly going to get the first crack at the left side spot on the B’s second D pairing, but whichever player ends up there needs to play an airtight 20 minutes a night during the playoffs. Otherwise it becomes a giant weak spot for a good team to exploit, and deficiencies there will also force Chara into playing Herculean ice time totals as the most reliable left side D-man.

That’s when it really begins to impact the Bruins in exceptionally negative fashion: if Chara is forced to play close to 30 minutes per game in this spring’s Stanley Cup run as he did last season, then it’s easy to see the 37-year-old once again running out of gas when he’s needed most.

Perhaps Dennis Seidenberg can miraculously return when/if the Bruins advance to the conference finals or the Stanley Cup Final, and that scenario comes along with a giant “If” in the middle of it. But the only solution for the Bruins in April or May is to have Bartkowski or Meszaros rebound fully from the Detroit/Toronto mess of the last couple of days, and play with the kind of energy, intelligence, toughness and urgency that the Bruins need out of them right now.

It’s only been one game for each of the two D-men going head-to-head for the gig with the Chara/Hamilton and Krug/Miller pairings looking set in stone, and Johnny Boychuk a lock as the guy on the right side. As the saying goes, one is an aberration, two is a trend and three is a pattern. It’s only been one rough game each for Meszaros and Bartkowski, but they’re picking the wrong time of year to start slipping in shoddy performances.

It’s no secret the hockey world is looking at the Bruins’ defenseman corps as the potential weak link for the best team in hockey.

It’s completely up to Meszaros or Bartkowski to fully strengthen that chain while there’s still plenty of time.