Haggerty: Bruins just ran out of gas

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Haggerty: Bruins just ran out of gas

BOSTON -- The Bruins put on a competitive face and said they were as hungry as theyve ever been entering the postseason.

They talked of repeating as Stanley Cup champs and making the kind of NHL history that hadnt been seen since some pretty great Detroit Red Wings made their mark on the NHL in the late 1990s. But action is a little more difficult than words when it comes to repeating as Stanley Cup champs, and the Bruins found that out swiftly and consistently in dropping a seven-game series to the Washington Capitals.

Theres a reason that hockey dynasties have gone the way of the Dodo bird and the dinosaurs, and the Bruins found that out firsthand.

The final straw was a 2-1 overtime loss to the Caps at TD Garden on a Joel Ward game-winning goal that arrived after a Benoit Pouliot dump attempt was intercepted at the blue line. The Capitals caught the Bruins in a line change when the puck was reversed back into the Bruins end of the ice, and that was that.

The elimination defeat served as the last stinging reminder to the Black and Gold that heavy is the crown on the head of the Stanley Cup champs.

The 107 games played last season between the regular season and the playoffs, the short two-month offseason that followed their June 15 Cup victory in Vancouver in Game 7 of the Finals and a grueling regular season where every team threw their hardest roundhouse punches at the Bruins finally ended up taking its toll.

Theres a reason the Bruins became the seventh Stanley Cup champ in the last nine seasons to fail to get out of the first round the year following their capture of the Cup. Theres also a good reason why each of the four teams from last years conference finals are no longer alive and kicking in the postseason. One didnt qualify for the playoffs (Tampa Bay) and the other three were shocking first round casualties.

For a team like the Bruins that endured three seven game-series last year en route to the Cup, there was simply little left in the energy reserves when it came to playoff time.Once digging down deep was required the Bruins found themselves without a shovel for the first time in a long time.

It was a tough season. There were difficult periods at times. I looked around the locker room at many different points during this season and saw some very tired guys, said Tim Thomas, who showed the fatigue as much as anybody else with middling save percentage numbers during the regular season and playoffs. Thats no excuse, thats just reality.

They still found a way to finish second in the conference, get ourselves home ice for the playoffs here, and give ourselves at least an opportunity to get to game seven OT and take it to that next step.

For all intents and purposes the Bruins appeared to be destined to repeat in November and December when they were the NHLs best team and rebounded strongly from a 3-7 start to the season.

They never again attained that high level of play during the remainder of the regular season, and Claude Julien saw a hockey club that didnt have the same kind of oomph once the playoffs commenced this time around.

Were not going to stand here and nitpick at our team. But when I look at this hockey club, what it went through last year, and you look at teams that have been through that situation and how theyve struggled throughout the year, we still finished at the top of our division, we still finished second in the conference, and we had to really grind it out, said Claude Julien. It was a challenging year for our guys, and it was a challenging series as well. Washington made it tough on us, and they deserve a lot of credit for the way they played: the number of shots they blocked and how they helped their goaltender throughout.

A young goaltender played extremely well, so lets not forget to give the Capitals a lot of credit for how they handled us. And at the end of the day, when you look at it the team wasnt playing its best hockey in the series. Before this day started, you just hope that you can get through this Game Seven and hope to pick some momentum up as you move forward in the playoffs. But you had to get through this game, and we werent able to do that.

The energy reserve and unbridled enthusiasm required to pick up momentum in the playoffs just couldnt be consistently maintained by the Bruins. They showed admirable fight in spurts. The champions pride rose up during Game 3 in Washington DC when Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand stirred the emotional pot to a needed road win, and the Bruins appeared to find the necessary level for ultimate success.

But they couldnt maintain that level even in the next game in Washington DC, and they couldnt find anything close to it for 60 minute efforts throughout the series.

Lucic went seven games without a goal in his second straight no-show in the first round of the playoffs, Marchand didnt have his infectious energy on a consistent basis and David Krejci finished off a forgettable playoff performance by losing 10-of-15 face-offs while trying to step up for the injured Patrice Bergeron.

Zdeno Chara wasnt his dominant self at either end of the ice and suffered some uncharacteristic mental breakdowns throughout the series, and the bottom two Bs forward lines were outplayed by their Capitals counterparts when it mattered most in Game 7. While the Capitals were throwing themselves in front of heat-seeking missile pucks and the bottom lines were playing with fire in their hearts, the Bruins couldnt fight their way to the front of the net for loose pucks that were there throughout the seven-game set with Braden Holtby.

The whole year has been a mental challenge for our guys. Physically, I dont think its that big of an issue because guys are in great shape, but the mental part of it is just a challenge. It just seems like, even getting into these playoffs, it seemed like it was just yesterday wed gone through it. So things happen fast, said Julien. The summer was short, guys came back, and now youre asking them to re-focus for a whole season, and thats not an easy task to do.

We had a slow start, and we finally picked it up again, and midway through the season, February, we started having our struggles again. We tried to pick it up at the end of the year, which we did a little bit. But I dont think our team was in tune as well as it was at this time last year.

Instead the Bruins didnt pack the same kind of emotional punch and their core players looked like lesser versions of themselves aside from Tyler Seguin, Dennis Seidenberg and Rich Peverley. The Bruins never consistently showed the same hunger as a Washington Capitals team that sits on the precipice of being dismantled if they dont have a strong showing during the playoffs. The disparity in desperation and frenzied playoff-level focus was readily apparent throughout the series, and the uphill battle for most Bruins players was obvious.

Nobody wants to say there was relief the season was over for a Bruins team that has set high expectations for itself year in and year out.

But there also wasnt the kind of emotional pain and tangible crestfallen mood thats consistent in a dressing room when realization sets in that a season is over.

Instead Milan Lucic was left in the Bs dressing room at the end of the postgame availability reliving the grueling gauntlet as reigning Cup champs. The Bs power forward vowed to be bigger, better and badder next season after a longer offseason to recharge the batteries, and he needs to be after a bad playoff performance.

It was real tough. I dont want to make excuses, but it was real tough to get yourself mentally prepared to start that season, to get ready for the grind of the season and even the playoffs. Especially ending the way that we did with 22 games in the last 40 days of the season, you know, youre definitely feeling it after that, admitted Lucic. But like I said, you dont want to make excuses. But now with this time off we wont have any excuses for next year. Weve got to do whatever we can to get our rest and come in healthy and ready to play next season.

There will also be that helpful sting of their hockey season being done in April for the first time in five seasons. That will give the Bruins the attitude and energy needed to take down formidable foes in the playoffs.

Because the action-packed focus was missing against a Washington Capitals team that was clearly beatable.

Ultimately the better team prevailed when the Bruins couldnt rekindle the kind of fire it required to take it to the glorious next level last season, and fulfilled an NHL prophecy thats become dogma over the last decade.

Thursday, March 23: Sidney Crosby, junk dealer

Thursday, March 23: Sidney Crosby, junk dealer

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while having never said “break a leg” for good luck to fellow Stoneham, Mass., native Nancy Kerrigan on social media, or otherwise.

 *A brief video history of Sidney Crosby spearing, or otherwise targeting, opponents in the crotches prepared with care and thought by the Puck Daddy himself, Greg Wyshynski.

*Elliotte Friedman has his 30 thoughts for the week and a few of them centered around new Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.

*Could the NBA’s star-resting phenomenon reach into the NHL when it comes to getting in-season time off for the superstars?

*Give the Leafs credit because they picked up coach Mike Babcock when he made a rare screw-up against the Blue Jackets.

*Check out the sick USA/Russia skating kicks on Alex Ovechkin, who had them custom made for a charity event.

*Speaking of Ovechkin, could T.J. Oshie and not Ovechkin actually lead the Capitals in scoring this season?

*For something completely different: Hide the women and children, the Scorpions and Megadeath are going on a North American tour together.

 

Vatrano looking to snap slump for Bruins, who could really use him

Vatrano looking to snap slump for Bruins, who could really use him

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It’s been 11 games and counting without a goal for Bruins winger Frank Vatrano, but the sharp-shooter may be seeing the light at the end of the goal-scoring tunnel.

Vatrano had four shots on goal and a couple of Grade-A scoring chances in Tuesday night’s loss to the Senators and has a combined seven shots on net in the past two games after watching his shots and chances crater in the middle of the goal-scoring drought.

So the 23-year-old East Longmeadow, Mass., native takes heart that a slump-busting event is going to place sooner rather than later.

“Obviously it’s in the back of your head, but you can’t stress on it too much,” said Vatrano, who last scored back on Feb. 26 in a win over the Dallas Stars. “It’s nice to score goals, but the rest of my game needs to take over. That’s when the goals start coming. If I’m moving my feet, being first on the puck and being physical, being hard on it, then that’s when I’m going to get my chances.

“Sometimes it gets away from you, especially when you haven’t scored in a little bit. In the back of your head you think you need to change something, but for me I’m a hard-nosed player, playing hard up and down the wing. Last game I got a bunch of opportunities being hard on the puck, so hopefully I get more of those chances [against Tampa]. Every goal is important right now, so you need to make sure when you get those chances that you’re bearing down.”

One thing that Vatrano, and any number of Bruins players, could do to help the situation is get a little closer to the net and look for a hard-earned bounce or two rather than constantly trying to pick corners on the goalie. That’s something Bruce Cassidy wants to see out of his players as space on the ice gets more crowded and congested in these late season games, but he also wants Vatrano to keep using his best skill: a lightning-quick release and dangerous shot that’s designed to beat even the best goalies from the scoring areas.

“I thought his last game was good in terms of chances,” said Cassidy of Vatrano, who has 10 goals in the 39 games since returning from foot surgery. “When you stop getting chances as a goal-scorer that’s when the red flags really go up. But he needs to keep shooting. His release is usually what catches goalies off-guard, and [Craig] Anderson happened to stop a couple of them.

“He needs to keep getting to the dirty areas and get there even more. A lot of times it’s a greasy one that gets you going. But for him I just highly recommend he keep shooting. That’s what he is, and you want to keep playing to your strengths.”

The bottom line is this: Vatrano is among the most able B’s players when it comes to putting the puck in the net and the Bruins need a guy like that to step up so they’re not solely reliant on Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak goals for victories. Production from the third line has waned lately and the Bruins need it to return at crunch time with wins and points desperately needed.