BOSTON – There’s little reason to panic just two games into a weird and wild period of hockey around the NHL coming out of the 2 1/2-week Olympic break.
Still, the Bruins certainly don’t look much like themselves right now while rolling out a month’s worth of uncharacteristic mistakes in the past two games. The latest Rusty Jones Special was a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals at TD Garden in a one-sided contest where they never held a lead.
The leaky defense has resulted in nine goals allowed in losses to Buffalo and Washington, and an energy level that simply hasn’t been there to start either game for a hockey team badly in need of a pot full of unleaded coffee.
The Bruins have ample time to regain their mojo with 23 games remaining and a cushion in the standings to allow for a wakeup call. So, is Claude Julien troubled by what he’s seeing?
“I don’t know if ‘troubling’ is the word. It’s something that you can correct, but obviously [defensive mistakes] are what’s happening right now. I think we’re getting caught cheating on the offensive side too much, and it’s ending up in the back of our net,” the Bruins coach said. “We probably need to fix that if we expect to win because at this rate here, we’re giving up too many goals.
“I think our young guys on the back end did their work, and, you know, I’m certainly not going to stand here and blame our youth. I think it’s more our team overall — the five guys on the ice -- and making sure that we have some layers. We’ve talked about that for a long time. If there’s a small mistake, there are [supposed to be] layers, but there haven’t been too many layers as of late.”
Once Julien starts talking about a lack of layers, the problems are sure to follow for the Black and Gold.
While Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski were definitely part of the defensive problem in the loss to the Sabres, this time it was a grizzled veteran, Johnny Boychuk, that struggled big time against the Caps. A telegraphed D-to-D Boychuk pass off a center ice face-off win was intercepted by Joel Ward, and immediately converted into a backhanded goal for the eventual game-winner in the second.
The Bruins scored a pair of goals to claw back into the game, but another Boychuk gaffe put the game out of reach for good.
Boychuk was deep in the offensive zone when Krug fell down as the last line of defense, and watched helplessly as Eric Fehr scored an important breakaway goal for the insurance marker in the third period. Sometimes plus/minus ratings can be deceiving, but it was probably fitting that No. 55 was the only minus-2 player on the Boston stat sheet following the loss.
“We want to be better defensively...we want to be better, and we know we can be better,” said Boychuk, after the game. “[We] have to be.”
But it wasn’t just Boychuk that didn’t get the job done on Saturday afternoon for a defenseman corps that was perhaps a little too loose with their decisions to pinch into the offensive end.
Even worse still, the Bruins completely botched the game plan while letting Alexander Ovechkin go off on them with a pair of power-play goals in the first period. Rule No. 1 heading into the game was to keep the Capitals off the power play. Instead, Washington was handed six power plays.
For a team that’s ranked second in the NHL on the power play with Ovechkin leading the NHL in goals, that’s tantamount to a hockey team shooting its own foot clear off its body.
Zdeno Chara admitted as much afterward when diagnosing what ailed the Bruins team in defeat.
“It wasn’t our best game. We could have done a number of things differently, and better,” said Chara. “I think that it was more us not doing what we said we were going to do. That’s going to have to be addressed and for sure those kinds of mistakes we have to eliminate, and be more focused and be sharper.”
While there’s little doubt the Bruins can get back to their quality level of play just prior to the Olympic break, the timing really isn’t great for the Black and Gold. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is actively looking for a veteran defenseman prior to trade deadline on Wednesday, but a slump right before the deadline could be perceived by other GM’s as a sign of desperation.
It certainly looks like they could be aided by some defensive reinforcements, particularly if Adam McQuaid can’t make a healthy return to the Bruins lineup amid persistent lower body issues. Chiarelli and Co. are holding strong while refusing to budge on giving a No. 1 draft pick for the Isles’ Andrew MacDonald, or entertaining the potential sacrifice of a top prospect for Chris Phillips.
Still, that stubborn protection of assets becomes more difficult when the B’s defense is getting shredded by desperate teams such as the Sabres and the Capitals.
Either way the Bruins are determined not to let it distract them.
“We’re not feeling any pressure for the deadline,” said Boychuk. “We’ve all been through this situation our whole careers, and our whole lives.”
Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is the busy schedule as the Bruins prepare to face the New York Rangers on Sunday and one final home game before the deadline Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers. They’ll enjoy plenty of chances to regain their defensive layers, boost the performance of the young-ish defenseman corps and start playing much more like the team that went 8-1-2 in the final 11 games prior to the Olympics.
The trick now: make sure the Bruins don’t look back a few months from now on that stretch as their best of the season.