Haggerty: Bruins have Habs problem that needs solving

Haggerty: Bruins have Habs problem that needs solving
January 31, 2014, 9:45 am
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BOSTON – It might be time to start getting a little worried about the Habs problem.

The Boston Bruins have given little reason for concern over the last couple of seasons while banking points and dominating their own division, and they entered Thursday night with a 10-point lead over the Canadiens in the Atlantic Division standings as they’d begun pulling away from the competition.

The Bruins had clowned the Flyers, Islanders and Panthers while racking up 18 goals against them, and the defense had properly stabilized without Dennis Seidenberg in the fold. It seemed the answers to hockey life had been found, processed and executed by one of the Eastern Conference’s elite teams.

But then Montreal arrived in Boston for the first time all season. It was the second latest opening visit in the history of the Original Six rivalry next to a 2000-01 season that didn’t see the Habs visit the Hub until Feb, and it ended with Montreal taking a one-sided 4-1 decision against a Bruins team overwhelmed by their skating speed. The Bruins looked for every last chance to fast break the puck past a flat-footed Boston group of defenders, and pulled their typically frustrating act of refusing to engage with the B’s after provoking them.

The defeat dropped the Bruins to 0-4-1 in their last five games against the hated Habs, and it’s been almost a calendar year since Boston has triumphed over Montreal in a hockey game. Perhaps even more concerning was this fact: P.K. Subban didn’t have to be anything more than average in a game where players like Alexei Emelin and Brendan Gallagher dominated, and the Habs didn’t even have to dust off Carey Price for usage in the win.

Then there’s the B’s No. 1 goaltender in Tuukka Rask, who is now 2-10-2 over the course of his career against Montreal. In his last 11 games against the Habs, Rask has a 3.24 GAA and .887 save percentage while struggling mightily against his biggest rivals in the Canadiens and fellow goalie Carey Price.

It was a head-to-head matchup with backup goalie Peter Budaj instead on Thursday night, but the result was still the same.  

“There’s not much to really say. It was pretty clear how things went by watching the game. We weren’t sharp in our decision-making. They were first on pucks, they won more battles than we did from the drop of the puck to the end,” said Milan Lucic. “It’s unfortunate that we come out with that kind of effort against [the Canadiens] once again. “It’s one of those ones you have to suck it up and call a spade a spade. It wasn’t good enough from, I guess, an emotional standpoint and from a determination stand point. You just have to get better from games like this.”

One of the big weaknesses for the Bruins as a team this season has been the inability to slow down opposing hockey teams that attack them with pure, unadulterated speed. The offseason trade of Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley to Dallas has been off-set by the solid performances of Reilly Smith and Loui Eriksson, but there’s little doubt the Bruins are more of a slower, plodding team with the loss of those two skating greyhounds.

That was clear in the opening minutes against the Habs. The line of David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty generated breakaways and odd-man rushes in the first period, and helped build a strong 2-0 lead in the first when Pacioretty got behind Johnny Boychuk and Torey Krug for a breakaway score.

That line accounted for four points, 13 shot attempts and a plus-5 rating when it was all said and done.

It was one of several breakdowns and poor choices that the B’s defensemen group made as a whole throughout the game. It also showed that the Boston D-men corps still has a few things to figure out if they want to be a leak-free unit during the playoffs.

“Usually we have found a way to, I guess, rise to the occasion against [Montreal] but for some reason the last four times we’ve played them it’s just – maybe we get too caught up in the rivalry,” said Lucic. “Our emotions kind of get the better of us to, where we’re almost stuck in the headlights like we were tonight.

“But we need to find a way to turn this around against these guys, and hopefully we can do that sooner than later.”

Offensively the Bruins allowed themselves to get frustrated by Montreal’s shot-blocking, and started settling on chances in the attack zone as the game wore on. Later in the game there was no fight or emotion against a Canadiens team that wasn’t going to engage the Bruins when they started looking for a fight.

Quick-skating teams have posed problems for the Bruins in the recent past, and that attribute is one of the big reasons why the Maple Leafs pushed Boston all the way to the brink during the first round of last year’s playoffs. Boston still has an eight-point lead on Montreal in the standings despite dropping both decisions to them this season, but the Bruins and Habs would be first round playoff opponents if the NHL regular season ended at the beginning of February.

“There was no rivalry [in this game] obviously,” said Dougie Hamilton. “I think we didn’t really show up. I think they had a pretty good start and just kind of put us away, I guess.”

There’s a very real chance it could be Boston/Montreal once again this spring once the Stanley Cup playoffs kick off, and that means the Bruins have a few months to figure out this Habs problem.

If they don’t there may be many more frustrating “rivalry” nights in store for the Black and Gold for the rest of the season because getting “put away” in the month of May is a little different than having it happen at the end of January.