On Saturday morning, the Boston Bruins could very well wake up to find themselves looking up at the Ottawa Senators in the race for the Northeast Division title. The Sens (82 Points) will host the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night in the back-end of a home-and-home series with the chance to leap-frog Boston (83 Points) in the standings.
The Bruins, who have seemingly held the division lead from wire to wire this season have found themselves in this sticky situation after allowing January’s struggles to carry over into February and linger into March. Completing a 0-3-0 road trip (in which they’ve been outscored 17-5) with a 6-2 loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers on Thursday, the B’s are currently entrenched in a four-game losing streak.
Let’s take a look at some of the stats. Warning, these numbers aren’t for the faint of heart.
--> The B’s are currently mired in a streak in which they’ve allowed the opposition to score first in ten of their last twelve games.
--> In their last four games, and five of their last seven Boston has surrendered the first two goals of the contest.
--> Outside of their outstanding 22-2-1 run in November and December, the B’s record is a below average 19-25-2.
--> Boston has allowed a total of 21 goals over their past four games and has surrendered three or more tallies in all but one of their nine matchups this month.
Those numbers are anything but soothing for a team that finds itself only one point ahead of the aforementioned Senators entering Friday’s action. In addition, the B’s are only five points ahead of the eighth seed Capitals and eight points above the ninth place Buffalo Sabres. Once thought of as a shoe-in to make the spring dance and have a shot to defend their Stanley Cup Championship, the Bruins’ playoff hopes may indeed be in jeopardy.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with this Bruins’ team has been it’s lack of commitment to the "team defense" philosophy that brought them so much success throughout year. A huge portion of that is undoubtedly the goaltending of Tim Thomas and Marty Turco, whose recent play doesn’t pass the stats test or the eye test. In hockey it’s easy for a molehill to become a mountain….and fast. This was very evident in Tuesday’s 6-2 loss in Tampa Bay.
After a questionable call on a reviewed goal went the way of the Bolts only two minutes into action, the B’s seemed to unravel, allowing the game’s next four consecutive goals. In years past (more specifically, last year), this Bruins team didn’t allow that to happen. If they were ever on the short end of the stick in a situation, whether it be the product of the officials of an off-night from their goaltender, the B’s bounced back. They played with a chip on their shoulder. They never strayed from Claude Julien’s strict defensive system and fought to find ways to win those games.
Nowadays, it’s simply a different story. There is little urgency, despite being entrenched in a heated playoff race. Defensemen are turning the puck over behind their own blueline and are failing to be properly defend the crease in front of Tim Thomas. They are struggling to find positioning in front, whilst not being able to out-muscle opponents who plant themselves in front of the B’s netminder – which was on full display during Thursday’s loss to the Panthers -- in order to create a screen.
"Once we got in the D-zone it was one mistake after another. Lost battles on boards, poor clears, no forwards collapsing in slot, no big saves." – Claude Julien
The forward corps have been unable to provide the type of timely offense that aided the B’s in their run to the team’s sixth Stanley Cup championship last summer. Despite the recent offensive success of the David Krejci line (Milan Lucic—Tyler Seguin), the B’s top unit has been severely lacking in their defensive zone. The top line has been on the ice for more goals against this month than any of Boston’s four offensive trios.
It’s been a complete team struggle in the Hub. There isn’t one group of players that have been performing at a significantly higher level than another. From one to twenty, each and every member of the Boston roster has played his part in the now two month-long slump. Bench boss Claude Julien is fully aware that if his team is to find a way to get things back on track, they’ll need improvements up and down the entire lineup.
"We need everybody. We need good goaltending. We need D-zone coverage and less breakdowns. That's all about the team." – Claude Julien
It doesn’t get any easier for Boston, as they’ll take on the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers in a Saturday matinee, followed by a visit from the desperate Maple Leafs on Monday and a three-game trek through the state of California that begins next Thursday. A brutal stretch of scheduling if there ever was one.
Despite their not being an obvious end in sight to the Bruins catastrophic slide down the standings, one would expect that the veteran leadership and experience will be enough to bring them through the final twelve games with enough points to punch their ticket to the playoffs. However, if you asked me who will be leading the Northeast Division on April 8 when the regular season comes to an end, I’d be hard pressed to answer with anything other than "The Ottawa Senators".
You could call this cynical, knee-jerk or reactionary. But at this point, the Bruins could stand for some sort of a wake-up call after two-plus months of sub-five-hundred hockey. This team has two options here. They could continue to rest on their laurels as a city overreacts to their beloved hockey team underachieving it's way to a seven or eight seed. The other option? Dig deep and come out like gangbusters over these final twelve games to prove themselves worthy of a shot to defend the championship they worked so hard to earn just nine months ago.