It's been a tough six weeks for fans of the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Coming into the highly anticipated battle against the Vancouver Canucks, whom the Bruins so famously defeated in seven grueling games last spring, the B's were the hottest team in the NHL. They had won 23 of their previous 27 games dating back to October and were so dominant that they once possessed both the leagues top ranked offense and top ranked defense. During that stretch of total domination, they outscored opponents 116-47 (an average score of roughly 4-2) which included some of the most impressive single game performances you'll ever see.
Then the Vancouver game rolled around. The Canucks outshot, outhit, and generally outplayed the Bruins at the Garden, their own personal house of horrors, on the way to a 4-3 win. Just as the presence of the B's seemed to take the Western Conference juggernaut out of its game in the Stanley Cup Final last year, that game seemed to derail the Bruins potentially record setting regular season.
Since then, the B's have struggled to rediscover their identity that made them the best team in the NHL through the first three-plus months of the season. Certainly injuries have played their part to some degree with players like Zdeno Chara, Nathan Horton, Rich Peverley and others missing time for various ailments, but the struggles of the team belong to everyone.
Defensively, the top line of Dennis Seidenberg and Chara, that had been among the best in the league dating back to last years playoffs, has been springing leaks all over the place in recent weeks. Too often, opposing teams have been able to get the puck in deep position against the B's top defensive pairing and allowed the offense to operate with little to no resistance. In addition, the play in front of the goalies has been poor. The Bruins will never resemble the New York Rangers in terms of blocking shots out by the blue line, but there have been a lot of struggles in clearing loose pucks from out in the slot and a lack of willingness to at least contest shots. As a result, teams are getting way too many clean looks at the net and getting opportunities to deflect those shots from the point, and no matter how good your goaltenders are, that's not a recipe for success.
Speaking of goaltending, Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas are not above blame in this situation either. Both goalies have struggled with maintaining possession of the puck and not allowing rebounds. In addition, Rask has had a great deal of trouble moving laterally to cut down on centering passes coming through the crease. The 6-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres two weeks ago comes to mind when Rask allowed two goals in which he was unable to move from post to post to cut down on a shooting angle.
Part of the struggles of the goalies might be coming from the fact that neither is in a great rhythm because of the decision by coach Claude Julien to employ a "goalie by committee" tactic in order to keep both happy. The defending Vezina Trophy winner has been getting the majority of the starts, but Rask has seen far more action than a backup typically would. It's a credit to the ability and potential of the 24-year old Finnish goalie, but it bares mentioning again that, typically at least, a number one goalie in the NHL starts better than 80 percent of the time.
Finally, to complete the three pronged set of problems for the Bruins, the offense hasn't been nearly as effective as it was earlier in the season. The goal scoring isn't necessarily the problem, as they're still putting goals on the board at a pretty decent clip (though they have been shut out four times in the last six weeks). The problem has been the fact that the team has lost the physicality that made them such an intimidating team. Tyler Seguin, the team's leading goal scorer, has shied away from contact in recent weeks, a problem that plagued him during his rookie year but was thought to have been corrected this year. David Krejci has largely been ineffective for the same reason, and as a result has seen his productivity drop dramatically.
As for solutions? There are no easy answers, but there are some simple things that need to be done in order to get back to the type of cohesive team that this group needs to be in order to compensate for their lack of individual creativity, at least in relation to other top contending teams.
Offensively, the team might have gotten wrapped up in how easy the goals were coming and fallen into a little bit of a comfort zone. Aside from Seguin, there is no offensive player on the team that anyone would consider among the most creatively skilled players in the league. When this team is going good, they're a hard nosed physical offense that does a great deal of work in front of the net and through smart passing. Being willing to put your body on the line is a mindset, not a skill, and the Bruins offensive players need to get back to that mindset if they're going to be successful.
As for goaltending and defense, a number of these problems could be solved if Claude Julien could settle on a starting goalie. It's a decision I wouldn't want to make if I were Julien, and I have to imagine it's one he doesn't want to make either. Rask is generally considered to be on the better young goalies in the NHL, but with the contributions Thomas made to toward winning the Stanley Cup last year and being on board long term, it's hard to bench him. However, if neither is able to get in a good rhythm because of a lack of consistent reps a decision will need to be made. Going with the hot hand from night to night isn't going to work when it comes to playoff time.
This team does have some problems, but its not anything that requires a major roster overhaul or radical reshuffling of lines to fix. This team has the tools to win another Stanley Cup if it can look in the mirror and remember what brought them to the top of the mountain. Fortunately there is still plenty of time to get there, and as the 2010 playoffs proved, seeding is hardly a concern.
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