After entering last week on a high note, the B’s were blanked by the St. Louis Blues right before the Christmas holiday and then got slapped with a pair of losses to Atlantic Division foes Buffalo and Ottawa on back-to-back nights this weekend to miss out on a chance to take a lead in the division standings.
The Buffalo loss at home, which saw a two-goal lead evaporate on the strength of five unanswered goals and Jack Eichel’s first career four-point game in his homecoming, was particularly troublesome. One night later, they traveled to Canada’s capital and played a better game, but dropped a 3-1 decision to the Senators, thwarted by a very strong game in net from Craig Anderson (38 saves), so would have posted a shutout had not video replay awarded a goal to David Krejci that was originally not called a score by the on-ice officials.
Speaking of Krejci- he took a pass in the corner from Loui Eriksson, walked to the front of the net when Sens captain Erik Karlsson failed to seal off the far post and just watched him cut between the Norris Trophy defenseman and the net, and then put the puck into the far side. It ended up underneath Anderson’s left pad and skate, but replay, which was not absolutely conclusive, appeared to show that the puck (and skate) was behind the line. A call to Toronto and review awarded Krejci his 11th goal of the season (and 33rd point in 35 games).
Much of the goodwill that had built up with the team during their strong recent stretch from late-November up until last Tuesday’s loss to the Blues, is evaporating, as the B’s can’t seem to get out of their own way. Unforced errors and mistake-prone play opened the door for the Sabres, a rising young team but still an inferior one and below Boston in the standings, to mount a spirited comeback.
Injuries to a couple of key players- namely Torey Krug (who pulled up lame in the Buffalo game on a race for an icing call and is considered day-to-day with a lower body injury) and Krejci, who appeared to hurt his arm/shoulder and left last night’s contest in the second period- aren’t going to help Boston’s cause.
B’s coach Claude Julien, who was staunchly defended on this blog last week, has opened himself up to criticism with some of his personnel moves, especially on defense. Kevan Miller had a particularly bad outing against Buffalo, but Colin Miller paid the price instead, getting scratched in Ottawa. In fairness to Julien, “Chiller” had some miscues against the Sabres in what was not one of his better outings in a pretty good season for the NHL rookie. However, with Krug ailing and out of the lineup, it was strange for the younger Miller to get taken out of the lineup in favor of Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman, who returned to action after missing the previous seven contests as a healthy scratch. Trotman looked rusty at times and even tentative at others in a game where he played a pretty robust 21:32 worth of minutes- that’s what happens when you’re rotating in and out of a lineup the way the former last pick in 2010 is doing. K. Miller, who was a -2 in the Buffalo game (he was on ice for three goals against in the third, but assisted on the Boston tally to make it 3-1), played just 17:43 against Ottawa, which could be a sign that Julien’s patience with him is wearing thin. I guess we’ll see, but the B’s sure could have used Miller’s foot speed and puck-moving ability against the Senators last night.
Tuukka Rask played well against the Sens, but was victimized on a bank shot by Mark Stone off Dennis Seidenberg’s skate on one goal, and a net-drive rebound laser from Mika Zibanejad on the winner. Stone added an empty-netter for his second of the night and 10th of the season. His performance provided a solid contrast to that of Jonas Gustavsson, who was below average against Buffalo, doing very little to stop the bleeding in the third period Saturday. The Bruins need much better play from their veteran backup in a situation like that one, even if the defense didn’t give him much help.
Zdeno Chara’s play is failing the eye test. At 38, a decline was expected, but at times- he looks like’s he’s fallen off a cliff. He’s lost several steps and continues to turn the puck over in bad situations when pressured. You figured that opponents would exploit a loss in mobility- and let’s face it- he was never an agile skater to begin with- but he’s a step behind the play and making poor decisions with the puck that lead to odd-man rushes and quality scoring chances at the other end. Simply put, his minutes should probably be scaled back, not increased. However, with Krug leaving the game Saturday, Chara topped the 26-minute mark and he played another 25+ against his old club one night later. He was a -3 in the pair of games combined and has just four assists in his last 10 contests.
With Krejci out last night for the final period and facing uncertain status heading into tomorrow’s rematch at the TD Garden, Ryan Spooner moved up to the second line. The 23-year-old has stepped up his production (though he’s gone scoreless in the last four games- shootout winner against New Jersey aside) over the past month and will need to shoulder even more of the load if Boston loses it’s veteran scoring pivot for any length of time.
Here’s a modest proposal, but instead of recalling Alex Khokhlachev, why not try rookie pro and buzzsaw Austin Czarnik? The undrafted free agent showed off terrific chemistry with Frank Vatrano in the rookie tourney, Boston preseason and then in the first seven games of the AHL campaign in Providence. With his speed and energy/ability to push the pace, he might make perfect sense on the third line, and with Vatrano back on his wing, anything is possible. Depending on the severity of Krejci’s injury, Czarnik might make sense as an emergency recall, as the modern salary cap system and associated constraints do make personnel moves a little more challenging than simply dialing up Jay Pandolfo and Bruce Cassidy in Providence.
Brett Connolly probably needs to take another seat. A healthy scratch after ineffective play early, he returned to the Boston lineup with a burr under his saddle and played well with a four-goal streak, but with just five tallies all year, he’s not getting the job done. Nothing was more egregious last night than his weak flyby of the puck at center ice that allowed the odd-man break and Bobby Ryan shot/rebound that Zibanejad converted late in the second period for the eventual winner. Seth Griffith has been outstanding in Providence over the past month and deserves a recall to see what he can do. Griffith doesn’t bring much in the way of speed, but he might bring the energy and hunger that has been so lacking in Connolly’s game of late. To see this from such a high draft pick illustrates the challenges of scouting and projecting teenage players: the explosiveness, creativity and killer instinct that Connolly showed in his WHL career with Prince George has been nowhere to be found in Boston.
B’s have a small window to get their game back on track this week before facing Montreal in the Winter Classic Friday at Gillette Stadium. It’s gut-check time.