B’s losing skid hits 4 games

The heat is on.

The Boston Bruins went into Madison Square Garden after losing all three games on their California road trip last week and promptly got behind the 8-ball in a 2-0 hole (thanks to goals by Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan) before ultimately falling by a 5-2 score.

The game’s complexion changed when Lee Stempniak had a 1st period goal wiped off the board on a coach’s challenge when Brad Marchand was ruled offside on the initial zone entry. Although the play developed much later and Marchand preceding the puck did’t have much of anything to do with Stempniak’s eventual tally, the rule is the rule and replay clearly showed Marchand did not have control of the puck when he crossed the blue line before the puck did. Instead of 2-1, the game remained 2-0 after one period of play.

Milton, Massachusetts native and former Cushing Academy star Keith Yandle assisted on both Rangers goals to stake his team to the early lead, including a superb feed to Stepan on the second strike, looking one way then putting the puck on the forward’s tape for the two-goal lead. It didn’t help that the Rangers seemed to get the benefit of some early ticky-tack calls that always seem to go against the Bruins, but complaining about the inconsistencies in officiating is tired and worn out- death, taxes and the other guys getting more power plays than Boston has become so much background noise and the team has to find ways to overcome that. There’s no grand conspiracy by the men in stripes against the Bruins when it comes to penalties, but we’re not likely to get much in the way of consistent applications of the rules, either. For whatever reason- it is what it is.

Tuukka Rask started the game, though he had been battling flu-like symptoms. He took himself out of it after 20 minutes, leaving Jonas Gustavsson to try and keep the Bruins in it.

Gustavsson was in a tough spot when the Rangers made it 3-0 on a blistering shot by Derick Brassard (his 26th) before the B’s could answer with a goal of their own when Stempniak scored his second tally as a Bruin.

Patrice Bergeron started the play when he took the puck away from Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who made an ill-advised attempt to try to chip the puck past the NHL’s top defensive forward. Bergeron forced the turnover then passed it over to Marchand on the left side. He then deftly put the puck to the far post where Stempniak was positioned for the easy tap-in.

That set the stage for another decision that would not go Boston’s way after it appeared initially that a sprawling Henrik Lundqvist had denied Stempniak with his glove on a brilliant goal line save. However, replay convincingly showed that Lundqvist’s glove was behind the goal line and in the net when the puck looked like it crossed the line and ended up inside the glove before he pulled it back on the right side of the line. The review went to Toronto and league replay officials ruled that there was no “conclusive evidence” to overturn the initial call on the ice of no goal. So, instead of a 3-3 game and Stempniak hat trick, the score remained 3-1.

Rangers forward J.T. Miller scored in the third period to make it 4-1, but Frank Vatrano responded with his 7th goal of the season and first since being called up this week from Providence. Unfortunately, the B’s had no more comeback magic and Rick Nash closed out the scoring with an empty-netter. He blew by David Krejci after the B’s won a faceoff in the Rangers’ end, but puck skipped by the veteran center near the offensive blue line and it turned into a footrace that Krejci lost.

The Bruins now find themselves squarely on the horns of a dilemma: they’ve lost four games in a row for the first time all season. It isn’t like they played poorly last night- they outshot the Rangers 41-24 but Rask was not 100 percent and if he wasn’t he should not have been in net- that’s on him and Claude Julien for making that decision. It might or might not have made a difference, but Rask left the game with his club in an 0-2 deficit after playing a strong opening period.

As for the wiped out goals, the B’s continue to come out on the short end of the byzantine replay processes that the NHL presides over. I’ve watched various games all season and I still can’t figure out how the decisions are made to uphold or remove goals from contest to contest. The entire process seems pretty subjective, but the Bruins are bound by the system the NHL has, not the one we’d like the league to employ. The negated goal is understandable and the Bruins have themselves to blame for allowing for a coach’s challenge which has served to bring games to a screeching halt and kill momentum. By rule, it was the right call to wipe out the first Stempniak goal because Marchand was clearly offside. However, his being offside had nothing to do with the actual play that resulted in the goal. Bottom line- since the zone entry was improper in the first place, the goal has to come off the board, but sometimes, linesmen miss calls like that and goals stand- the coach’s challenge, as constructed, does more harm than good. Law of unintended consequences- the self-imposed delays while referees review the various angles and replays aren’t good for the game. And, we’ve seen instances where, despite clear evidence to uphold or reverse the call, that they’ve made the opposite ruling. The challenge is flawed- the NHL should tweak and fix the gaps in the process or scrap it altogether.

The third Stempniak goal gets back to inconsistency. I think even the most ardent Rangers fans would look at the replays and concede that was a goal, even if by definition, the NHL was able to invoke the “inconclusive” clause to uphold the call on the ice. The commentators (Pierre McGuire perhaps?) had it right when they talked about common sense showing that the puck was in the net before Lundqvist snatched his glove back over the line, and it’s completely understandable that the on-ice official would give him the benefit of that call- it was a tremendous play typical of King Henrik’s Hall of Fame-caliber career. However, that’s no consolation to the Bruins, who can make an equally compelling case that the replay showed that puck was in the Ranger goalie’s glove when his glove was on the wrong side of the goal line. If we have the technology and we aren’t going to use it, then what is the point of having replay at all?  Just give all the power to the referees in a game and don’t give false credence to a farce that the NHL is dedicated to making the right call when it’s right in front of them. Either rewrite the rule to allow for common sense to prevail in a situation like that or don’t have replay…it’s that simple.

Ultimately, though- the B’s now have to play the rested Florida Panthers at home tonight. The TD Garden environs have not been kind to them this season and this could get ugly if the B’s don’t put in a top effort. The way things have gone, an effort won’t be enough for the ever-growing-surly fans, who want to be rewarded with a winning performance. The B’s have had the effort of late, but don’t have anything to show for it. The offense, once clicking along at an impressive rate (third in the league before the road trip) has now gone south. The defense continues to be an adventure- they limited New York’s shots last night, but the Rangers capitalized on the quality chances Boston gave them, burying several goals from in close when B’s players didn’t cover the eventual goal scorers.

On one final note- Boston will recognize Claude Julien in a pre-game ceremony for becoming the team’s all-time winningest coach, passing Art Ross to sit alone atop the B’s coaching victories list as he closes in on 400 (but won’t get there this year). It’s a nice sentiment and one he deserves given the job he’s done with this roster and its limitations. The team needs to dig down deep to earn him a win and buy some breathing room as folks are getting antsy and looking back to last year.

I personally believe the Bruins will hold on and make the playoffs. They’re too hard-working to not eke out the points they need to get in. But as has been said all year, at some point, talent and depth will trump hard work and desire. Boston is on the right track and making the playoffs will be a good experience for the players, but Don Sweeney and the team understand the club’s shortcomings.

The sad thing about the loss in New York City last night is that the Bruins played well enough to win. They had plenty of chances to score and two goals that weren’t would have made all the difference. Vatrano, whom I thought would have been fine staying in Providence to soak up top minutes in all situations looks like he belongs in Boston. His snipe was vintage Vatrano- he slipped into a seam in the Rangers defense  and with no one on him, buried a laser beam just inside the short side post before Lundqvist could react. Kid’s a keeper.

The B’s left two points on the table in a game they most certainly could have had. It’s hard enough to beat the Rangers, but when you’re having to work agains the refs and the off-ice officials as well, you’re left with last night’s result.

That kind of a game can be a morale crusher, so it will be crucial for them to not come home tonight and lay an egg in a critical division game. If that happens, then we won’t only bear witness to a five-game losing streak but a snowball effect in Boston that will create an oppressive climate from now until the club’s next game in Toronto on Saturday.

The Bruins must find a way to get some wins.

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