Blowing it

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”– Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The Boston Bruins may have dodged a bullet last night in the standings when the Detroit Red Wings lost in regulation to the non-playoff Montreal Canadiens.

After the B’s outshot the New Jersey Devils and peppered backup goalie Keith Kinkaid with 40 shots to New Jersey’s 15, but lost by a 2-1 score on a pair of power play goals, the Wings missed out on a chance to leapfrog Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, burning their game-in-hand. Just one point separates the two.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The effort was certainly there for Boston last night, but there was simply no finish. Effort is good, but in the world of professional sports, results are ultimately king. Boston, with the exception of Saturday’s white-knuckle win over the bottom-feeding Toronto Maple Leafs, have lost six of their last seven games.

Just two weeks ago, the Bruins had a share of first place and had won some critical games they were expected to lose. Optimism was creeping back into it as the team was bringing the effort and results…until they went out to California, that is. A string of five consecutive losses, buttressed by the one road win up north has now added another ‘L’ to the ledger and the next two games could push the B’s into major non-playoff jeopardy: they travel to the Midwest to face Western Conference powers the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

But, Kirk- they beat the ‘Hawks earlier this month, you say. That they did. But that was a different time. In the last six games, the Bruins have mustered just 10 goals for. Those two opponents could easily hang 10 or more on Boston in just the pair of games, so the B’s must not only dig deep into the effort well, but they’ve got to execute to have any chance of getting points out of the next two critical matches.

On the plus side, Brad Marchand netted his 35th goal last night and it was a beautiful, parting-of-the-Red Sea kind of goal where he split the defense, zoomed in alone on Kinkaid and shifted from his forehand to his backhand before lifting the puck into the yawning cage. Marchand owned the space in front of the net, and you just got this sense that after Kinkaid was beaten so effortlessly, that the floodgates might open. Didn’t happen.

Now, the B’s get to face either one of Brian Elliott or Jake Allen– life certainly isn’t going to get any easier. The Blues recently posted a four-game consecutive shutout string and they’re getting healthier.

As we said before, the effort is good thing to see. This team has heart and it’s been like that for much of the season. The Bruins have been in the playoff standings since December and that’s saying something when you look at the roster from top to bottom. This is a club that was expected to struggle and likely miss the playoffs. This plucky bunch deserves credit for making such a good run of things. Claude Julien and his coaches- Doug Jarvis, Joe Sacco and Doug Houda– have managed to keep their charges motivated and playing hard, which has narrowed the talent gap the team faces on many a night.

Sometimes, it has worked out for them- take the night they went into Dallas to face the vaunted Stars at home and fell behind early but came roaring back and crushed Tyler Seguin’s crew at home.  Other nights, it’s simply not enough.

Most fans understand this and realize that this team was probably playing over its head for some key stretches of the season. That the playoff race has become so tight should not be a surprise, but it’s probably a fool’s errand to rage at the team (or your television and/or computer screen) when they fall short as they did against the Devils. Frustrating as it was, losses like the one in Newark last night are probably more the rule than the exception. It isn’t like the Bruins have a high-end, championship-caliber roster: they compete hard, but the Matt Beleskeys of the world work hard, make big hits and get themselves in position to score- they just have a harder time finishing off the play than others around the NHL. It does’t make him any less of a Bruin, but it does remind us that Don Sweeney and the Boston front office has a lot of work to do.

The hard part of all of this is that we’re witnessing the Bruins sagging down the stretch, much like they did a year ago. Games against the Devils must be won, because contests with the Blues and Blackhawks aren’t expected to deliver the needed points. Now, the B’s must overachieve in order to stay ahead in the standings. Had Boston endured this slump in the middle of the season and were surging back at the end, the sentiment amongst the fans might be a little different than it is now. In the grand scheme, it’s of little consequence, but timing is everything, and as the late Yogi Berra once said- “It’s deja vu all over again.”

What we are learning is that Boston’s core players aren’t getting it done to a high enough degree. Zdeno Chara did net the game-winner against Toronto Saturday, but he also took the boarding call that resulted in Reid Boucher’s game-winner last night. Whether it was  a weak call made by referee Steve Kozari, who one might have to strain to recall when he’s actually called a penalty against a Boston opponent in recent games, it doesn’t matter. Chara needs to be better.

David Krejci, he of the $7.2 million per year contract and no-movement clause, has to be hurt. Has to. Because if he isn’t, Peter Chiarelli’s final gift to the Bruins- the extension with five more years remaining- could be an albatross around the neck of the team going forward. Krejci turns 30 soon and his slight frame has taken a good amount of physical punishment over the years. He’s an outstanding competitor and one of the smartest offensive players in the league, but he carries a huge cap hit and a no-movement clause, both of which conspire to make him virtually impossible to move in any kind of meaningful deal unless it meant the Bruins were taking back a similar bad contract in return. That NMC remains in effect through 2019- when he’ll be 33- and then a no-trade goes for one more season- through 2020. The B’s could buy him out, but that’s not a feasible option with so much money invested in him and the crippling payout structure associated with such a move (the league did this to prevent teams from throwing money at big-ticket mistakes to make them go away).

If you think I’m picking on Krejci, then here’s an example of what’s bothered me of late: near the end the game last night, with his goaltender out of the net and Krejci going back for the puck deep in his own end, a Devils forward zipped by him and stole possession. The play didn’t lead to an empty-netter, but it did bleed valuable seconds off the clock- time the Bruins could have used to start the breakout the other way and try to get the equalizer. Speed has never been Krejci’s forte but I’ll come out and say it- he just looks slow out there. And, he seems unable to win footraces to loose pucks at critical moments- footraces Krejci used to win.  If you’re not concerned about this, I don’t know what else to say.

In net, Tuukka Rask has been up and down for most of the year. There is no question that when on his game, he is one of the NHL’s elite netminders. Unfortunately, he can also be significantly mediocre at times as well. The defense in front of him is a major issue, but the B’s could have used a stop from him on the Travis Zajac goal last night and didn’t get it.  If you read this and translate it as blaming Rask, that’s not what I’m saying, but at some point- Rask has more than 7 million reasons to play better than he has at points this season. He’s under .920 for a season-long save percentage, and on a team like this one, it’s simply not good enough.

Finally- Patrice Bergeron may be a saint, but he’s not all-powerful. He had the tying goal on his stick in close but fired the puck wide after it appeared a Devils defender got just enough of him to hamper him from getting the shot off cleanly. His 29 goals are a real testament to just how important the 30-year-old has been to Boston’s fortunes this year. Everything the Bruins stand for is symbolized in the play of Bergeron. But, he can’t do it alone. Julien shook the lines up last night to no avail- Boston could not find a way to salvage at least a point out of it to buy them some breathing room.

Brad Marchand has done his part as well. You can almost hear the cha-ching! as his next contract negotiations will begin next season with one year remaining on his current deal that pays him a bargain rate of $5 million with a $4.5M AAV. If the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, Marchand is going to be a key focal point to get them there, but he can’t carry the team. Others must find a way to take the pressure off of the team’s heavy lifters.

But by others- the pickings might be a tad slim.

Brett Connolly left the game with an injury, so now we’ll wait to see what lies ahead for him. Ryan Spooner didn’t make the trip but sources tell me his injury is not that serious- it’s just something that can be made worse if he doesn’t rest it properly. We’ll see him back soon. Jimmy Hayes is the easy target and whipping boy, but he hasn’t had much of an impact all season, so the fact that he’s done next to nothing for the past month doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Noel Acciari has been a revelation, but he’s not going to do much offensively. Landon Ferraro is another speedy but limited contributor scoring-wise. Frank Vatrano has the speed and hands to get something done, and he’d be a nice Cinderella story if he could pot some big ones to help his team net some critical points.

What the Bruins need is more production from their core and others like Loui Eriksson and Lee Stempniak, who had a hat trick denied him a week ago on one offside and one replay call that could have gone his way, only it didn’t. He’s cooled off considerably since Boston’s 6-0-1 run after the trade deadline, and Eriksson has been hot and cold for the most part since the team opted not to trade him- Bruins need more from both of them.

The defense is trying, but as the wise sage Yoda once said (paraphrased)- trying hard isn’t good enough. Or is it- good enough trying hard is not?

I respect the effort this team has made this season. A lot of that, regardless of whether you agree with his personnel decisions or not, falls on Julien. He’s managed to take a mediocre roster and put it in the thick of the playoff rest. Contrast that to some of the other teams out there from whom much, much more was expected given how they looked on paper, but have fallen flat.

Ultimately, though, results are what matters in the NHL and in most walks of life. The Bruins weren’t seen as potential champions this year and their performance has validated that. However, many (present company included) didn’t even see them as a playoff club coming in, and they’ve demonstrated what hard work can get you.

Hard work isn’t enough to win it all in this league, but the Bruins deserve credit for coming this far.

Now, they need to dig deep and find a way to be one of the final eight teams standing in the Eastern Conference. Just missing the playoffs means they’re in the same boat they were in a year ago- the draft won’t help them all that much. At least, not in the immediate sense.

They’ve squandered the cushion they built up just a few short weeks ago, so they’ll have to make it in the hard way. If they can deny Detroit, that team’s long playoff streak of 25 years will come to an end. If not, then we’ll know that sometimes, try as one might, effort is not enough to guarantee success.

I want to believe the Bruins will get in, but this finish is too close to call.

***

On another note- I will be joining radio host Allan Mitchell aka “Lowetide” on Edmonton’s TSN 1260 today to talk about Jimmy Vesey. His recent decision not to sign with Nashville and become a free agent as of August 15 has polarized a lot of people in the hockey world, so I thought I would weigh in with my own perspectives on Vesey, whom I’ve known for a long time and the NHL’s system, which allows for a team like the Predators to get nothing after they invested time and resources into developing him over the past four years. If you forgot that hockey is a business, then the Vesey situation reminds us all that it is.

I will be going on Mr. Mitchell’s show live at approximately 12:40 EST time today but if you can’t tune in (they stream their content online), his producer is very good about posting the SoundCloud file and I will put that up on the blog later and also tweet the link if you don’t want to wait.

 

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