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.

Notes from around the NHL on opening night

The NHL’s 2015-16 campaign officially opened on Wednesday night with the 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks hosting the New York Rangers and raising their third big banner since 2010 after going 49 years between their previous title in 1961. The Chicago Cubs are hoping to capture some of that magic, and in case you forgot- the last time they won a World Series was 1908.

The Rangers-Hawks game was what hockey is about- it was a fast-paced game that saw the visitors take a 3-2 victory after a late Patrick Kane goal was waved off (due to the referee losing sight of the puck while behind net and blowing the whistle before Kane could poke it through Henrik Lundqvist’s pads). Hank was very good- surrendering a pair of goals to Chicago Euro young guns Artem Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen after his defense broke down on both occasions. Beyond that, he was his usual stellar self and at age 33, shows no signs of slowing.

Jonathan Toews is such a fine player. Granted- I finally landed him in an ESPN fantasy hockey league I participate in after that league did away with keepers for the first time in 4 years, but Toews is such a cerebral guy out there- less is more with him. On one play, he was hooked by Mats Zuccarello, but calmly pivoted and threaded a pass over to Teravainen, who got a good shot off and forced Lundqvist to make a key save. That play won’t show up in Toews’ stats, nor will it make the highlight reel, but stack enough of those up together over the course of the season and you’re going to win a lot more games than you lose.

I really like Kevin Hayes as an NHL player. His raw potential was so evident way back in 2009-10 when he was a star at Nobles prep, but we knew back then that he was going to require a lot of patience and seasoning. The B’s reportedly came close to getting him in the summer of 2014, but he opted for Broadway instead and watch for him to emerge as one of that team’s more consistent forwards in the next season or two. He and older brother Jimmy are different- Kevin is more of a finesse, skilled scorer who can beat you in a variety of ways, whereas Jimmy is more of a straight-ahead, north-south winger who generates his offense through hard work and parking his gigantic frame in front of the net where very few in the NHL have the size/strength to move him.

Hayes, who was drafted by the Blackhawks, used the system to his advantage to choose his destination and as mentioned last night, we could see a similar scenario play out with Harvard’s own Jimmy Vesey, who was snubbed in the 2011 draft, but picked up by Nashville in the third round a year later and will have the same option for free agency available to him after his senior season in Cambridge if he does not sign with the Predators. Just a guess, but I bet the folks in Smashville will work very hard to get the lethal scorer into the fold…I’ve spoken to Nashville scouting director Jeff Kealty (a Massachusetts guy  and former 1st round pick in 1994 out of CM back in the day) and it’s no secret that the team loves him (as did the Bruins except for the fact that they didn’t have a second-rounder in 2012 to use on Vesey).

Out West, the Kings took an early lead at home, jumping on the San Jose Sharks and former L.A. (and Boston for a few days) goalie Martin Jones when Nick Shore deflected a shot just 1:42 into the game. However, San Jose stormed back, including a wicked shot from Joe Thornton on a 2-on-1 when the entire building including Jonathan Quick figured he would pass it. That shot reminded me a lot of the 38-goal Jumbo Joe we saw in Boston during Mike Keenan’s one and only season behind the Bruins bench in 2000-01.

After that the rout was on and the Sharks closed out the Kings by a 4-1 score. Milan Lucic went after Logan Couture in the final frame after he took exception to a hit. This is the Lucic on-the-edge guy whose emotions don’t always work for the team…I didn’t have a problem with Lucic going after Couture as I do with the fact that in the grand scheme it was not that big of a deal and was just as easily something he could have taken a number on and then crushed Couture with a big but legal hit the next time they went into a corner together. All Couture did was turtle (and that’s not an insult to him- he’d be foolish to try and fight in that situation) Lucic once again looked like a bully and a bad guy, which many believe he is.

In any case- for those thinking that the Sharks are going to tank this season, this one game is reason for pause. They played well on the road against a fired-up Kings team that along with the Bruins and Blackhawks, has won every Stanley Cup for the last six years.

The Calgary Flames dropped their season opener to Vancouver. I didn’t watch the game live but will catch the replay today and see how Mr. Dougie Hamilton looked. I am intrigued to see if Sean Monahan can make that next big step in his development after a fine season a year ago.

All in all- it’s been a long offseason and it’s great to have games that count once again.

The Bruins open up their season tonight at home against the game and dangerous Winnipeg Jets, who are my pick to reach a Stanley Cup final series here in the not-too-distant future with the pieces they continue to stockpile. The Jets are a young team, but they’ve got a nice balance of skill, grit and character. These are not your daddy’s Atlanta Thrashers, that’s for sure!

The wait is over, Bruins fans- the 92nd season  begins tonight.