Bruins

B's lack playoff skill set

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B's lack playoff skill set

By Michael Felger

The preconceived notions about the Bruins' first-round playoff series with Montreal have been turned on their ear. Those picking Boston expected the B's to win on size, grit, depth and goaltending. But, to this point, it looks like you were all looking at the wrong thing.

The Habs are in control of this series right now because they have more skill.

Oh yeah, that.

It's an issue for the Bruins all over the ice, from the inability of the defensemen to move the puck effectively out of their own zone to the lack of finishing touch up front.

There is a great misconception that in the NHL playoffs, the bigger, tougher and more defensive-minded teams are the ones that typically advance. It's as if stopping the puck has become more important than scoring the puck, and that talent is somehow less important. And it's just not the case.

Certainly, soft teams won't go far. And, yes, you can steal games with a hot goalie or a big effort. You might even get by a round or two on those things. Upsets obviously happen. But most postseason series, and the overwhelming majority of Stanley Cup championships, are won on skill.

Just because a game ends in a 2-0 or 3-1 final doesn't mean it wasn't about goal-scoring or skill on the blue line. This Bruins-Habs series is a case in point.

The Canadiens have had a dozen clear scoring chances so far in the series -- and they've buried nearly half of them. The Bruins have had around that many chances as well -- and they've put only one behind Carey Price.

Example 1: Montreal winger Brian Gionta got the puck at the side of an open Bruins net early in the first period of Game One -- and he deposited it underneath the crossbar for a goal. Bruins winger Brad Marchand got the puck at the side of an even more open Canadiens net later in that same period -- and he whiffed.

Example 2: Montreal winger Mathieu Darche was fed a pass all alone to the side of the B's net in the first period of Game Two -- and he rifled it high and wide of a sprawling Tim Thomas for the goal. Boston winger Milan Lucic was fed a pass wide open in front of a sprawling Price later that same period -- and he shot the puck square into the pads of the prone goalie.

Those situations defined the first two games, as did a blown goalmouth bid by David Krejci in Game Two and numerous other Bruins shots sent square into the chest of Price. Those plays had nothing to do with size, grit, goaltending or depth. They all came down to skill. And the Bruins didn't have enough of it.

Same thing on defense, where the Bruins defense has morphed straight into their typical shaky playoff mode. All five Montreal goals this series have been the result of turnovers from the Bruins coming out of their own zone. All five. On Saturday, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Dennis Seidenberg took turns handing the puck over to the Habs, and the result was three goals behind Thomas.

This is nothing new under Claude Julien. His passive, east-west breakout system works fine over the drone of 82 games, but it has been badly exposed over the last four playoff seasons. Maybe that explains the mantra around the Bruins the last few weeks to go "north-south." Unfortunately, after being instructed by their coach to go sideways for years, it's clear the players are ill-equipped to change direction.

This is about personnel as much as it is coaching. It would have been nice to have Zdeno Chara on the ice Saturday (a pretty big story to be flushed out later), but the sad truth is that even if the captain had been there the dynamics would have been roughly the same. Chara doesn't move the puck well himself, a deficiency that really comes out in these games. And it turns out the trade for Tomas Kaberle hasn't solved the problem, either.

The B's simply do not have the skill in back to handle the puck with poise and precision in the face of a heavy, playoff-style forecheck.

The Canadiens may not be blessed with a roster full of those kinds of defensemen, either (heck, they employ Hal Gill), but at least P.K. Subban and James Wisniewski bring some of it to the table. As a result, the Habs haven't had nearly the number of mistakes in back as the B's.

Then there's this mythical "depth" advantage the Bruins supposedly have. What a fraud that is.

Not that Julien doesn't still believe it. In fact, you have to wonder if someone somewhere in the Bruins' organization got to Claude after Game One, when the Bruins didn't have a single forward log over 19 minutes of ice time while the Canadiens made sure their top four forwards were all over the boards for at least that much time (Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec, Gionta and Mike Cammalleri all played between 19:13 and 20:52).

Even though the B's were in the process of being shut out that night, Julien still played some of his pluggers more than his skill players. Namely, third-liners Rich Peverley (17:50) and Chris Kelly (16:39) were on the ice more than second-line center Patrice Bergeron (15:47). And this wasn't just a special-teams issue: Both Peverley and Kelly logged more even-strength time than Bergeron as well.

Brutal. Yet typical for Julien, who never met a third-line grinder he didn't like. If there's another coach alive who believes playing Chris Kelly more than Patrice Bergeron is the best way to win a playoff game, I'd like to know who it is.

So it changed for Game Two, when Kelly was on the ice for only 11:51 and Krejci (22:08) and Lucic (22:06) were way up. And there was also, if you can believe it, a lineup change, as Nathan Horton (aka, Michael Ryder, version 2.0) was moved down to the third line in exchange for Peverley for the final period.

It usually takes a crow bar to get Julien to make such a move. Maybe someone finally informed him that he was in the playoffs.

Still, Bergeron's ice time remained stuck in the mid-teens in Game Two (16:21). With Krejci's production down due to a variety of factors (poor play, no life from his wingers, blanket coverage from the Canadiens), Bergeron could be the guy to carry the offense right now. He and Marchand are the only B's forwards finding room to operate. Yet they find themselves fighting for ice time with the checkers.

This is where Julien's roll-four-lines approach really hurts the B's. In a series where the Habs make sure they get the most out of their best players (Plekanec played 21:34 on Saturday), the Bruins coach remains slow andor reluctant to identify and lean on his.

And I won't even get into the two shifts Julien gave to his fourth line (Greg Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille) in the final 6:30 on Saturday. I was watching the game with Tony Amonte when those players hit the ice and he remarked that he has never seen a coach put out his crash line -- not once, but twice -- while trailing by two goals late in a Stanley Cup playoff game.

I responded by saying that he obviously hasn't been watching Julien the last few years.

The question now is how much longer the rest of us will be subjected to it.

E-mail Felger HERE and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to Felger on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Bruins goalie decisions may become tougher than you might think

Bruins goalie decisions may become tougher than you might think

BRIGHTON, Mass – The good news for Tuukka Rask on Friday is that there was no dark, quiet room required for the Bruins goaltender when he reported to the Warrior Ice Arena practice facility for treatment for his concussion.

Instead, the Bruins goalie got going on the concussion protocol after getting steam-rolled by Anders Bjork at practice on Wednesday morning and started the road back to recovery from his first concussion suffered at the NHL level. In the further good news department, Bruins backup netminder Anton Khudobin stepped up in Rask’s absence and stopped 26-of-29 shots in a winning effort over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night.

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So now Khudobin has twice as many wins as Rask in half as many starts in the opening two weeks of the season. That’s certainly good for the Russian backup that stumbled out of the starting gate last season but has really fortified his spot early this year with a strong training camp followed by a .928 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average this year.  

“I’ve been there before. I’ve played many games in a row before in the AHL and the NHL, so it’s the same routine. It’s just harder to be honest when you’re playing one game every two weeks or something,” said Khudobin. “I’ll talk to Goalie Bob about what I did good or bad, get ready for practice, stretch it out and warm it up, go get it at practice and get ready for the games.”

That’s in stark contrast to Rask, who has a pair of losses to the worst team in the NHL last season, the Colorado Avalanche, and a defeat out in Las Vegas where he was out-dueled by Bruins castoff Malcolm Subban. The defense hasn’t been particularly good in front of him in those games and the team only scored a total of four goals in Rask’s three losses, but the All-Star netminder was also far from sharp with an .882 save percentage to start the season.

The home loss to Colorado, in particular, was a poor performance from Rask where he buried his team with an early deficit once a couple of soft goals by him in the first period. Compounding the lack of quality play from Rask was his odd choice to cease talking about team performance with the media following the loss to the Golden Knights.

“I just try to go out there and give us a chance to win every night. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m not going to comment anymore on team play that much,” said Rask after the Sunday loss in Vegas. “We can just talk about goaltending. That’s just the way it is. Sorry.”

It certainly sounded and felt like Rask was directed to only talk about his own play by somebody higher up in the Bruins organization, and it was that kind of a development rather than the Bruins goalie passive-aggressively dissing his teammates. But that kind of directive from the organization would also speak to some pre-existing friction between Rask and his teammates where past criticism has perhaps rubbed some of them the wrong way.

It felt that way when Rask and David Krejci spoke about things in a tense dressing room in Las Vegas following last weekend’s loss, and it felt that way late last season when the Finnish goalie stayed home in Boston while watching Khudobin win one of the biggest games of the season in Brooklyn against the Islanders. At times in the past, something hasn’t always felt quite right about the dynamic between Rask and the rest of the Bruins, and it’s not a particularly good sign that both parties seemed to already be headed down that path just five games into this season.

All of this makes for some very interesting timing with the Anders Bjork collision into Rask that knocked him for a loop, and has now opened the door wide for Khudobin to start a few games in a row. Should Khudobin play well and continue to backstop a winning hockey team playing hard in front of him, it will make for a much tougher goalie decision than some might anticipate. Rask is clearly the better goaltender in terms of talent, upside, resume and accomplishments over the last eight years, but the question becomes how much is that offset by the Bruins team potentially playing a better brand of hockey with Khudobin between the pipes.

Maybe it’s because Khudobin is the backup and the Bruins are trying to play tighter defense in front of him, but it’s hard to argue the fact that Boston seems to play a smarter, stronger game when the backup gets the call.  

“That’s what I’m there for, but at the same time, I wasn’t thinking, 'Oh maybe [Rask] is going to get hurt and he’s not going to play [the next few games].' I’m not thinking that way, definitely,” said Khudobin. “I was just focusing on my practice. Whatever coach is going to tell me after the practice, then I will keep moving from that point.”

The best-case scenario for the Bruins is that Khudobin plays good, strong, winning hockey in Rask’s absence and that in turn lights a fire under the No. 1 goaltender after he looked fairly laissez-faire in his first few games this season. That’s what everybody saw out of Rask late last season when he was called out by the Bruins coaching staff and challenged by a red-hot Khudobin pushing for some big game starts.

Perhaps that is exactly the kind of collective kick to the hockey pants that’s needed for Rask to start carrying the Bruins team once he gets healthy again.

A deeper question, however, would involve asking how much longer the Bruins want to hitch their wagons to a $7 million a year goalie that needs to mentally recharge his batteries from time to time, and who begins to wilt performance-wise if he makes more than 55-60 start in an NHL season. Members of the Rask Fan Club will point to his career .922 save percentage, but it's been three years since he's been able to consistently reach that level of performance. 

The older Rask, 30, gets, the more baggage is getting added on with a performance level that’s dropped from his Vezina Trophy-winning days. Some of that is clearly about the defense getting a makeover in front of him, but it’s also about Rask just not always being as consistently good when Boston needs him most in the big games.

Khudobin certainly wouldn’t be the long-term answer for the Bruins, and the jury is out on whether or not Zane McIntyre has a future in the NHL as a goalie. So there’s no long-term solution if they suddenly decided to go away from Rask for any reason. But if this humble hockey writer was coaching the Bruins and Khudobin goes on a winning tear over the next few weeks? A healthy Rask wouldn’t automatically be handed his No. 1 workload upon his return, and it would be a couple of goalies splitting time to decide who wants it more.  

That kind of situation might not be up to goaltender controversy standards at this early point in the season, but there’s nothing wrong with making Rask grind for it a little when he does come back after breezing through some early season losses. 

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Morning Skate: Habs' Pacioretty blames himself

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Morning Skate: Habs' Pacioretty blames himself

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while watching the Montreal Canadiens crash and burn in the Atlantic Division.  

*Max Pacioretty is certainly falling on his sword up in Montreal calling himself “the worst one on the ice” as the Habs really struggle to get going this season.

*Brad Marchand was on the Twitter machine after Thursday night’s win and having some fun with what his video game controller probably looks like when he plays hockey.

*Pro Hockey Talk has the details of the Erik Gudbranson boarding hit on Frank Vatrano from last night that looks like it’s going to get the Vancouver D-man suspended.

*Oliver Ekman-Larsson is still adjusting to the changes that are taking place with the Arizona Coyotes as they struggle in the desert.

*The Maple Leafs are looking and acting like contenders early on up in Toronto, and that would be a very good thing for the NHL.

*For something completely different: The Backstreet Boys are going country? Now I’ve definitely seen it all.