WILMINGTON – It’s time for the Bruins players to get desperate with five games remaining in the season, so maybe it’s exactly the same for the coaching staff as well.
The Bruins are clutching tightly to a playoff spot with just one point separating them from the hardly hard-charging Detroit Red Wings, and they’ve lost six of their last seven games while struggling mightily to score goals. They have 16 goals in their last 10 games, and have hit the red lamp district for just 10 goals in their last six games as the losses mount.
Certainly some consideration should be made for the level of difficulty among their opponents: they dropped all three games in California against superior teams, and then dropped a back-to-back against the Panthers and Rangers. But the offense has run dry either way, and that’s been a team strength for Claude Julien and his Bruins all season long.
The same could be said for a Bruins power play that led the league over the first half of the season, but has dropped all the way to 9th in the NHL headed into Thursday night’s games. The once-vaunted power play managed to score in only five of the 14 games during the month of March, and has been 10-for-83 (12 percent success rate) since the beginning of February.
Couple that with a penalty kill that’s run hot and cold all season, and what you have is the Bruins are watching their special teams conspire against them late in the season. It was perfectly illustrated in Tuesday night’s loss to New Jersey when the Bruins allowed two PP goals, and went 0-for-2 on the man advantage while struggling mightily to finish off scoring plays.
It doesn’t take a Bruins Insider to know that now is the wrong time of season for the special teams to suddenly struggle.
“We need to count on our best players to be better, and hold ourselves accountable,” said Torey Krug. “All season-long our power play has won us a few games, and our penalty kill has won us a few games. We need to make sure they’re both on the same page right now.
“Personally being on the power play a little bit more [than penalty kill], I think we can definitely be better and that we want to be better. We have to have that drive and that determination that we’re taking care of business. Special teams play is crucial this time of year, and the [Devils loss] is the perfect example of it. Both units let us down, and it’s got to be better.”
So what to do about it?
The penalty kill simply needs to be grittier, smarter and better at executing in the defensive zone. The wide open chance for Travis Zajac from the slot that turned into New Jersey’s first PP goal was atrocious D-zone coverage, and featured Zdeno Chara spinning out and falling when he should have been collapsing on the shooter.
The second one was more of a bad bounce with all the PK skaters collapsing to the slot, and leaving a wide open passing seam for Zajac to find Reid Boucher headed toward the net.
But the real area of concern is a formerly dominant B’s power play that’s hit a power outage over the last couple of months. It’s pretty clear the PP struggles are a result of opposition’s coaching staffs making adjustments to a new Bruins power play formation this season, and some of those Boston pieces also struggling.
Opposing PK units have sagged down on Patrice Bergeron playing the bumper role in the slot, and a tentative-looking Ryan Spooner was removed in favor of Matt Beleskey prior to Spooner getting hurt against the Maple Leafs. Eriksson replaced Spooner on the half-wall and the gritty, hard-nosed Beleskey was installed in front of the net.
The Bruins coaching staff preached a change to their zone entries by mixing things up, and making certain that any puck carriers had speed and numbers when they entered the zone. Those are adjustments that have brought about modest success this month as the Bruins have scored on 16 percent of their power plays this month. But the special teams unit is still inconsistent, and still fails when the Bruins need their offense to prove power play punch.
So why not make another adjustment, and promote their leading goal-scorer, and best finisher, Brad Marchand to the top unit? Or perhaps lifting 6-foot-6 invisible winger Jimmy Hayes from the second PP unit, and inserting David Pastrnak along with his dazzling offensive skill set after sitting on the special teams’ sidelines for most of the year?
Marchand has been on the second unit this season after not even rating high enough to be on the PP last season, and is the second unit’s leading scorer with six power play strikes this season.
But wouldn’t it make sense to give Marchand more PP ice time on Boston’s top unit with the player in Patrice Bergeron that he’s enjoyed unparalleled chemistry with over the last six seasons? Isn’t that worth trying at least for a couple of games to see if that ignites what has been a frustratingly stagnant special teams group over the last few months?
Marchand would certainly be willing to give it a go, and his 35 goals scored this season scream out for time on the top power play.
“If they asked me to, I would…of course,” said Marchand. “With Loui and Spoons there, they make plays. Things happen on the PP where there are so many opportunities there that don’t go in the net. The way that those guys make plays it will go in eventually.
“I’m not concerned about it, or really looking at it. I’m just happy to be on the power play this year, so I don’t care where I am. Special teams have to come up big at this time of year. We need our power play to score, and our PK to stop other teams.”
So what did Julien have to say when presented with the novel concept of using his best finisher on the top power play unit?
He immediately kicked the question away like it was a screaming puck being directed into the corner by Tuukka Rask.
“I’m not going to answer that,” said Julien. “I’m not going to start dissecting everything that you’d like to criticize. I’m not getting into it.”
To be fair to the Bruins head coach, it’s a tense period of time with five games to go and their playoff lives very much in question at this point. The Bruins are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight season, which could undoubtedly sign the summer pink slips for Julien, his assistant coaches and some of the players on the roster.
But all of that might not have to happen if they can find a way to spark the sputtering power play, and make the right adjustments needed to unlock the offense for the Black and Gold.