BOSTON -- One of the most easily discernible traits of this season’s Bruins was what proved to be their undoing in the end.
The Bruins had a plus-10 goal differential this year, spent time in first place in the Atlantic Division in the final six weeks of the season, and at one point down the stretch had a 10-point lead on the Flyers, the team that beat them out for the final postseason spot. So to say the Bruins didn’t have the talent to make the playoffs is to insult the intelligence of hockey fans all throughout New England.
The disastrous West Coast road trip in late March led to a five-game losing streak in which they gained exactly zero points, and forced them into a series of must-win home games in the final week. And that -- high-pressure, big-game situations, especially at home -- was their Kryptonite. It's what led to their second straight playoff DNQ.
“I think at the end of the day you get what you deserve," said goalie Tuukka Rask. "The kind of a roller coaster season we had, we got what we deserved, and that’s the end of it.
“We definitely showed signs of good hockey at times, and we just couldn’t keep that going for a long period of time. If we would have played like we played against Detroit" -- a 5-2 win in the next-to-last game -- "and some other games, the outcome would have been different. But it’s easy to stand here and say that now. Yeah, we definitely got what we deserved.”
The Bruins were mediocre all year at TD Garden, finishing 17-18-6, but they proved to be especially fragile, mistake-prone, soft and simply not up to the task in big games. So it's hard to see how they wouldn't have been dispatched in four or five games even if they had made the playoffs.
“I think it was clear at times that when the moment was too big that we buckled under a little bit of pressure,” said Brad Marchand. “That can come with experience. We had a lot of fresh faces and young guys, and sometimes it just takes a little bit of experience when it comes to going through situations like that. You learn both sides of it, and how to become comfortable when those kinds of situations come up again.”
The evidence was overwhelming when all 82 games had been played for Boston.
The first three games of the season -- against Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Montreal -- were an abject disaster againsta nd kicked off the year with a healthy level of turmoil. The Winter Classic was a cataclysmic dud that played out embarrassingly on a national stage on New Year’s Day against their arch-rival Canadiens, even though Montreal was in full nose dive mode at that point. The Bruins gave up nine goals in Milan Lucic’s emotional return to TD Garden, a game in which they were kicked all over the ice in their worst home loss in a decade.
The final three games were must-wins against three beatable teams: Carolina, Detroit and Ottawa. They lost two of them. Every time the moment grew big for the Bruins, it became way too overpowering for them to handle.
Nor was it a one-season blip. They showed the same tendencies last year, and even looked tight, anxious and unsure of themselves in their Game 7 upset loss to Montreal in the 2014 playoffs.
It’s difficult to see that trait changing without major alterations to the team’s identity.
“Everyone is working hard” said Matt Beleskey, who was actually one of the few players that showed the kind of attitude and mental toughness that made him extremely hard to play against in those big moments. “It’s not for lack of guys going out there and trying. We just couldn’t seem to get our heads, and be mentally good enough to execute in games that we needed to. It was all season long in big games. Anytime we had a big game against a good team we seemed to have a letdown. That was unfortunate.
“I’m sure they’re going to try to make the team better like any team would. Hopefully we don’t break too much up here because we made some good steps in the right direction. I don’t really know to explain it, but hopefully it’s not too much of a big change.”
So how do the Bruins take more steps in the right direction?
It’s the same mind-numbing refrain: They lost character players in Andrew Ference, Shawn Thornton and Johnny Boychuk who were an essential part of the Cup team’s championship DNA in big moments. Those kinds of players knew how to handle the defining moments, and when to break the tension in the ressing room.
Tthe Bruins have been looking fruitlessly for their unique blend of toughness, good humor and ability to team-build since they left. Replacing those kinds of players with Zac Rinaldo, Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly-types -- or with wide-eyed rookies like Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow -- simply made things worse.
Having character, glue guys isn't all there is to it. The NHL is a talent league, just like every other professional sports league, and all the high character and moral fiber in the world isn’t going to overcome the mistake-prone, aging and undermanned defense corps Don Sweeney and Cam Neely built for last season.
But this much is true: A second straight second-half collapse is a clear signal that the Bruins need to manage better, coach better and play better. They also need to figure out a way to get back the good-humored, tough-minded, hard-working identity at the heart of their most successful hockey clubs.
If not, they risk continuing to be the type of team that's easily rattled by the big stage a place like Boston naturally provides.