Haggerty: Thanksgiving position reminds Bruins that playoff hopes are fragile

Haggerty: Thanksgiving position reminds Bruins that playoff hopes are fragile

There have been some encouraging signs for the Bruins through the first couple of months of the new season. 

The emergence of some key rookies to support the veteran core group, the skyrocketing breakout of 20-year-old David Pastrnak as one of the league’s most dangerous goal-scorers and Tuukka Rask’s rebound to Vezina Trophy form all serve as reassuring reminders that these Bruins are different than the groups that ultimately failed in the past couple of seasons. 

Still, the Bruins’ 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thanksgiving night was another harsh reminder that Boston still has a ways to go and could be in danger of again missing the playoff cut after falling out of the playoff picture on Turkey Day. 

“We’ve been a better team than that. In an important game like this, we came out with one of our poorest efforts tonight,” Claude Julien told reporters in Ottawa following the defeat. “I didn’t like the way we played tonight: the decision-making, the puck management. I would say there were a lot of no-shows as well and that’s something that you can’t have in this kind of game. I’m definitely not happy with the outcome, and we definitely need to be better.”

The Bruins could only muster a season-low 20 shots on net against Guy Boucher’s trapping 1-3-1 defensive system. Mistakes on the defense and in puck management underscored the absence of No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara with a lower body injury. 

If the many things the Bruins have accomplished in the season’s first few weeks have been feel-good, then the loss in Ottawa was the ultimate Turkey Day bummer for the Black and Gold. 

The loss can certainly be explained away by the absence of Chara, of course. The Bruins are basically a .500 hockey team without their captain over the years and it’s not easy for undersized Torey Krug to be thrust into a No. 1 defenseman-type role. Predictably, Boston’s makeshift top-pair D-men, Krug and Adam McQuaid, were on ice for a pair of goals allowed. Krug threw a rough, blind clearing attempt that immediately turned into Chris Wideman’s go-ahead goal after a deflection in front of the net. 

Combine that with Joe Morrow falling asleep at the switch for Mark Stone’s tying goal in the second period, and it was another reminder at the thinness of Boston’s depth on the back end. The loss of one of their top pair D-men immediately pushes other blue liners into roles beyond their ability level and makes the Bruins look much more like the group that struggled to a 19th overall finish in team defense last season.

This is not a new problem, but it’s concerning on many levels to know how much of Boston’s fate this season is tied to a creaky 39-year-old defenseman who has logged a lot of hard miles in the NHL. The early indications made to CSNNE from multiple hockey sources were that Chara’s current lower body issue isn’t a dire one, but it’s a fact of Bruins life that Chara is going to miss more time with bumps, bruises and injuries as he turns 40 this season. 

It’s really too bad because the Bruins defense has stabilized with Chara and 19-year-old Brandon Carlo forming a shutdown pairing and the rest of the group has filled into more appropriate roles behind those two workhorses. 

Perhaps the more concerning issue is with the Bruins offense. 

The Bruins rank 22nd in the NHL in offense while scoring a paltry 2.4 goals per game. Game-breaking David Pastrnak is really carrying a B’s offense with his 11 goals in 15 games this season. There isn’t enough offensive support around the 20-year-old wunderkind and that includes the tandem of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron that hasn’t been scoring all that much aside from the home drubbing of Winnipeg last weekend. 

Ryan Spooner has struggled with three goals and seven points with a quarter of the season in the rear view mirror. Krug’s offense isn’t creating as much now as he did before adding top-four defenseman responsibilities on his plate. We could kick around the perpetually underachieving Jimmy Hayes, with zero points in 34 games along with a team-worst minus-11 rating this season, but the Bruins don’t seem to care that he’s literally done nothing since last February. 

So, why should we? 

The bottom line is this: the Bruins have scored two goals or less in six of their past eight games and they’re not going to be able to rely on Rask’s superhuman act lasting all season behind a defense that’s still working it out. 

Being out of the playoff picture by a single point in ninth place in the Eastern Conference certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world. The NHL stats on the subject indicate the Bruins still have a fair chance at the playoffs as long as they’re within a handful of points of a playoff spot on Thanksgiving. They’re just a point behind a Blue Jackets team many feel is playing well over their heads right now. 

But the numbers don’t lie: since 2000, roughly 78 percent of the teams in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving remain in that position. Just three teams, Anaheim, Florida and Philadelphia, qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs last year after missing the Turkey Day cut. 

Last season, the Bruins were in playoff position at Thanksgiving  with everybody getting a warm and fuzzy feeling about it.  We all remember how last season ended: a 3-8-1 crash-and-burn tailspin with a regular-season finale loss to the very-same Senators team that was dry heave-worthy in all respects. 

So, all is not out the window with the Black and Gold and there is still plenty to be optimistic about provided their 6-foot-9 captain is back soon. But Turkey Day’s Bruins letdown was a sharp reminder that heartbreak isn’t far away with a team that is going to be living on the playoff bubble all season just hoping that it doesn’t burst on them again. 

Injuries opening up path for Donato to show what he can do

Injuries opening up path for Donato to show what he can do

In an ideal world the Bruins could have signed highly regarded prospect Ryan Donato to a two-year entry level contract, watched him develop his game deliberately at the AHL level and received two full years of service before the forward hit restricted free agency. 

But that doesn’t take into account the current injury situation for the Boston Bruins with a few weeks to go in the regular season, and it didn’t factor in Donato’s leverage as an NCAA player that could have chosen free agency, or going back to Harvard for his senior year, if he didn’t get what he was looking for in negotiations with the Black and Gold. Clearly it never got to anything approaching a hard ball level between the Bruins and a young player with plenty of B’s background in Donato, and now he’ll get to suit up for Boston and most likely make his NHL debut on Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

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Once he plays for the Bruins that will burn the first year on his two-year entry level contract, and it will also prohibit him from heading to Providence and playing for the P-Bruins through the rest of the hockey season. It’s the exact same situation Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson found himself in last spring when it was pretty clear after one game in Boston that he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL level. 

After Donato makes his debut it will be up to him and how NHL-ready he looks when he jumps into the Boston lineup, but it’s pretty clear they need some more dynamic top-6 bodies with Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Jake DeBrusk all out of the lineup, and Anders Bjork done for the season as well as what could have been a good reserve option at the AHL level. 

None of those players are expected to return in the next couple of games or even in the next week most likely, so there may be an opening for Donato to dazzle if he's prepared to seize the opportunity. 

“Once [Harvard’s season] was over with I had an opportunity to speak with his family advisor and with the family and with Ryan himself. We just worked through what looked like the opportunity he was looking for and we were happy to provide that,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “We have some injuries and we’re at the point in the season where every game has a lot on the line. I think his being able to go over and have success at the Olympics this year really started to jumpstart his thought process that he was ready for the next challenge.

“I think Ryan might have looked at [the injuries on the NHL roster] as an even bigger opportunity for him to go in and possibly play as early as [Monday night]. From our standpoint, we had always been committed to providing the opportunity to Ryan if and when he decided to leave school. I think the two things just kind of lined up accordingly. We definitely are cognizant that the injuries are there, and they’ve mounted a little bit here coming down the stretch. It’s a testament to the group of players that we have [that led to the Tampa] win after losing [David] Backes early in the game and guys really playing well.”

Clearly Donato was ready for the next level after dominating college hockey to the tune of 26 goals in 29 games for the Crimson this season, and serving as one of Team USA’s best players in last month’s Olympic hockey tournament. Donato has a high hockey IQ that usually comes along with being the son of an NHL player, has a nose for the net for a young player that isn’t the biggest or strongest guy on the ice and has become a dangerous sniper with his NHL-level shot and release. The question now is whether all of those skills are “plug and play” at the NHL level, or if he’s more in the mold of similar NCAA players like Anders Bjork or Danton Heinen that needed some development time at the minor league level. 

“He’s a kid that’s got a confidence about himself, a talent level, and he’s got some details that he’s going to have to work on. All young players do, more importantly the inexperience part of it, but he’s a kid that has hard skill,” said Sweeney. “So we’re looking forward to having him join our team, get immersed, and get a taste, and then it’s up to him. He’ll take it with however far he can run with it, but he is welcomed to the opportunity.

“We’re not going to put any pressure on him to say ‘You have to produce.’ It’s like every player; he’s going to be another player that the coach will have an opportunity to play in situations, and the player himself will dictate how much time and circumstances they play in. We feel that, if we get healthy, we’re going to have a deep group. He’s going to add to that group. Then it’s up to him.”

It would be unfair to expect Donato to have an impact on this Bruins team like Craig Janney did coming out of college thirty years ago, but that’s what many are going to equate it to based on the circumstances. Instead it should be looked at as another talented young player that the Bruins are going to add to their embarrassment of young hockey talent riches, and a player that could possibly help them get through a current tough stretch of injuries and attrition. If Donato does anything more than that then it’s another great story in a Boston Bruins season that’s been chock full of them from beginning to end.


Backes 'will be out for a couple of games' with right leg laceration

File Photo

Backes 'will be out for a couple of games' with right leg laceration

The late season attrition continues for the Boston Bruins as David Backes will miss some time with the laceration on his right leg caused by an errant skate blade in Saturday night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

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It took roughly 18 stitches to close a wound that was gushing blood as Backes quickly exited the ice in the first period, and now it looks like it’s going to force him to miss a handful of games here late in the season. Bruins GM Don Sweeney confirmed that Backes isn’t “day-to-day” as they wait for nature to take its and heal a significant gash that could have been much worse for the 33-year-old power forward. 

“David Backes returned late [Saturday] night with the team. He did meet with our doctors, and they reevaluated the cut. They did some work on it. Obviously, you’ve got great medical care down in Tampa; we’re thankful for that, but our guys wanted their own hands and eyes on it,” said Sweeney. “A timetable hasn’t been set for him. 

“You can imagine it was a pretty significant cut, and now that it’s been, sort of, re-cleaned and addressed accordingly, we’ll just let nature take its course, let it heal. I don’t have a definitive timetable on that one, certainly not day to day. I would suspect he’ll be out for a couple games, and then we’ll reevaluate.”

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The biggest concern for the Bruins with a cut of that nature is the chance of infection, so that’s something the Bruins medical staff will be monitoring closely as Backes heals over the next week or two. It’s too bad for both the B’s and Backes as the Bruins forward was knocked out in the first period against both Florida and Tampa after serving a three-game suspension, and has had his share of freak injuries and illness this season with first diverticulitis that ended with colon surgery, and now the skate blade incident. 

The good news is that it doesn’t sound like Backes is in any danger of being ready for the playoffs, and that’s truly matters as the Bruins continue to win games with so many good players injured and removed from the lineup. Sweeney also gave updates on Patrice Bergeron, who may join the Bruins on their next extended road trip following Monday night’s game vs. Columbus, and Jake DeBrusk, who it doesn’t sound like is all that close to returning to the lineup with his upper body injury.