Bruins need leaders to follow


Bruins need leaders to follow

This is the third in a five-part series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction. 

First things first: The leadership and general vibe around the Bruins dressing room was actually a little better last year than it was during a particularly listless 2014-15 season.

But the sometimes-motivational, sometimes-calming and sometimes-stern voices inside the room still couldn’t have been anywhere close to optimal levels as the Bruins went 3-8-1 in their final 12 games to once again finish a single point out of the playoffs. Even if the Bruin players haven’t technically quit on long-time coach Claude Julien, two straight late-season collapses make everybody wonder if the proper message and motivations are getting from the coaches to the leadership group and then on to the rank-and-file.

To lose so many games in regulation that late in the season is an indictment of the team's mental toughness. As is the disturbing tendency to shrink from the biggest challenges: The first three games of the season (an 0-3 record with a 7-16 goal differential). The Winter Classic (a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens). Milan Lucic's return to Boston (a 9-2 thrashing at the hands of Lucic's Kings). And that final, must-win game against Ottawa (a stunning 6-1 beatdown).

For whatever reason, it's seemed a lot more joyless around the Bruins on a daily basis in the last few years than it was back in their contending days, when big, bright personalities like Shawn Thornton, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference were around. It's not something easily manufactured, or replaced once you’ve lost it. Bringing in a veteran glue guy like Max Talbot obviously wasn’t enough.

It also something captain Zdeno Chara was still smarting about during Bruins break-up day a couple of weeks ago.

“Obviously if you don’t have the effort, you won’t have results," he said. "I can’t really tell you that the whole season’s been a disappointment. We’ve shown some positive stretches and things that we’ve done well, and we improved. But when times were [there] to fold up or respond, we always kind of find ourselves taking steps backwards. That was one of the things that was disappointing, and frustrating.

“I think that we are close, but close is not close enough. We’ve seen the last two years that we missed the playoffs by a point, two points. It’s just, I mean, we’re there, but obviously the commitment has got to be on a higher level. The execution has to be on a higher level, and that’s like I said, every individual has to be better in that area. Like we’re always saying, Game 1 and Game 82, they shouldn’t be different. Every game counts. Every point counts.”

Those disturbing trends had Julien looking inward for answers.

“What I did was a self-evaluation . . . " he said. "Do I still have the ear of the dressing room? Are they still hearing?"

And in the end, Julien -- who could easily have found another job (like with the Senators) had he left Boston -- feels he's up for the challenge.

"I don’t want to be that guy that bails just because all of a sudden you hit a bump in the road," he said. "I want to be that guys that perseveres. It’s okay to be remembered right now as the winningest coach in Bruins history" -- a plateau he reached during the season -- "but I’d rather be remembered for a guy who had enough character to go back to the trenches, dig his heels in and help turn this organization around.”

Those sentiments certainly send the right kind of stubborn, determined and positive message the Bruins need to hear. But it’s also going to take something different from the players.

Chara and Patrice Bergeron have led by example with feverish work ethics, and a daily approach that doesn’t leave any room for compromise from those with a different agenda. But neither is a rah-rah, emotional-touchstone player, someone who can easily break the tension when things start going south . . . as they did in the final month in each of the last two seasons. This is where a Thornton, a Boychuk or a Ference would have known the proper way to challenge a wayward teammate, to stand up and bear the brunt of a withering critical jab from Julien, or simply pick just the right time to crack a joke that would ease the tension. Or to know when it was vital to stand up for a teammate on the ice, and show the kind of backbone and feistiness that the Bruins have sorely lacked in the last two years.

These are little things to be sure, but they can turn into very big things if neglected. While the Bruins were choking on fumes in their dressing room in the season’s final 12 games, Thornton was in Florida with his Panthers teammates enjoying the “Kevin Spacey in Space” hooded sweatshirt phenomenon that people around the team say Thornton came up with midway through the season.  

Those kinds of little touches go a long way in building a winner, and making sure the weight of expectation never gets too heavy.

It simply feels like those expectations, combined with the serious erosion of talent/depth, have sucked some of the fun out of being a Bruin, and that really comes across at critical times during the season. It also feels like some players are simply straying from the system more than before, and not being pulled into the collective group as they might have been in the past.

Chris Kelly is the kind of player who can be instrumental in those areas, and certainly has the experience -- along with the respect of his teammates, and the willingness to say what needs to be said -- to be that kind of leader. There’s a reason Kelly was re-introduced as an important voice late in the season as he rehabbed from his broken leg, even though he wasn’t all that close to a return to the lineup.

Needless to say, Kelly’s presence is missed when he’s injured and away from the group for an extended period, like last season. That will be a consideration as the 35-year-old approaches free agency on July 1; he may have greater value to the Bruins than he would anywhere else around the NHL.

“From a . . . [team] glue standpoint, obviously . . . there was a void with Chris not being part of our locker room. Claude and I had a lot of talks about that," said general manager Don Sweeney. While admitting "Chris’ health is what we have to evaluate, first and foremost, as to when he can contribute on the ice to us", Sweeney hinted there may be more to the decision than that.

"Sometimes, those guys, it’s not necessarily the stat line always, but there’s some glue there that you do miss when he’s not [around]," said Sweeney. "[Kelly is] a little under-appreciated in that regard.”

Still, the Bruins need more than Kelly and the lead-by-example authority of Chara and Bergeron. Talent is always the most important deciding factor in the ultimate fate of a hockey club, but the simple fact is that the B's underachieved in each of the last two seasons with teams that should have made the playoffs.

That’s the ultimate warning sign that things aren’t as good as they could be, or should be, and need to be changed.


Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

TAMPA – David Backes certainly didn’t escape the scary situation with an errant skate blade unscathed, of course. 

The 33-year-old limped his way to the Bruins team bus out of Amalie Arena after Boston’s 3-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and needed approximately 18 stitches to close up the gash on his right thigh. But Backes was still able to joke about it as he exited the dressing room while knowing that it could have been much, much worse with that kind of freak accident on the ice. 

"I'll play a second period one of these days,” said a smiling Backes, who was forced out of Saturday night’s loss with the skate blade cut in the last minute of the first period and exited the Florida loss as well after catching a match penalty in the first period as well. Luckily for him, there was no structural damage to Backes’ right leg after Yanni Gourde caught him in the thigh area as both players were down on the ice around the Tampa net.

MORE - Haggerty: B's make a statement to Lightning, rest of NHL

There was a lot of blood, however, as he quickly exited the ice, sped past the bench and headed right to the Bruins dressing room with Bruins trainer Donnie DelNegro trailing right behind. 

“I went in and saw him between periods. He’s okay. There’s no structural damage. There will be concern going forward about swelling or infection, but it looks like he’ll be okay. We’ll classify him as day-to-day, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play on Monday,” said Bruce Cassidy of Backes, who actually scored the second goal of the game for the Bruins as a power play strike. “You see a guy coming off like that and you see the blood pooling up, and you’re always worried they could hit an artery somewhere. He was able to get up. That was the first good sign and he was able to be tended to quickly. 

“It is scary. But we were told it would be a deep cut that would require some stitches, and it wasn’t too dangerous.”

For now it just becomes an eventful month for Backes where he’s been suspended, tossed out of a game with a match penalty and now forced out of a game after a freak skate blade incident, but there’s no doubt he’ll return better and stronger than ever in rapid fashion as he’s done through the last two seasons with the Bruins.


B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

AP Photo

B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

TAMPA – One has to wonder what the Tampa Bay Lightning are thinking after Saturday night’s game. 

It’s probably something along the lines of “Oh crap” after the Bruins completely shut them down while missing their top defensemen pairing, their best all-around player and top line center, their most impactful rookie forward and also losing their best power forward, who was filling in as top line center, in the first period. The undermanned Bruins made a big, fat statement with their 3-0 win over the well-rested, healthy Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena at the end of a long, four-game road trip, and now sit just two points behind the Bolts with 12 games to play in the regular season. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

It was impressive enough that the Black and Gold won at all against the NHL’s best team while missing so many of their top shelf players, but to do it while also totally shutting down Tampa’s offense was something worth remarking about. The Bruins defense and goaltending had been playing a bit fast and loose for the better part of a month, and had been bailed out time and again by an offense that’s been dropping big numbers lately. 

But the Bruins went into Saturday night determined to leave an impression with the Lightning about what awaits them next month once the playoffs start, and they did it with physical, gritty defense that left Tampa with little space to operate. Even better the Bruins defensemen moved the puck pretty much perfectly and swiftly all night, blocked shots with hard-nosed determination and proved they could do more than survive without Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. 

That’s damned impressive when you consider the opponents from Tampa Bay lining up against them with a chance to clinch their playoff spot, and what’s on the line for both teams headed into the final three weeks of the regular season. 

“We were looking at it as more of a bounce-back against a really good team, and let’s see where we are. I thought we answered the bell,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “Probably the biggest win in a long time. We've had some nice comebacks and some high-scoring affairs, but it was nice to get a zero [goals allowed] in the column. It’s been a while. 

“It was just good, solid team defense…winning pucks. It was probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored were pretty nice ones going to the net. It was playoff hockey. I thought we were better at it than they were tonight. Who knows how the next one is going to go, but we’re going to enjoy this.”

It was clear early on that the Bruins wanted to set the tone both physically and style of play-wise, and they did just that. The pounding physicality clearly bothered the Lightning as Steven Stamkos made an uncharacteristic choice to retaliate against Tim Schaller after he threw a heavy hit on the Tampa Bay star player. That landed Stamkos in the box and set the Bruins up for their first of two power play goals on the evening. 

Those two power play goals were proof enough that the Bruins had their special teams in good order, but it took just a combined 23 seconds of power play time to strike for those two scores against the Lightning penalty kill. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay coaching staff up at night before the final two meetings between these two teams. The suffocating defense, the stout physicality and the quick strike offense just completely overwhelmed the Lightning, and things went exactly according to the game plan that Bruce Cassidy had set out for them prior to the game. 

“We’re a confident group back there, and when we play the way we’re supposed to we can compete with anybody,” said Kevan Miller, who played a punishing, physical 21:41 of ice time in the win. “It’s that time of year where we’re pushing for the playoffs, we’re grinding away and we knew as a group after [the Florida loss] we needed to tighten things up. We did that. That’s a tough team over there, so you need to take time and space away from them. As a group we did a great job of that.”

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bruins early was David Backes exiting quickly at the end of the first after his right thigh got sliced by an errant skate blade. But even the 33-year-old Backes managed to avoid serious injury despite approximately 18 stitches to close the wound, and was cracking jokes about it as he limped to the Bruins bus postgame.

Clearly things can and will change with two games remaining between the two teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins should theoretically be even better and more difficult to beat once they got all of their key players healthy, and that’s got to be a frightening prospect for the Lightning. 

MORE - Talking Points: B's start strong and don't look back vs Tampa

Then again perhaps the Bolts were a little rusty after three days off leading into Saturday night, and they needed to be kicked in the teeth by the Bruins to start getting that hunger back. Either way the Bruins are within a single win of pulling into a tie for the President’s Trophy and home ice throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Nobody should be surprised the Bruins did it once again while fighting through injuries and a brutal late season schedule, and that’s a testament to how stubbornly they’ve successfully plowed through adversity this season. 

The dominant win over Tampa on Saturday night just serves as another piece of compelling hockey evidence that something special is building with the Black and Gold. It’s become impossible to deny or ignore as the Bruins continue bucking the odds in a way that should have everybody else’s full attention around the NHL at this point.