It took a lot longer than expected, but the Boston Bruins are finally battling some real adversity during the 2022-23 NHL season.
Sunday's 4-1 road loss against the Carolina Hurricanes was Boston's third consecutive defeat -- the first time that's happened all year.
After beginning the five-game road trip with a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Bruins lost a hard-fought 3-2 game to the Tampa Bay Lightning, blew a 3-2 lead with 48 seconds left in regulation and lost 4-3 in overtime versus the Florida Panthers on Saturday night and then lost the second of a back-to-back to the 'Canes.
"I think you look at adversity as an opportunity to grow and get better," Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery told NESN after the loss in Carolina. "Once we come out of this, we're going to be a better group. We're going to be more resilient and a little tougher."
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Luckily for the Bruins, they are about to get some much-needed rest. They have played five games in the last eight days, and three in the last four. The B's won't play again until Wednesday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs. It's their only game between now and Feb. 11 at home versus the Washington Capitals. The NHL All-Star break begins Thursday, and then Boston has its bye week. A week-and-a-half break at a tough juncture in the regular season is just what this team needs to recharge its batteries for the final 32 games.
Is fatigue a factor right now for the Bruins?
"Yeah, I think so. I think you can't deny that," Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron told reporters in Carolina. "That being said, you have to be pros and make sure you bring it every night. A back-to-back on the road, lots of hockey, it's part of it. That being said, nothing that other teams aren't seeing. It's part of the schedule that we all have. So we have to be better.
"We talked about facing adversity at some point in the year and here we are. We have to face that as a team together and roll up our sleeves and learn from what hasn't been there in the last few games."
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Rest alone isn't going to fix all of this team's issues, though.
The power play is a mess right now, and it reached a new low point Sunday. The Bruins had six power-play opportunities and failed to cash in on a single one. They are in an 0-of-13 drought with the man advantage, which is a sharp fall from the top-five power play Boston has enjoyed most of the season.
Whether it's dumping the puck into the attacking zone and not winning the ensuing battles for possession or poor zone entries or careless passing, the Bruins haven't been crisp with the puck on the power play.
"I just think we need a little bit of a rest," Montgomery told NESN when asked about the power-play struggles. "I'm not worried about our power play. Our players are too talented and too competitive."
The Hurricanes also are a problem. Carolina is 1-0-1 versus Boston this season, and the Hurricanes would be 2-0-0 if not for the Bruins' impressive comeback victory in overtime at TD Garden on Nov. 25. The Hurricanes beat the Bruins four out of four times at PNC Arena in last season's first-round playoff series. For whatever reason, it's a tough building for the Bruins to play in. What's more challenging for Boston is the way Carolina plays.
The 'Canes are a physical, well-structured and heavy checking team. They take away time and space really quickly, they forecheck aggressively and they don't give up a ton of quality scoring chances.
"I think (the Hurricanes are) good at pressuring you everywhere, the whole 200 feet," Montgomery told reporters. "They had a great checking game. They were committed to it. I think their checking game led to turnovers because we exposed pucks and we didn't protect them well and we didn't put it in behind them and go to work in behind them. Two of their goals, their first and their third goal, were direct results of that."
Even though the Bruins have earned plenty of points from games they've fallen behind in this season -- 7-5-1 record when trailing after 20 minutes, 3-5-3 when trailing after 40 minutes -- playing catch up hockey against an opponent like the Hurricanes is really difficult and also quite tiring.
"Their work ethic and how hard they were to play against led to us being tired over time because we didn't have the puck a lot," Montgomery said. "We were chasing it a lot because they checked us really well, and then they protected it well in the offensive zone."
The Hurricanes are nine points behind the Bruins for the best record in the Eastern Conference. Carolina also has one fewer game played. That lead for the B's could be as low as five points at the All-Star break later this week. Home ice advantage is always important, but for the Bruins it could take on extra significance this season. Given their struggles in Raleigh over the past year -- six straight losses at PNC Arena -- the Bruins need to secure the top seed and make the Hurricanes come to Boston for a potential Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
There's a ton of hockey to be played before that scenario could unfold, but it can't be ignored, either. The Bruins will have a nice cushion atop the standings going into the All-Star break, but it's one they'll need to fight hard to protect over the final 32 games.