It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that there was no shortage of strong Bruins reactions after a disappointing opener in the NHL's round-robin tournament.
After generally not looking ready at all in a 4-1 exhibition loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier this week, the Bruins lost by the very same score, 4-1, to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon in a playoff game that wasn’t exactly meaningless.
It’s clearly not do-or-die like the hockey teams engaged in the quarterfinal series. And home-ice advantage has limited value to a team like the Bruins in a neutral site playoff like what’s happening inside the Toronto bubble at Scotiabank Arena.
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But the B’s still want to be playing quality hockey headed into the Stanley Cup Playoff rounds that await them in little more than a week, and they haven’t resembled anything close to their best regular-season selves in two poorly played losses.
It’s understandable that those around the Bruins might be getting a little concerned at this point after finishing the regular season as the NHL’s best team, and entering this postseason as the favorites to win it all.
“I don’t like to lose. I don’t think anybody on this team likes to lose. We play to win the games, so in that context I’m upset. I think we all are,” said Bruins fourth liner Chris Wagner, who scored the only goal of the game for the B’s in defeat. “Yeah, it’s not the first round [of the Stanley Cup Playoffs], but at the same time technically it’s a playoff game. I think we kind of have to look at ourselves in the mirror and get ready for Wednesday. We’re playing Tampa and if we show up and we’re not at our best, we could be in trouble.”
Everybody involved would probably feel a lot better about the Bruins if there was anything recognizable about their game right now. Instead, they have looked like they did at their absolute worst moments of the 2019-20 regular season.
The Perfection Line looked like they were moving at half-speed and showed uncharacteristic hesitancy attacking the net. All three members of the line — Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak — had just one shot on net apiece late into the third period and each finished -2 or worse while clearly lacking in execution at both ends of the ice.
In general, the Bruins passed up clear, easy shots at the net in favor of getting fancy and passing the puck too much. It’s the same malady that’s been there for the Black and Gold whenever they’ve gone through offensive ruts over the last couple of seasons, and it was definitely there on Sunday afternoon vs. the Flyers.
In general, though, it simply felt like the same kind of malaise you see out of this Bruins team from time to time when the games don’t really matter to them. It just feels like their heart isn’t into it and the Bruins aren’t very good at faking it.
The Perfection Line struggled badly at the end of last year when they had clinched everything they could during the regular season, and essentially had nothing to play for.
Jaroslav Halak was pushed into duty on Sunday when Tuukka Rask wasn’t feeling well, and the B’s backup was definitely off his angle several times while getting beaten on long distance bombs from the Flyers. Combine that with rusty execution in every zone and with something vital like puck decision-making, and it turned into a perfect recipe for the Bruins to appear sluggish and behind the play just as things are ramping up.
After being asked three different ways what was behind the team's struggles, Bruce Cassidy finally boiled it down to the simplest terms.
“I’m thinking we need to make a friggen’ better play with the puck is what I’m thinking in some of those situations where we’re capable of better than what we were doing,” said Cassidy. “That’s what needed to be done tonight and we probably would have been out of trouble. We need to make better plays with the puck, be stronger on it and take care of it and more urgency. You can use any adjective you want, but that was the difference in the game.
“We made some mistakes with some puck plays where they came back and buried it on us quick. There were some individual mistakes, a bad line change. The good news is those are correctable. We need to structurally with the puck generate more [offense] and some of that is execution and decision-making in shooting the puck a little more rather than over-passing. Right now, we’re still a little bit in the summer hockey mode in that regard.”
The good news — funny as it is to say — is that it’s clear the Bruins aren’t yet taking these games all that seriously.
They haven’t really been anywhere close to their best in this first two games out of the chute while knowing they had four hockey games to ramp up until their real postseason begins. One would expect the flatness to their game is going to be ironed out with the Lightning and Capitals remaining as the two round-robin opponents, and then the actual Stanley Cup Playoffs waiting for them after next weekend.
There’s no reason to believe a proud, experienced and supremely talented group of Bruins won’t turn it around given everything we know about them. But it would feel a lot more comfortable banking on that if they actually showed a shred of evidence that they were close to getting their collective game back after a five-month COVID-19 layoff.
The Bruins have two games left to get their Black and Gold butts in gear and Sunday’s loss to the Flyers showed they have a lot of work to do over the next few days if they want to get back to their level.
The panic button hasn’t been pushed yet for the Bruins, but the trigger finger is starting to get a little itchy for B’s fans after Sunday’s round-robin bummer.