Here’s what we learned from the Bruins' 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon at the United Center:
1) It is quickly becoming time for Zdeno Chara to get a rest ahead of the playoffs.
The postseason is officially less than a month away and Chara has enjoyed a very strong season buoyed by the brilliant Charlie McAvoy as his defensive partner most of the season. Still, lately Chara has shown his soon-to-be 41 years old age and it’s clear that the grueling end of the season schedule for the Bruins is negatively impacting him at its tougher moments. Chara didn’t have a single hit or blocked shot in a bad game against the Red Wings last week and he made a key mental error late in the third period of the loss to the Hawks that pretty much doomed the Bruins.
Chara’s high-sticking penalty in the final minutes with the score tied at 1 was certainly something that could happen to anybody. Chicago scored the go-ahead goal on an ensuing power play strike from Patrick Kane and it’s no surprise it happened with Chara, their best penalty-killer, in the box. But the real dagger for the Bruins arrived once the penalty expired with Chicago still holding the puck deep in the Boston zone. Chara opted to turn his back to the play and skate across the ice to the Bruins bench for the quick change and the puck arrived right where Chara would have been for a Brent Seabrook strike from the right point. Surely, it was a tough, split-second call late in the second of back-to-back games against the Blackhawks and it wasn’t where the game was won or lost. But it’s those kinds of plays that will dictate, at least in part, how far the Bruins get in the playoffs.
They need a rested, full-power Chara making all the right mental and physical plays late in those tight playoff games. What they can’t have is the Chara who flung a puck over the boards for a crucial delay of game penalty late in a playoff game as happened last season against Ottawa, a clear sign of fatigue impacting the Bruins captain at a crucial point. The best way to combat that is to get Chara some rest. Make him a healthy scratch him for a game or two with 16 remaining in the regular season and try to get him at least a few games under 20 minutes of ice time with wins and losses not quite a life-or-death thing for the Bruins right now.
2) The Bruins finally learned what their breaking point was on Sunday.
When you remove Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy, David Backes and Brad Marchand from your lineup, then it’s too much for the Bruins to find that magical winning formula. It was a true “You can’t win them all” kind of loss after six consecutive wins on home ice for the Black and Gold.
Marchand missed Sunday’s game with an upper-body injury, but you’ve got to also wonder if there was some level of protecting No. 63 late in the season with the Blackhawks almost certainly set to target him in the game. It’s also not the worst time for the Bruins to start resting their key players, as outlined above with Zdeno Chara, so resting a red-hot Marchand isn’t a bad thing. Backes will be back for the Tuesday night game against the Carolina Hurricanes, so the Bruins are beginning to get their forward group back together with both Bergeron and McAvoy not expected to play in the foreseeable future. The good news is they should probably be the only guys missing from the lineup when the Bruins play a couple of key games against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning at the end of the week.
3) The Bruins need to start cleaning things up from a discipline perspective.
The Bruins have allowed four power plays or more to opponents in six of their past eight games and not-so-coincidentally, have put a lot of pressure on their penalty kill over that time. It happened again on Sunday with the Blackhawks getting five power plays to Boston’s one. The Bruins allowed a pair of power-play goals along with a third Chicago score that happened right after the PP time expired. The Bruins have allowed four power-play goals in their past four games, and can’t continue to play with fire when it comes to taking penalties, letting their discipline go and allowing special teams to become a bigger factor in games than it needs to be. It evened out in the case of the back-to-backs against the Blackhawks over the weekend as a high-sticking call buried Chicago on Saturday and did the same to the Bruins on Sunday. In the end, the B’s will come out on the losing end if they keep taking an overabundance of penalties this late in the season.
*This season, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews haven’t had too many glorious moments that serve as throwbacks to the Stanley Cup years, but Sunday was one of those games as Kane nailed the game-winner in the third period. Toews had three assists and was a dominant 16-for-21 in the face-off circle without Patrice Bergeron to keep him in check.
*Anton Khudobin was excellent for the Bruins and kept them in the game with a number of stops through the first 50-plus minutes. He had the Bruins poised to at least get a point in overtime as the third period wound down. Then, the Chara high-sticking play happened and the Blackhawks essentially got two more power-play goals after getting on the board early with a PP strike as well. Khudobin finished with 36 saves and had to face some very high-quality chances in another uneven game from the B’s.
*Jake DeBrusk finished with another strong game. He assisted on Chara’s third-period goal, finished with six shot attempts and threw a couple of hits as well in a season-high 19:48 of ice time as the Bruins rookie elevates his game late in the season.
*Chara did score Boston’s only goal on a big wrist shot from the high slot, but he also committed a late-game, high-sticking penalty that doomed the Bruins to a regulation loss. Chara also compounded that error by not getting into the fray as he exited the penalty box when the Blackhawks had the puck deep in Boston’s zone. Chicago scored right from the area of the ice that was opened up as Chara skated to the bench with his back turned.
*No shots on net and a hooking call on Danton Heinen, who managed to play just 11:20 of ice time and continues to be much less of a factor in all zones than he was earlier in the season. Heinen has one point in his past 14 games and hasn’t scored a goal since Feb. 6.
*The Bruins penalty kill has been up and down the past month and it was a bad day for them on Sunday. They allowed a pair of power-play goals, and another one right after a PP expired that essentially killed any chances of a late third-period comeback. Given their recent spate of penalties taken, the Bruins PK needs to be better. That’s a challenge with no Bergeron around.