BOSTON (CBS) – The first two-day break of the regular season gives me a perfect opportunity to assess why the Bruins are sputtering at this point despite a favorable schedule (games against probable playoff non-qualifiers Colorado and Carolina).
Sure, if the Bruins went 1-3-0 in a stretch of four games in January or February, it wouldn’t cause many to raise even one brow. But by starting out their Stanley Cup championship defense with that dismal record, the Bruins’ sluggish play is more glaring and worthy of something only somewhat short of panic.
After they sleepwalked through a 1-0 loss to Colorado Monday and went through a vigorous practice the next day, it seemed like the Bruins were ready to get back to playing hard-nosed hockey that would at least produce a point, if not two, in the standings. Instead they waited until the third period in Carolina to wake up offensively.
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Here’s a quick prescription for the Bruins to start using Saturday night in Chicago in order to cure their early-season ill:
– The back pass is not your friend
It’s time to stop making every possession look like they’re trying to impress some figure-skating-style judges and make opposing goaltenders work. And they’re not shooting or carrying the puck, the Bruins have to be in the opposing netminder’s face. Don’t get me wrong, averaging 30 shots on net per game is respectable. Nonetheless, the threat level of those shots has been mosquito sized compared to what it should be. This is a problem that’s particularly affected top-line wingers Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Once or twice a game, they get a chance and they make the extra pass or look for the perfect shot. These guys have to return to the real world, where they’re not 50-goal snipers but lunch-pail types that score when they grind it out.
There’s no need for a major line shuffle just yet to light a fire under these guys, but some late-game shortening of the bench might do the trick. Head coach Claude Julien went that route a little bit in the third period in Raleigh with Benoit Pouliot moving up onto the second line in Rich Peverley’s spot. It might be time to just roll out the best six forwards late in games to grab some vital points.
– Find the power part of power play
Julien has been adamant that the power play struggles (1-for-18) have more to do with what he said is “players not playing on top of their game” than any personnel or strategic issue. Well, that’s the latest party line. Last spring it was all about how if the Bruins kept the opposing power play from scoring, they could survive without their own power play.
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Fact is, the power play is supposed to be the thing that picks up a team when they’re struggling. If the top line isn’t scoring 5-on-5, getting that extra room to roam is supposed to perk up those players you rely on to score.
The Bruins will undoubtedly remain patient and say that a poor four-game stretch is not a reason for a shake-up. But again, if something isn’t working – and in Raleigh the first few (out of five failed) power plays were useless. Julien was looking for extra ice in for Pouliot in a special teams-laden game. How about letting him use his big body on the power play? Maybe work Joe Corvo, the newest power play savior, with Zdeno Chara’s rocket shot and really put the heat on the penalty killers. So far, Julien has been averse to that pair on the point.
The patient approach has worked for the Bruins over the last six to eight months in every area except the power play. It’s time to get more innovative.
– Leadership crisis prevention
It didn’t take long for the Bruins in the post-Mark Recchi era to hit a crisis point. They don’t have Recchi to turn to anymore for guidance or inspiration. Now the first true test of Boston’s leadership group, starting with Chara, Bergeron, Andrew Ference and Chris Kelly, and continuing through to Shawn Thornton, Dennis Seidenberg and Lucic, is to make sure everyone’s carrying his weight – because it’s obvious that the majority of guys aren’t doing that right now.
The leaders might go about doing this behind closed doors and we might never know if anything was done. However, we’ll be able to tell by how the Bruins hit the ice in Chicago if someone rallied the troops.
Teams that fall back on the old “it’s still early” excuse typically find themselves in an early offseason. So there’s no better time than now for the Bruins to turn up their intensity level for these early-season contests.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com. He operates TheBruinsBlog.net and also contributes coverage to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on twitter @TheBruinsBlog.