BOSTON (CBS) – On a night the Bruins honored P. J. Axelsson, one of their best penalty killers of the past 15 years, the current Boston penalty kill looked like it could use the Swede back in uniform.
The night started with Axelsson dropping the ceremonial first puck as part of a celebration of the Bruins of the 2000s Tuesday. Then after the real first puck was dropped, the Maple Leafs scored twice in five chances with a man advantage at TD Garden in a 4-3 win that sent the Bruins to their third loss in their past four outings.
In those four games, Boston has surrendered six goals. If you extend the current slump back to the Dec. 31 loss to the New York Islanders, the Bruins have killed just 17 of 27 opponent power plays, a 63-percent success rate.
“Well, lately it’s been we let in one, we let in two or three or even four, it kind of snowballs and we have to get rid of that,” said Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who’s supposed to be the anchor of the penalty kill but recently has been more like oscillating fan. “It’s just one at a time and you’re going to get scored on but it’s just a matter of how you’re going to get scored on and you make mistakes but how do you recover from those mistakes? Lately, one hasn’t been enough, it’s been more than one and we have to fix that.”
The power play is usually the special-teams unit that gets dumped on around here. And the Bruins have been pretty meek on the man advantage over their recent stretch of games too, with just one power-play goal for in their past eight games. However, with the exception maybe of the games against the powerhouse Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, there’s been enough momentum generated from the power play that the Bruins have benefited despite a lack of goals. And anyway, how many years in a row can we kick around the same aspect of the Bruins’ game?
It’s the penalty kill more than anything that’s killing the Bruins right now. They’ve come to rely on it both as a defensive mechanism and a way to make up for any deficiencies with the power play and the offense in general. The roster is built around great goaltending, a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, a Selke Trophy-winning center and a group of rugged defensemen and opportunistic forwards that should all combine to make an airtight penalty kill.
It wasn’t too long ago this season that the Bruins were at or sharing a spot among the league’s leaders in penalty kill. Of course, that’s when they were executing their game plan.
“Yeah too many breakdowns, but also I think we are forcing plays that we shouldn’t and sometimes we’re not in sync,” Patrice Bergeron, one of the league’s premier defensive forwards, said after the Toronto loss. “We’re not forcing where all guys go as a whole and together, and obviously when there’s only one guy going that opens up too many lanes and they’re going to eat you alive.”
Gregory Campbell’s main role on the Bruins is to make sure power plays come and go without incident. After the loss to the Maple Leafs, he complimented the penalty-kill game plan. And he didn’t want to focus too much on what his teammates have to do better, and instead chose to focus on his own struggles.
“I don’t know, I think to be a good penalty-killing unit, it’s a lot of the intangible things. It’s the small things that add up to being successful,” he said. “And so whether it’s faceoffs, and again that’s an area that I’d like to help out more … it’s blocking shots, it’s getting the puck deep 200 feet, having good sticks. …. Tuukka’s been great for us all year, so to leave him out to dry in some situations, you know, that’s an area that … personally, I’m going to look at what I can do better, and work on that.”
Sometimes Rask has been a Vezina Trophy-worthy backstop during the kills, and sometimes he’s looked more like he’s trying to body slam the puck. But the play in front of him definitely has to improve. There has to be more trust in the system. There has to be less focus on trying to score a shorthanded goal and more attention to keeping the puck out of the net.
And it’s about time the Bruins raised their game to the level of their opponents. In case they haven’t been paying attention, the schedule has gotten tougher. The days of beating up on Florida, Winnipeg and other cupcakes ended. With the California trip and a game with desperate Toronto done, the Bruins now have to visit Dallas and defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago, host Los Angeles and then head down to a tough building in Philadelphia. The performances that might’ve been enough to earn two points earlier in the year aren’t going to cut it anymore.
That brings us back to the penalty kill. If improvement is mostly about intangibles, as Campbell says, well that probably starts 5-on-5. The shot-blocking, the play without the puck and the faceoff wins (which uncharacteristically have been in shorter supply lately) will carry over and make the penalty kill effective again. That is, if the Bruins start taking January games a little more seriously and prove they care about hanging onto the Atlantic Division lead.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.