By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Pay no attention to the new man behind the mask.
That is, it doesn’t matter that the Bruins assigned Anton Khudobin to Providence of the AHL and called up Zane McIntyre in time to practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday before a four-game road trip that starts against the Florida Panthers on Saturday.
Not to totally discredit the move, because after all Khudobin’s recent performances – as few and far between as they were – weren’t what the Bruins needed in order to legitimately rest Tuukka Rask and maintain their hold on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference for the long haul.
But on a team where the list of potential fall guys is long, Khudobin probably fit somewhere in the middle. The same for forward Noel Acciari, whose inability to put his shot in the vicinity of the net, never mind in the net, canceled out his physical presence and landed him back in Providence on Friday.
These minor moves made by general manager Don Sweeney and coach Claude Julien are just distractions around the 20-17-4 team meant to make observers believe things are better around the Bruins than they really are. Regardless of how the NHL totals up its standings points, Boston has now lost more games than it has won. The Bruins have lost to four last-place teams, including three times at home, in the past month. Their home record is 9-10-0, making you wonder if they should petition the league to move to Hartford.
But Julien’s unending effort to keep opinion of the Bruins positive and fluff up the confidence of his mix of struggling veterans and lost younger players continued Friday, as he bristled at the notion the Bruins haven’t played well at home. He countered that Boston has been playing well enough to win but hasn’t gotten the breaks. The Bruins are 2-5-0 in their past seven home games, including a game when they spotted the New York Islanders a 3-0 lead.
Julien wants you buy the notion that the Bruins were the better team against Edmonton in a 4-3 home loss Thursday. Boston outshot the Oilers 36-25 but goaltender Cam Talbot only made two or three great saves, typical for a goaltender in a competitive NHL game. Julien praised his team’s defense against Edmonton’s attack on the rush, but two of the Oilers’ goals were on the rush. In the current NHL, where goals are scare, especially when you’re dealing with the Bruins, two goals can be the difference.
Julien lamented that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ goal went off his chest after a rebound. Well Boston got a goal from Colin Miller, whose shot was stopped by Talbot and deflected in off a defenseman. That’s a wash. That’s a sign that breaks went both ways. All things being equal, the Bruins weren’t able to extend their lead when they were ahead 2-1 and then let the Oilers pull away and only made the game interesting when they scored 5-on-3. It was the same old song and dance.
To his credit, Julien accepted that his team gave the Oilers “gifts” on Thursday in the form of goals. But those weren’t the only gifts the Bruins have been giving out this season, especially during their recent stretch of 15 games when they’ve gone 5-7-3. They went through that stretch where they were giving up the first two or three goals every night. They handed New Jersey its easiest two points of the season. And then they wasted the emotional wave they should have been riding from the Milt Schmidt memorial ceremony and let Edmonton forward Patrick Maroon run roughshod over them.
The Bruins went back to work Friday and their only change was in the backup goalie slot. McIntyre will probably get a start over the weekend, most likely in the second half of a back-to-back against Carolina on Sunday. Maybe after going 10-0-0 for Providence, he can provide the Bruins a lift and Rask a worthwhile respite. It’s a weird world where the Bruins are counting on a goaltender with an .859 NHL save percentage in three games to help them emerge from the depths of their mediocrity.
The lines remained the same from the Oilers game, with the exception of David Backes moving closer to a potential return from a concussion and filling the spot with David Krejci and Ryan Spooner.
The likes of Jimmy Hayes (two goals) and Riley Nash (one goal) were still playing prominent roles, skating in the bottom six with seemingly no chance of ever being waived.
Normally if those players started producing, you’d call it secondary scoring. But it’d be primary scoring at this point because the players the Bruins expect the most out of still haven’t hit their stride. Patrice Bergeron and Krejci seem back on track with six goals combined in the past five games, but Brad Marchand has one goal in his past 10 and David Pastrnak has gone seven games without a goal since he had that bursa removed from his elbow. Maybe he should’ve kept the bursa.
You can’t expect everyone to be firing on all cylinders, but if the Bruins could get a majority of their lineup to produce, maybe they’d score more than three goals more than once a month and give their defense and goaltending some margin for error.
Instead the margin of error is thin as Rask. So on nights where there are breakdowns like there were against Edmonton, it’s game over for the Bruins, regardless of the style points they might earn in the their coach’s eyes.
The Bruins have 44 points and are tied for second place in the Atlantic Division. But except for the overwhelming horrendous quality of their division, they’re in the same position they’ve been in the past two years. Some nights they’re barely better than the rest of the dregs of the division and some nights they’re worse. They rarely put together strong offensive and defensive performances in the same game and they squander opportunities against weak opponents begging for them to take two points. They’re almost to the point where it doesn’t matter who the No. 2 goaltender is because the games are going to be so important Rask will have to play every night for the last couple of months, and we know how that has worked out the past two seasons. The Bruins are going to hope they get help from other teams continuing to struggle, or collapsing later, and they’ll try to accumulate enough loser points to qualify for the playoffs.
This season was never about truly contending, despite the preseason rhetoric. There have been some successes, with the experience Brandon Carlo, Frank Vatrano, Miller and Pastrnak have gotten. Other lesser prospects have also seen some NHL ice. There might be more prospects sprinkled into the lineup the next four months. Next season and in the seasons after, there might be more prospects to put Boston back in contention, and this grand Sweeney plan might pay off.
If you’re looking to back a winner right now, though, you’re not going to get behind the Bruins. Their place in the standings is a mirage. And no encouraging words from their coach or minor tweaks to the bottom six forward group or backup goaltender spot is going change that. Either the Bruins’ big-money players have to live up to their reputations or Sweeney has to break the seal and start trading – something he hasn’t done since last year’s trade deadline.
It’s not likely anything will accelerate the Bruins’ return to prominence presently, but at least they – players, coaches and management – could make it look like they’re trying.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.