By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) – Give Brad Marchand credit for this.

His licking of opponents embarrasses his team and his organization, especially when he does it while an opponent is trying to get him to respond for a borderline low hit.

But right now Marchand’s antics, combined with some questionable officiating, is distracting from what should be the most glaring issue around the Bruins’ Eastern Conference second round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning – the Bruins are playing losing hockey.

bradmarchand1 Kalman: Forget Licks And Missed Calls   Bruins Just Not Playing Well Enough

Brad Marchand (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Because they continued to be at a deficit in several areas of the game and made a panic lineup switch that didn’t work out, the Bruins lost Game 4 4-3 in overtime Friday at TD Garden. They’re now down 3-1 in the series and one loss from elimination.

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy spent a large portion of his postgame media conference insightfully addressing the calls and non-calls that have all of New England in an uproar. He explained why he thought Noel Acciari shouldn’t have been called for hooking and lamented the lack of a call when Nikita Kucherov seemingly hauled down Charlie McAvoy leading up to Steven Stamkos’ game-tying goal with 7:04 left in the third period.

But the coach concluded, “We’re all kind of tired of talking about [the calls]. I think I heard someone say, ‘suck it up and play,’ and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to suck it up and play.”

The Bruins’ brand of play in this series since their 6-2 Game 1 win is what everyone should really be talking about. For the second straight game the Bruins allowed the first two goals. Instead of the 3:19, it took Tampa Bay to grab a 2-0 lead in Game 3, it took 9:53 into Game 4. The result was almost the same, as the Bruins had to chase the game. In Game 4 they were able to recover and eventually take the lead, but one has to wonder how much extra energy they expended in their pursuit of a comeback and how that affected them late in regulation and overtime.

Boston scored two power-play goals and a shorthanded goal (during the Acciari penalty) in Game 4. That extended their even-strength goal drought to 127:18.

A Bruins roster that was supposedly stocked with depth enough to make a run to June has become so reliant on one line one has to wonder if the team can even get on the bus or check into its hotel without Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand leading the way. Rick Nash’s second goal of Game 1, David Krejci’s assist on that goal and Jake DeBrusk’s empty-net goal that sealed that win are the only even-strength points the Bruins have gotten from forwards not named Bergeron, Pastrnak or Marchand.

Cassidy’s newest pursuit of secondary offense brought the arrival of rookie Ryan Donato and 39-year-old Brian Gionta. Considering the Bruins’ desperation for someone other than their top-liners to score, Donato was a logical addition. But putting in Gionta, who played 20 NHL games this season and hadn’t played since April 8, was a move that made the decision to play Tommy Wingels on the second line in Game 6 of the first round against Toronto seem sensible.

bruinslose Kalman: Forget Licks And Missed Calls   Bruins Just Not Playing Well Enough

Kevan Miller of the Boston Bruins reacts during the first period of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on May 4, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

To no one’s surprise Gionta’s 15-game scoring drought that ended his regular season continued into the playoffs. Playing with Sean Kuraly between them, Gionta and Donato showed early on they wouldn’t have much to offer and they quickly became a “give the other players rest” line, with Cassidy rolling them over the boards every once in a while, praying they didn’t hurt the Bruins if they weren’t going to help. They inexplicably received more 5-on-5 ice time than David Backes, who was limited to 9:27 and seemed to be one of the few Bruins’ non-top-liners willing to skate and pay a price despite his brief appearances on the ice.

The Donato-Gionta pair did it’s “no hard, no foul” job, until overtime. With Noel Acciari centering them, they were on the ice for the losing goal. There was a bad bounce in front, but the Tampa Bay possession was kept alive by Donato’s inability to clear the puck (who knew a two-handed half-whack while bracing for contact wouldn’t get it done in the Stanley Cup playoffs?). Cassidy stood by his decision to give each of his four lines a shift to start overtime, but this was no time to utilize his own bench. With the Bruins’ best players playing major minutes and Torey Krug lost to injury, there was little hope the Bruins were going to win a marathon. Cassidy should’ve rode his top couple lines until he found an advantageous faceoff, either in the offensive zone or after both teams were a little more spent, to spot out his so-called third line. Instead Gionta’s skate blade got the primary assist on Dan Girardi’s game-winner.

If there were any positives, the Bruins – for all the complaining about the referees – had four power plays, one fewer than they had in the first three games combined. And they scored on two of them. But the Bruins have now been outplayed and outworked for the vast majority of three straight games. The nine forwards not on the top line, including reinforcements that’ve been inserted in the lineup that past two games, should have their pictures on a milk carton. Of course, slumps happen and they all seem to be going through one at the same time.

The work ethic issue, however, is controllable. With Kuraly saddled with Donato and Gionta, the usual fourth-line center’s junkyard dog puck-hounding was scaled back. The new-look fourth line had its moments but lacked even one momentum-shifting shift. The giveaways that are happening in the middle of the ice are as much about working hard as they are about working smart. And Acciari’s penalty aside, the Bruins been in the box too often because they’ve spent so much time trying to defend against a truly deep Lightning team.

It can’t help the Bruins’ cause that one of their best players, and one of the premier all-around performers in the game, has reverted to his thuggish past. Regardless of what you think of Marchand’s low hit on Ryan Callahan and the fact that Marchand will never drop the gloves and answer for such a hit, it’s downright embarrassing that at 29 years of age he’s decided that the proper way to agitate is with his tongue on an opponent’s face. So much for the Marchand who every time he gets suspended says he knows he has to be better behaved and wants to be a role model for children. Most of extra nonsense he’s done over the years has been in heat of the moment, but the licking has become a disturbing, thought-out habit.

One has to wonder what proud Bruins Cam Neely and Don Sweeney, as players as well as front-office personnel, think of one of their own tasting his foes. If they haven’t already, Sweeney or Neely has to put a stop to this before the league does. What if the referee decided to do, as Callahan suggested after the game, and give Marchand a gross misconduct? What if the League decided to send a message to Marchand with a suspension? It would be a punishment of the most avoidable form and leave the Bruins looking worse than their poor play has made them look.

If the Bruins get caught worrying about all the distractions Sunday, this season will end with a whimper. It’s time for the coach and the players to cut through the nonsense, keep their tongues in their mouths and play the type of game that helped them finish the regular season just one point behind the top-seeded Lightning.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.

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