By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A Bruins fan almost since birth, you could tell by Bruce Cassidy’s enthusiasm in his postgame press conference, shortly after the Bruins seized control of their own destiny Saturday, the Boston coach definitely wanted to win an Atlantic Division title and what he called an “Eastern Conference championship.”
Judging by the players’ performance Sunday night, they didn’t share Cassidy’s desire.
Needing two points against a Florida Panthers squad destined for an early vacation, the Bruins lost 4-2 at TD Garden in a game that featured about 48 listless minutes and 12 minutes of them ramping up their game to playoff intensity.
Alas, the Bruins’ habit of sticking their fingers into the flame by falling behind early finally burned them, and even a 26-6 advantage in shots on net in the third period couldn’t catapult them past the Panthers on the ice or the Tampa Bay Lightning in the standings.
The Bruins head into their Eastern Conference first-round series against Toronto (starting Thursday) having gone 1-3-1 in their last five games in the regular season.
“We need a better 60-minute game,” captain Zdeno Chara said. “I thought that we found some part of our games where we slipped, and we need to be a little bit better for 60 minutes. We had those games, when we had those 60-minute games, we were in control. And lately I felt that we lost a little bit of focus for a short period of time, short periods where we didn’t have that focus or that intensity that we had previously in January, February for 60 minutes.”
A couple regular-season titles and a chance to face New Jersey instead of the Maple Leafs in the first round weren’t enough to rouse the Bruins from the outset. The wakeup call came in the form of Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau’s high stick, which left Chara’s face red from blood rather than the embarrassment that should’ve come from the way Boston approached the start of a crucial game.
After talking for a couple days about treating the Florida matchup like a playoff game, the Bruins looked more like they were lottery-bound than headed for the postseason until they went on the four-minute power play. David Pastrnak scored to get the Bruins within one, and there were scoring chances galore from then until the final horn, but all the Bruins came away with was a series schedule against Toronto and some hard lessons for what they’re going to have to do in the playoffs to make sure they don’t continue to replicate their performances of the past week and a half.
“You know, they’re out of playoffs and would have been very easy for them to come in and just kind of shut it down, but it’s a competitive league and guys want to win, that’s why we play the game, we want to win. And it’s going to be even harder in playoff time,” Bruins forward Marchand said. “It’s going to be extremely competitive and we have to be willing to sacrifice every little bit, every shift, and if we don’t do that then we’re going to lose. So, we just have to be dialed in and prepared to do whatever it takes. But I think we have the right mindset in this room and guys want to win and they’re feeling good about the group, so hopefully it goes well.”
That lesson was one of two positives to take out of a game that caused general manager Don Sweeney to take the stairs out of the press box instead of the elevator, probably so he could blow off some frustration. No matter how healthy the Bruins are for Game 1 or how you align Cassidy’s lineup for that night, the Bruins are going to have five rookies. Although they’ve experienced something resembling playoff intensity during games in April, Sunday was the first time the Bruins were the ones really playing for a particular outcome. They failed.
Never one to truly call out any of his players publicly, Cassidy wasn’t shy about pointing out Matt Grzelcyk’s tentativeness before a giveaway that led to Florida’s first goal or Jake DeBrusk’s lack of finish in tight through the early stages of the game. The coach chalked up those issues to possible playoff jitters. Danton Heinen and Ryan Donato didn’t assert themselves much either.
We’ve seen similarly inexperience NHL teams need a mulligan after an ugly playoff-opener in the past. Luckily the Bruins were able to get theirs out of the way while the stats were still being applied to regular season totals. Or at least you hope Sunday shined a light on what Marchand said for the youthful lineup. If the Bruins’ younger players take the right message from their lackluster performance, we might see the Boston team that was slicing through opponents for most of five months before the April doldrums come Thursday.
The other positive was health. Chara didn’t even sport a scar after the game despite his nose gushing blood after the Huberdeau high stick. Marchand’s stick bore the brunt of his frustration but he survived the elbow from Colton Sceviour and the high stick from Jared McCann that left the right side of the left winger’s face swollen. Charlie McAvoy, finally playing like the rookie sensation he was before his MCL sprain, avoided injury after he was hit by Sceviour and then wound up in a three-car pileup with linesman Brian Mach.
Any bumps and bruises will get a chance to heal with a day off Monday and a practice that may not be too rough Tuesday before the Bruins get down to the nitty gritty of preparing for Toronto on Wednesday. The mental fatigue that was a hot topic in the postgame locker room Sunday will get a chance to wane, for the younger players as well as the veterans.
The playoffs start for real on Thursday. The Bruins may have failed their first test in a must-win game, but no one will remember the way they finished the regular season or that they sacrificed home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, if they produce an unforgettable postseason.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.