By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins weren’t going to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference second round with all their offense coming from one line.
And they didn’t.
The Bruins dropped Game 5 of the series 3-1 on Sunday and lost the series 4-1, losing four straight after their emphatic 6-2 win in Game 1.
The Bruins’ No. 1 line of Patrice Bergeron centering Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak combined for 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) through the first four games of the series. In the Bruins’ season finale, that line was held scoreless at 5-on-5 and managed just one power-play assist from Pastrnak. That line didn’t have an even-strength point in the last three games of the series.
But on the list of reasons the Bruins lost, Bergeron’s line was dead last because it was too much to ask of them to carry the Bruins past the team that beat them out for the No. 1 seed in the East by one point. At the top of that list of who to blame was every other forward.
You start with the line of David Krejci centering Rick Nash and Jake DeBrusk. They combined for six points (including DeBrusk’s empty-net goal) and were more of a placeholder than a threatening line throughout the series. And aside from DeBrusk’s two-goal eruption in Game 7 of the first round against Toronto, they were barely a factor in the postseason. Against the Lightning they helped slow down Steven Stamkos’ line, along with the defense pair of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, but couldn’t establish a forecheck, get the puck to dangerous areas of the Lightning’s zone or even create off the rush (a specialty of all three players).
At least Krejci’s line provided a dash of offense in support of Bergeron’s line against Tampa Bay. The rest of the Bruins’ forwards took their vacation eight days early and didn’t record a single point. Riley Nash, a 15-goal scorer in the regular season; David Backes, a $6 million man who had 14 goals; double-digit goal scorers Danton Heinen, Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari – didn’t manage to get their name on the scoresheet during a five-game series.
Of course, they could’ve been forgiven for not scoring had they been grinding down the Lightning to soften them up for the top two lines. But with the exception of a couple of shifts in Game 5, those lines didn’t even make Tampa Bay pay a physical price.
At 15:38 of the first period, Sean Kuraly came over the boards and his new linemates, Backes and DeBrusk, followed. For nearly a minute and a half, that line kept the Lightning pinned in and the shift was capped by Kuraly drawing a penalty on Dan Girardi. The Bruins miraculously took a 1-0 lead, despite being thoroughly outplayed in the period, on Krejci’s ensuing power-play goal.
Kuraly’s line had another momentum-shifting shift in the second period after the Lightning had two shots on net among five shot attempts in a 2:13 span in pursuit of the tying goal. Kuraly and Backes delivered a couple of hits on the forecheck and Kuraly had a scoring opportunity snuffed out by Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy at 5:40. The Lightning’s surge seemingly was halted.
But Brayden Point eventually took advantage of a Kevan Miller giveaway and a soft play by Krejci in front of the Boston net to score the goal that tied it 1-1. And Backes was sent to the locker room for the remainder of the game by a J.T. Miller hit at the Tampa Bay blue line with 12:17 gone in the second. With Backes gone, that line lost its momentum and coach Bruce Cassidy had few options for a late-game lineup shuffle.
The defense corps, which provided one goal each from McAvoy and Torey Krug in the series, didn’t help matters either. McAvoy landed just three shots on net in the five games, while Matt Grzelcyk landed two.
But make no mistake about it, this defeat was mostly caused by the power outage up front. Without secondary scoring, the Bruins went the final 187:18 of the series without an even-strength goal.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was getting offensive contributions throughout its lineup and getting consistent body-crunching shifts from is fourth line of Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz. And for all its glory early in the season offensively, the Bergeron line couldn’t contain Brayden Point’s line over the final three games, with Point scoring in Game 4 and 5 and Ondrej Palat netting a pair of goals in Game 3.
On paper the Bruins seemingly had the right mix of skill and grit up front, and the depth, to match up with Tampa Bay. They were able to rank sixth in the NHL in goals scored per game and beat the Lightning three times in four tries during the regular season. A best-of-seven series turned out to be a tougher hurdle to leap.
Cassidy certainly made some questionable personnel decisions, like dwarfing his gaffe of putting Tommy Wingels on the second line for Game 6 of the Toronto series by dressing Brian Gionta for Game 4 against Tampa Bay. Keeping Heinen out of the lineup for the final two games against the Lightning, assuming there wasn’t an injury concern, was also a baffling move for a team so desperate for secondary scoring. Cassidy probably also waited too long to get Kuraly and Backes on a line together and could’ve done more to mix and match his second and third lines to see if he could find a jolt for the offense.
But the players’ lack of execution and production made it difficult to heap too much blame on Cassidy. The Bruins might’ve struck the right balance with grit, skill and speed but they were maybe a bit off in their combination of youth and older players. Their inability to adjust to the Lightning’s ferocious forecheck seemingly was a combination of inexperience in the face of such pressure, and sluggishness and stagnation by players set in their ways. Even by the end of Game 5, Marchand was still trying the same pull-up back passes on the rush he’d had intercepted earlier in the series after the Lightning memorized his moves. Creativity eluded the Bruins as much as offensive production.
How the Bruins have to respond to their deficiencies this offseason is a topic for another column. And this loss in no way tarnishes what the Bruins accomplished in the first season of their youth overhaul and in the face of a rash of injuries throughout the season. But every Bruins forward not named Bergeron, Marchand or Pastrnak should hang his head today and feel shame for not doing enough to support the top line. And they should use that shame as motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.