Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 22, 2015

For The Bruins, The Season’s Slip Sliding Away

What a difference a year makes. As winter yielded to spring twelve months ago, the Boston Bruins were on their way to winning the Presidents’ Trophy, the NHL’s award given annually to the team with the best regular season record. That Bruins team amassed 117 points through the 82-game schedule with superior all-around play. Only one team in the league scored more goals than Boston, and only one other franchise allowed fewer goals against. Tuukka Rask won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. Team captain Zdeno Chara was runner-up for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman, and fan favorite Patrice Bergeron took home the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.

What the Bruins did not win last season was the Stanley Cup, as they were bounced from the playoffs in the second round by Montreal, the only Canadian franchise to make the postseason. Still it was the seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs for Boston, a streak that coincides with Claude Julien’s tenure as head coach. The Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and made a return trip to the Finals in 2013, falling to Chicago in six games.

Given that string of success, hockey fans throughout New England were probably looking forward to the start of the 2014-15 NHL season last October. But shortly before the first puck dropped, the team traded defenseman Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders for a pair of future draft picks. It was a move that angered many of those same fans, who liked Boychuk’s aggressive play. It was also a move that seriously weakened the team. In the previous year the defenseman had set career highs with 5 goals and 18 assists. More important, he had been a stout presence at the blue line, supporting the aging captain Chara. Through last season Boychuk had a career plus/minus rating of plus-89. But having mismanaged several contracts Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli had little choice but to pull the trigger on the trade in order to get his roster under the NHL’s tight salary cap.

In his first game with his new team last October Boychuk netted a goal and added two assists. He’s since inked a 7-year extension with New York while setting new career marks for goals and assists and continuing his strong defensive play. Meanwhile his former teammates have slogged through a season in which brief periods of their expected solid play have been interspersed with extended losing streaks and uninspired action on the ice.

In January the Bruins were virtually unbeatable. In a dozen games they captured 19 of the possible 24 points, and suffered just a single outright defeat. That surge vaulted them up in the standings. A team that had been left to vie for one of the two Eastern Conference Wild Card tickets to the playoffs for most of the season looked like it might be able to secure one of the three automatic spots awarded to the top teams in each Division instead. But then in their next ten games, through the third week in February, the Bruins were outright winners only twice, adding just 6 points of a possible 20 in the standings. Back they came with another hot streak at the end of February and through the first part of March, until finally facing a crucial string of five games beginning last Sunday.

Four of those five games were on the road, the first against Washington, the team just ahead of them in the standings and two of the other three against Ottawa and Florida, the franchises trying to overtake Boston for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. The one home contest was against Buffalo, the team with the NHL’s worst record; thus presumably a nearly certain two points in the standings for the Bruins. The final road contest was this Sunday afternoon against Tampa Bay. The Lightning are in the hunt for this year’s Presidents’ Cup, making it a game that would test whether the Bruins had the mettle for a strong run through the postseason.

That crucial run of five games in eight days is now complete. The season is technically not over, as Boston still has nine games remaining to play over the next three weeks. But when the team’s fans look back on this season, and they should have plenty of time to do so starting in mid-April, they will surely point to this stretch of contests as proof that these Bruins, more than anything, lacked the will to win.

Boston’s record for the past week was 0-3-2. The Bruins lost in shootouts to the Sabres and Panthers, both games in which they managed to score just a single goal. Last Sunday against the Capitals they couldn’t score at all, shut out 2-0. In the game against the Senators, the team breathing down the Bruins neck in the standings, Ottawa needed all of 19 seconds to score the first goal.

After the 6-4 loss coach Julien described criticized his players’ effort, saying “You know, at one point you have to look at yourself in the mirror and let’s stop pretending here and start showing whether we want or not to be in a playoff spot. We need a lot more from a lot of guys. That was a big game for us and unfortunately, we didn’t get that.” Forward Milan Lucic added “”Every game is going to be like this for the rest of the season. We have to fight and play our best and bring our best to make the playoffs.” Boston then traveled south to Florida and promptly fell to the Panthers, the team right behind the Senators in the standings.

Finally this Sunday afternoon the Bruins opened the scoring against Tampa Bay, taking a 1-0 lead just half a minute into the game on a goal by Bergeron. But by the first intermission it was 3-1 Tampa Bay, as the Lightning rolled to a 5-3 victory. It was the first time that Tampa Bay had beaten Boston in three years, a span covering ten games.

For the moment the Bruins cling to the East’s final playoff spot, one point ahead of the Senators and four in front of the Panthers. But Ottawa has two games in hand and Florida has one, while Boston’s next two contests are against the Western Conference leader Anaheim and the New York Rangers, who are tied with the Lightning for second place in the East.

A season that seems destined to end in disappointment is about more than the trade of a single defenseman. It isn’t just the result of mismanagement of the NHL salary cap, a challenge that every team has to face. The blame doesn’t rest just with the coach, or the GM, or any single player. It was a team effort that took Boston to the NHL’s heights in recent seasons, and this year amounts to a collective failure of heart as much as ability. It seems that Julien’s players have looked in the mirror and merely shrugged. Lucic’s comments after last Thursday’s game are symbolic. To a person the Bruins say the right things off the ice. But too often this season those words have proven empty once the players in the black and gold sweaters laced up their skates.

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