Friday, March 16, 2012

Bs Can't Snap Out Of It; Ottawa Now Just A Point Back

The last several weeks have been nothing short of a perfect storm of shit for the Boston Bruins. And I don’t think even Marky Mark can pull them out of this nagging funk that may or may not have reached its nadir last night in Sunrise, Florida. (We’ll sure get an answer soon enough when the red-hot Flyers come in for what should be a raucous Garden matinee crowd in full St. Patrick’s Day revelry—thank the fucking maker it’s not a 7:05 start).

The Panthers strip-mined what confidence (or remnants thereof) is still lingering among these ursine pucksters by slapping an 6-2 embarrassment on them to push the outta gas Bruins even closer to opening any and all playoff series in their road whites. What was looking like a nice little cruise into the 2nd seed what seemed like yesterday morphed into a slow-motion, two month car wreck that could torpedo a season that held so much promise as the new year began. There’s no one thing you can pin it on but rather several factors that have added up to the Bruins’ latest misery.

—The injuries. Losing Nathan Horton was huge and has given the Bs a hole they weren’t able to fill at the trade deadline or from within. Last year’s playoff OT hero was felled by a dirty hit and has yet to skate since suffering yet another concussion. Bruins fans know this road all too well and never get used to it. Frankly, I’d be shocked to see him suit up again this season, regardless of how far the team goes in the playoffs. Rich Peverley going down with a wrenched knee a month ago has also proven to be a costly loss. The versatile forward is a valuable weapon in Claude’s arsenal because he can be plugged into any line or situation and get results, thanks primarily to his speed. He just started skating on Wednesday and is likely still a few weeks away from re-joining the team. Even then, it’ll take him some time to get back up to NHL game speed. Losing two of their top nine forwards has forced Claude to juggle his lines, looking for the right combos and it’s proven to be quite the task. Valuable defenseman Andy Ference also missed time with the dreaded LBI (lower-body injury) that put the team’s back-end depth to the test. Patrice Bergeron has been hobbled the last few games due to blocking a pair of painful shots. Benoit Pouliot has been battling a few issues. Johnny Boychuk got his bell rung hard. But the biggest injury since Horton’s is the post-trade deadline loss of Tuukka Rask for several weeks due to an abdominal/groin strain—an injury he’ll need to be fully healed from when he returns. Instead of filling in for the overworked Tim Thomas down the stretch to make sure he’ll be ready to rock and roll come playoff time, the lanky Finn is watching The Marty Turco Experience from the ninth floor. So while the Bs won’t sit there and make excuses, I’ll make this particular one for them: the injuries have been a killer and it’s not something they can be faulted for.

— Fatigue/exhaustion has also been a killer for this team and the reason for the team’s plethora of mental and performance errors lately. Yeah, everybody plays the same amount of games. But the Bruins March has been the month from hell so far. They’ll play 17 games in just 31 days when all is said and done. So far, they’ve won just three of nine games and have seen their once-lengthy lead over Ottawa evaporate. Another Cup hangover? Nah, not buying it. They had their hangover in October with their shitty start. They then played out of this world hockey for two months to (temporarily) run away with the division and put to bed any talk of a hangover. The reason these guys are struggling again is because of events this season. But perhaps the worst part is that there’s no relief in sight: the banged-up Bs finish the month with six games in just 10 nights and after their two day break next week, they basically play every other day until the season mercifully ends with a Saturday matinee with the Sabres that could very well determine whether or not Buffalo gets into the postseason. The Bruins have absolutely no choice but to fight through it and just play, tough as it may be.

—Deterrence from the game plan/lack of hustle. The Bs aren’t blameless here. Whether it’s a lack of execution, not skating, or some guys just not doing what is required of them (like picking up their man), the Bs also haven’t been playing their dogged ‘tough defense leads to offense’ style that had made them one of the harder teams in the league to play against. Tyler Seguin needs to show more fight. Brad Marchand needs to go back to being an imp. Simply put, if the Bs aren’t adhering to Claude’s system, they’re not going to win playing wide-open, fire wagon hockey. Especially if the goaltending is sub-par.

—Goalie play. Tim Thomas started to finally run out of gas in early January. Still, it didn’t prevent him from getting the majority of the starts, further taxing him in the process. Then disaster struck when Rask went down. Rather than give the #4 goalie in the organization (Michael Hutchinson) at least a shot at proving what he can do at the NHL level, the Bs went out and pulled Turco off the scrap heap. After a respectable performance in relief of Thomas on Sunday, Turco was awful in Tampa on Tuesday and instilled absolutely no confidence in his coach that he’s capable of carrying the workload. But he is who Claude is stuck with until Anton Khudobin returns from injury and, presumably, usurps the back-up role from Turco. However the coach handles his netminders from here on out, he should do it with an eye toward having Thomas as rested as he can be headed into the playoffs—no easy feat when you balance that against attempting to hang onto the division in order to get home ice.

If the Bruins had their full complement of horses, then fans would have confidence that their team will be right back in this after a lull in play. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. The team is really struggling and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight to the misery. Maybe the team just needs to change up the horses a bit—it can’t hurt any worse. If Turco hands in another dud, then throw Hutchinson out there for a game (I doubt he can have a worse first period than Turco did on Tuesday). Instead of calling up a 34-year-old journeyman with limited skill at the NHL level in Trent Whitfield, give a talented, hungry kid like Carter Camper an extended look in a consistent role. Rather than automatically plugging Brian Rolston into the line-up every night, maybe give Max Sauve and his youthful legs a look. It’s clear that Rolston is at the end of the rope (playing at Garth Snow’s Home for Aging American Olympians is the #1 sign) so the team might be better served with some rejuvenating youth. But the Bs seem content to just use their minor leaguers as temporary stop-gaps rather than trying to incorporate them into contributors to the team.

“We’re coaches and it can’t always be smooth. We have to step up as a coaching staff and find solutions”, said Julien (quote via Joe Haggerty). The problem is the solutions just might not be in that room. Whatever they are, the Bs need to find them and find them fast. Or their title defense won’t last one round.

A few more buds for your St. Patrick’s Day bowl…

*Enough with the Red Sox comparisons. The Sox were training for the redneck Olympics during the stretch run. I can promise you none of these guys (the Bruins) are housing grub ‘n grog in a clubhouse that looks like the big high school party in a John Hughes film because the captain and the manager are pulling their puds. And the biggest difference? The Bruins are actually going to the playoffs.

*Any thoughts of a new coach are terribly misguided. Even though he is the coach, very little of this current situation falls strictly on Claude’s shoulders and bringing in a new guy would solve nothing. I’m not so sure how he’s supposed to motivate dead legs.

*If you’re of the belief that the Bruins haven’t been the same since Tim Thomas exercised his right to not take a White House tour, well, you’ll need to do more than show handpicked stats to prove your point. There were chinks in the armor (see ESPN, this is when you can use that cliché) before Thomas left his “Lost” ending-like Facebook message to explain his actions. The Dallas game on New Year’s Eve was a sloppy, somewhat passive game that essentially became the team’s template for the next two months. As one player noted to me, the situation did cause some minor locker room tension. But it was nothing that threatened to overtake the room.

*Patrice, I implore you to please keep your gloves on. I understand you wanted to stick up for your teammate after he took a hard, legal hit last night (because, well, that’s the way it goes in this league now). But one solid crack to your melon could put a bow on your career. Let 22 or 54 or anybody else fill that role.

*Why Twitter Is Great, Vol. 5873: Being able to directly ask former NHL players questions you otherwise wouldn’t get to and being able to squash 15-year-old rumors. Like the one about straight-shooter Rick Tocchet supposedly calling out Ray Bourque in the locker room about not being more of vocal leader on a particular matter involving team brass. It was a bit of a shock to hear (and, thus, believe) that this nut would come into Boston and call out a living legend. But because it was Tocchet (and possibly Bourque’s laid-back demeanor), it was hardly out of the realm of possibility. When asked if the story was true, the short-time Bruin immediately threw water on it “Ray Bourque?? Never”. I thanked him for replying and he wrote back “anytime bud”. Anytime? How about right now? So I asked him if it was true that he dropped Eric Lindros in the Flyers locker room right around the time of the Rod Brind’Amour trade. The reply can be open to your own interpretation: “Lol … …”. It was a shame Bs fans only got the feisty and fiery Rocket for just 72 games (inc. playoffs). He tallied an impressive and very Bruin-like 36 goals, 22 assists, and 152 PIM in his time here. But he and Adam Oates saw the writing on the wall and essentially shot their way out of town by saying what every Bruins fan was saying (“Be a GM! Spend some fucking money!”).

*Speaking of St. Paddy’s day, it’s incredible how much of a tourist spot Boston has become for the day everyone is Irish except for gays and Italians. A good part is because the parade has become more welcoming to outsiders than, say, 20-25 years ago. Sure, some joker will catch the literal “beer and a beating” (-220 it’s a New York jake) and there will be a clownshow somewhere but for the most part, the parade really is a family event that brings together friends old and new for a great time. But it’s no doubt that Hollywood and its bevy of really good-to-great Boston movies is to thank (blame?) for the influx of tens of thousands of tourists into our fair city each March.  The ultimate payoff to the Commonwealth is really inestimable. The city gains additional cinematic and tourist clout when a state allows Hollywood ample tax breaks to come make their movies here (give them a deal to make it here…or offer no deal and watch Toronto fill in for Boston)—the payoff is in perpetuity. But lately, it’s apparent to anybody in the city that this particular weekend has become the go-to for those who make Boston a vacation destination. Hell, I’d do it if I wasn’t from here. For my money though, Savannah provides the best, public-drinking-friendly (i.e. common sense shown by civic leaders) St. Patrick’s Day parade around. If you ever get a chance or offer, take it and enjoy the River St. experience.