The Boston Bruins are in the midst of a meltdown. They’ve lost five straight games in regulation and a playoff berth that was once reasonably in hand in the balanced and difficult Eastern Conference is now in serious jeopardy. The problem is that the defense that was the staple of this franchise’s recent strong years from 2009-14, has been leaky all year.
Boston ranks 19th in the league in goals allowed. The team is under new front office leadership with rookie general manager Don Sweeney. After narrowly missing the postseason a year ago, with the team looking obviously slower to pucks in front of their own goal, Sweeney had to make some changes. The Bruins are younger and faster and it shows in their offense—they’re third in the league in goals scored.
But the loss of both experience and physicality on the defensive end has been a weakness all year. I watch the vast majority of B’s games through the Center Ice package and opponents routinely penetrate deep into the Boston end for good looks at the net. Goaltender Tuuka Raask isn’t having a great year, but the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner can only do so much.
Boston ranks 26th in the NHL in shots allowed and the anecdotal evidence of the eyes tells me that a disproportionate number of those shots are good ones, not desperate launches from deep. The fact Raask is able to lift this team to 19th in goals allowed is testament to his ability.
Even when the Bruins rose into first place earlier this month, I was leery and still looking more at the ninth team in the East, the Philadelphia Flyers, rather than the immediate contenders for the Atlantic Division title (Tampa Bay, Florida and maybe Detroit). Teams that rely on offense alone are ultimately vulnerable to losing streaks in any sport and especially in hockey.
My concern unfortunately proved well-founded. In this five-game losing streak, the Bruins have given up 18 goals. If the number was 15 or below, they likely steal a win or at least a couple points by getting to overtime.
The result is that the Bruins are just one point ahead of the Red Wings and Flyers in a race for two spots. They’re also only a point back of the Islanders and Penguins, so this is heading towards for a five-teams-for-four-spots game of musical chairs. But the B’s are alone in having played 75 games, while everyone else has played just 73 or 74. The games-in-hand issue has been lurking for several weeks and now it stands as critical, with Boston sitting on the sidelines hoping others fail to take advantage of their opportunities.
For years, a physical and defense-first Boston team manhandled quicker, flashier teams in the postseason. The most evident example was the magnificent four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Teams that don’t play defense don’t advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And now the odds have shifted against the Bruins even getting there.