BOSTON, MA -- A year ago, the Bruins revamped defense corps was a source of frustration and concern. Boston GM Don Sweeney decided it was time to give the youngsters, who had been developing with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, a chance to become full-time NHL players.
The club struggled as those players grew into their roles but are now showing the wait was worth it. This season, it has become increasingly apparent that the defense is going to be just fine. It is the offense, or lack of it, that has become the talk of Boston and it is not receiving many compliments these days.
Going into their 32nd game of the season, Boston had scored more than two goals in just 10 of 31 games this season.
After suffering a 4-3 home loss to Anaheim on December 15th in Game 32 - a game in which Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead by scoring twice within 13 seconds in the first period - the Bruins were in a tie for second place with the Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division. Each team had posted 35 points.
The fact that Boston was in the top three teams of the division was mostly a testament to the world-class goaltending of Tuukka Rask (15-5-3, .930 save percentage, 1.90 goals against average) and the strong play of the defensemen rather than the club’s offensive output.
After 32 games, Boston had scored 77 goals, placing the team 18th of 30 teams in the circuit. The Bruins are scoring 2.34 goals per game.
As a comparison, in 2015-16, Boston finished 5th overall in goals scored with 236 or 2.88 per game.
Following the loss to Anaheim, David Backes, with a hint of frustration in his voice, spoke about what is needed from the Bruins in order to begin scoring more goals which, most likely, will result in more wins.
“We’ve got a few guys that can fly and score on the rush, but our goals have mostly been ugly, banging around the net,” Backes said. “They’re all in tight or somebody is standing on the top of the crease taking the goalie’s eyes away and we’re just - trading chances is a coin flip and we’re getting the wrong side of the coin flip. We’ve got to play our game where we like the percentages and how we’re going to win games – pucks deep, taking care of it, and eliminating the opponent’s chances is certainly a good portion of that.”
Backes went on to explain that deviating from the game plan is a mindset issue that the team needs to overcome.
“I think so,” said Backes. “It’s time and score and realizing what’s required to get back on the page. It’s not going to be a perfect 60 minutes. I don’t think anyone ever believes that you’re going to play a perfect 60 minutes; it’s a game of mistakes, but limit the quality of mistakes, pick each other up when mistakes are made and know that there’s times when it’s not going the right way and it’s not necessarily go out there and score a goal, but there’s shifts where it’s just -- let’s get the puck, get it in their zone, forecheck it, get it stopped, and spend some time in their end and take some pressure off of our goalie and our defensemen that have been spending too much time in our zone.
“Anaheim’s got a few very good, very big boys that it’s tough to knock them off the puck and steal it from them and get going the other way, but when we get that opportunity we need to do it, get out of there and make them play in their zone and defend where they’re not just setting up camp in our end. That mentality has got to stick with us when we come back into this place (TD Garden) and not give other teams life when they had no reason to have life.”
As one can surmise the lack of scoring has become a major source of frustration with the players combined with the fact that Boston has had difficulty winning games at home. On most nights, the effort is there but the desired results have been hard to come by as the team’s 7-8-0 record, which is 24th-best in the League, attests.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Bruins 9-5-3 record on the road trails only the New York Rangers for tops in the NHL.
“I don’t think it’s about the opponent,” said David Krejci when asked to compare his team’s play at home versus on the road. “I think it’s about our game. Stick to the game plan. Our game shouldn’t change. We don’t have two game plans, on the road and at home. We have the same one and we have to buy in. For some reason, we’re doing a better job on the road than at home.”
Compounding matters for the players is the fact that the fans expect the Bruins to be the old school Big, Bad, Bruins and while those days are gone due to the sport evolving into one of speed and skill, those same fans still want to see their favorite team come out on the winning side of the ledger when they pay their hard-earned cash to attend games and since that is not occurring on a frequent basis, TD Garden’s boo-birds are getting louder with each loss.
Defenseman Adam McQuaid feels the fans frustration.
“It just goes without saying that you want to be tough to play against at home and you want this to be a place that teams don’t look forward to coming in and playing,” McQuaid said after the loss to Anaheim. “So yeah, I mean, we have great fans that deserve to come see a winning product. So, I guess it goes without saying, but we would like to be better at home, and improve our record here.”
The Bruins have a long tradition of putting winning products on the ice. As we all remember, the franchise is just five seasons removed from a Stanley Cup championship. After spending the last two seasons watching the playoffs and not seeing their favorite team play in them, the fans’ patience is beginning to wear thin and that may not be fair to the current lineup as there are only six players who played on that Cup winning team on the roster today.
For the most part, this is a young team gaining on-the-job experience but it does not excuse them from executing the game plan as best they can each and every night. Doing so would ensure wins at home, quiet the boo-birds, make the Bruins the team that opponents wish they could avoid, and ultimately, see the club return to the playoffs.
Shawn Hutcheon is the Boston Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.