BOSTON -- Yes, the Boston Bruins need some help.
Just when everyone starts to believe that this team, as currently constituted, can earn a playoff spot and create postseason havoc in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins start another nosedive, again forcing general manager Peter Chiarelli to re-examine the team’s needs before the March 2 trade deadline.
The Bruins have lost three of their last four games, including a 5-3 loss to the Dallas Stars Tuesday night at TD Garden. Bruins coach Claude Julien didn’t hold back afterward.
“We don’t have enough guys right now playing to their abilities to win hockey games, and that’s been going on now, even though we won against the Islanders, it’s been going on for at least four games,” he said. “This month, we don’t have enough guys going and we have a lot of guys that are very average for what’s expected of them, and I’ve got a good handful of those today.”
The Bruins are having a difficult time this season sustaining the gritty style of play that has made them successful for years. On Tuesday, it was a collection of bad decisions and poor play that led to Boston’s demise.
Because of the poor play, Julien was forced to change goaltenders to start the second period. Niklas Svedberg, who recently completed a four-game conditioning stint with the Providence Bruins of the AHL, was given the start Tuesday against Dallas. He allowed three goals on 10 shots in the opening period. Julien said he felt bad for Svedberg because he did not receive any support in the first 20 minutes.
“I played like [expletive],” Svedberg said. “We lost the game, so I think I should take the blame for this loss and I played a poor game. Obviously, Tuukka [Rask] has played a lot of games lately, so he needed a night off and this was a time when I needed to step up. This was an important game for our team and for me to step up and I failed. It’s pretty simple.”
It was the first NHL game Svedberg has played since a 3-0 shutout win over the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 8. The Bruins have leaned heavily on Rask, who has played 21 of the last 22 games.
But it wasn’t just goaltending that hampered the Bruins.
After the team’s morning skate Tuesday, Julien joked when asked about the power play, saying the only time they get one is during practice. Boston is dead last in the league with only 125 power-play opportunities. The New Jersey Devils are second-to-last with 148.
Boston entered Tuesday’s game as the only team in the league not to allow a shorthanded goal, and not only did the Bruins go 0-for-3 on the power play, they also allowed two shorthanded goals to the Stars.
After the game, Julien described the power play as careless, with poor work ethic and players who were flat-footed, lackadaisical, very soft and a real disappointment. David Krejci, who quarterbacks one of the power-play units, concurred.
“Sucks,” he said. “That’s the only word I’ve got. We’ve been working on it in practices, but it’s no good, so that’s where we’re at right now.”
In January, the Bruins played their best hockey of the season, posting an 8-1-3 record. The players talked about how the team regained its identity and had turned things around. This month, the Bruins are 1-3-0 and are showing signs of regression. Julien even seems perplexed as to why this sudden breakdown has come about.
“You guys will have a chance to ask those guys when you go in the dressing room. I can give game plans, I can do a lot of things but I can’t play for them,” Julien said. “It’s got to come from within.”
Even Rask can’t explain it.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I thought we were done talking about it a month ago, but I guess not. We just keep going back to the same mistakes we used to do and not keeping our heads in the game. If we don’t fix that now, it’s going to be too late pretty soon. Hopefully we don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
Last week, I jumped the gun too quickly and wrote that Chiarelli should hang up the phone and stop looking for help on the top line because Reilly Smith could be that player. He played well in two games with Krejci and Milan Lucic, but Smith quickly did a 180 and for whatever reason seems to have lost his confidence.
So Chiarelli’s search for a top-line, point-producing winger continues.
When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, Boston could rely on all four lines, especially the now-famous “merlot” line. Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton brought energy, grit and determination. Only two of the three remain on the team, and since Thornton is not here, rookie Craig Cunningham has been playing the right side on the fourth line since the middle of December. Nothing against Cunningham, because I do think he will be a good player in the NHL at some point, but Boston could use some added grit, someone who is feared around the league.
It’s not about his ability to fight. Everyone knows Neil can handle himself in that category. He will skate his backside off, finish his checks and could add the grit that is lacking in Boston. Even though the 35-year-old has spent his entire career with the Senators, he definitely has a Bruins mentality and could be a nice fit on the team’s fourth line. His presence also would help come playoff time if the Bruins end up playing the Montreal Canadiens.
Senators general manager Bryan Murray takes care of his players, especially a guy like Neil, and that’s why it’s no coincidence he’s only played in Ottawa. Maybe the Bruins could lure Neil to Boston given the fact that he’s already played with Zdeno Chara, Chris Kelly and worked with Chiarelli in Ottawa. From a salary-cap standpoint, Neil’s hit would be $1.9 million, according to nhlnumbers.com. He’ll earn $1.5 million next season before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Being a GM in the salary-cap era can’t be fun, especially when you’re limited with what you can do. Chiarelli has shown in the past he can be creative and is willing to add pieces to the current roster, but he might have to take on a wizard’s persona in order to improve the Bruins prior to the March 2 trade deadline.
The Bruins leave town Thursday for a 12-day, five-game road trip through Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, St. Louis and Chicago. It will be a good chance for the Bruins to refocus with a chance to regain some ground. If Boston falls back into the doldrums of its play from earlier this season, it won’t be pretty.
“We’ve got a tough road trip coming up. You’ve heard me say it often, I don’t think we can panic, but the one thing we can do is wake up and realize what needs to be done here,” Julien said. “It’s going to take some good efforts, some grit, winning battles with some determination and right now we don’t have a lot of guys doing that.”