June 11, 2014

BRUINS BEAT: Where to now?

By Andrew Merritt

BOSTON — It wasn’t so long ago that dreams of a Stanley Cup in Boston were just that: dreams. Pipe dreams, even.

Yet over the past six years or so, those dreams have evolved into expectations — slowly at first, and then boldly with the disappointment of 2010, the triumph of 2011, and the heartbreak of 2013.

Those expectations became even more ingrained in the 2013-14 season, as the Bruins cruised to their first Presidents’ Trophy in 24 years and compiled the franchise’s best regular-season winning percentage (.713) since 1974 (.724). The expectations were heightened further when the Bruins bounced back from a loss in the first game of their opening-round series against Detroit to dominate the Red Wings and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But that’s where expectations met reality, and the reality is this: When the Bruins play the Montreal Canadiens, records and numbers and accolades don’t really matter. After the teams split the first two games at TD Garden, the Habs took a 2-1 lead in Game 3 at the Bell Centre, and even as the Bruins won the next two games, it was apparent that something might be amiss.

The team that outscored all but two Western Conference teams all year was having trouble finding the net when it needed to. The defense that had given opponents so little to work with in the regular season suddenly looked porous and undisciplined. The team that had mostly kept itself out of the penalty box throughout the year was suddenly committing penalties at the worst possible times, with some of its best players serving time.

In short, the Bruins didn’t play like the Bruins when it came to their series against the Canadiens, and they paid dearly for it. The season ended not with the Stanley Cup title many had hoped for — even expected — but with a disappointing dismissal at the hands of the team’s most hated rival.

Summer arrived in Boston a little sooner than the Bruins had hoped, and all they can do now is wonder about what might have been. And that’s one of several burning questions for the Bruins left in the wake of a disappointing end to a promising season of hockey in Boston. Here are some others:

What happened to the top line?

Milan Lucic was hounded by Mike Weaver and the Canadiens throughout the seven-game series, and his line fell short of expectations. (Getty Images)

David Krejci, Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic were fast friends after Iginla’s addition to the lineup in the offseason. Finding an obvious and almost instant chemistry together, the Bruins’ top line combined for 73 goals, led by Iginla’s 30, in the regular season. Krejci led the team in the regular season with 50 assists thanks to his playmaking ability and talented linemates.

You’ll notice we haven’t mentioned their playoff performances yet.

Although Iginla (5-2-7) and Lucic (4-3-7) had some success in the playoffs, Krejci went silent, scoring no goals in 12 postseason games and picking up only four assists.

It didn’t seem to be a result of a lack of effort. All three players had at least 25 shots in those 12 playoff games and seemed to have plenty of opportunities to start scoring at their more customary pace. Iginla actually outpaced his regular-season shooting percentage as he became the Bruins’ most potent playoff scorer, but Lucic couldn’t pick up his own pace, and Krejci simply could not get out of his own way.

“It was disappointing, frustrating at times,” Krejci said. “I felt like especially Game 1, we were a dominant line, we had so many chances. Myself, I could have scored two, three goals, I had such great chances, and we had nothing at the end of the day.”

Krejci’s linemates were less quick to criticize him.

“He’s been such a great player for us for so long, and he’s been such a great playoff performer for so long,” said Lucic, remembering Krejci’s 10 goals and team-high 33 assists in the 2013 playoffs, and his team-leading 23 points during the 2011 run to the Cup. “Everyone goes through slumps, and I definitely don’t feel like he let us down.”

The Bruins pride themselves on their scoring depth. They were one of only two Eastern Conference teams that had 10 players with at least 10 goals (the Rangers were the other), and they got big playoff goals from unlikely sources, like rookies Matt Fraser and Justin Florek. But the postseason is the time for the big guns to fire away, and the Bruins simply didn’t get the top-end production they needed, particularly against Montreal.

“We had a lot of chances this series, and you expect your primary guys to score,” GM Peter Chiarelli said. “I think — I know — they felt that they disappointed in that regard. … You might think that those two top lines wash out, and then your third line pushes you over. That’s been our formula before, but it wasn’t this time.”

What was up with Brad Marchand?

Coach Claude Julien had a lot of questions for his team in a perplexing and vexing series against Montreal. (Getty Images)

Right next to Krejci on the list of top-six forwards who didn’t score in the playoffs is Brad Marchand, whose 2013-14 is a year he’ll want to forget. In his first three full seasons in the NHL, Marchand was one of the most explosive parts of the Boston offense, but at the start of this season, he struggled to get out of the gate. While he did finish with 25 goals and 28 assists, he didn’t pick up his 10th point until the 27th game of the year, and he had just 10 goals through the first half of the season.

Marchand’s second-half surge gave all the appearances of the end of his struggles, but they returned in a big way when the postseason started. Marchand, like Krejci, certainly had his opportunities, finishing with 28 shots in the 12 games. But time and time again it was the missed chances that stuck out the most.

There were the two point-blank flubs in Game 4 against the Red Wings, and late in the first period of Game 7 against the Habs, linemate Patrice Bergeron worked hard to get the puck loose to him on the doorstep, but he put his shot over the crossbar instead of scoring a game-tying goal that might have turned the tide.

So while the 25 regular-season goals might have made some players’ careers, for Marchand it simply wasn’t enough, especially punctuated by such a frustrating playoff result. Chiarelli said Marchand thought he had a bad year when they had their exit meeting at season’s end.

“That’s where he puts his expectations,” Chiarelli said.

And after watching former linemate Tyler Seguin get shipped out of town last summer, Marchand knows there isn’t much room for error anymore.

“It’s true, a guy as talented as ‘Segs’ getting traded at such an early age, it’s an eye-opener for everyone,” Marchand said. “Hopefully I’m not going anywhere, but that’s up to management and the coaching staff. We’ll see.”

How big of a loss was Dennis Seidenberg?

With Dennis Seidenberg out, Tuukka Rask was under even more pressure to perform. (Getty Images)

It’s almost impossible to measure just how much Dennis Seidenberg’s season-ending knee injury suffered against Ottawa on Dec. 27 affected the direction of this team. A lot of what Seidenberg does isn’t the kind of stuff that shows up on a scoresheet. But his presence was obviously, and sorely, missed down the stretch and particularly in the playoffs, where experience takes on an even bigger value than in the regular season.

With Seidenberg out, as well as Adam McQuaid, who was lost less than a month later to an ankle injury, the Bruins had to employ a patchwork defense that involved giving big minutes to inexperienced players and trying to bring in some help at the trade deadline.

The latter of those two efforts didn’t yield much, as defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter didn’t end up providing much for the team after their deadline day signings. Meszaros played in just four playoff games, and Potter dressed only for Game 1 against Detroit.

“We have a young back line right now, and I’m partially to blame if you want to assign blame,” Chiarelli said. “Maybe we didn’t get enough at the deadline, maybe we overestimated the youth and where they were.”

That problem was clearly sparked by the absence of Seidenberg, who has been a playoff warrior in seasons past. Last year, he averaged more than 23 minutes per game during the postseason and was on the ice for more than 55 percent of the team’s penalty-kill time. His veteran presence obviously would have helped the Boston penalty kill, which allowed goals in five of the seven games against Montreal, including two power-play goals each in Games 1, 2 and 5.

“I mean, when you talk about Dennis, he’s an important, a very important, player for our team,” said captain Zdeno Chara, who showed some signs of being hampered by an injury himself against Montreal. “He’s logged big minutes. He’s played all the situations. So yeah, we did feel that it was a missing piece in our lineup.”

Is the championship window closing?

When it was all said and done, all Zdeno Chara and the Bruins could do was wish their vanquishing foes good luck. Chara will turn 38 in March of next year, and it's not clear how many more playoff runs he's got left in him. (Getty Images)

It’s a question that hangs over any championship team after the buzz of a title has worn off. As the memories of 2011 start to fade further into the rear view, and the Bruins lick their wounds after another disappointing finish to a year so full of potential, it’s hard not to think about the future.

Chara is 37 years old, and though his supreme physical condition suggests a much later decline than the average player, it’s still going to happen someday — possibly before the end of his current contract, which expires in 2018. Seidenberg, who will turn 33 on July 18, is also signed through 2018, but after that there aren’t a lot of long contracts left on the Bruins roster.

Outside of Bergeron, who seems destined to retire a Bruin with a current contract that runs through 2022, every Bruins forward has a deal that will expire by 2017. Iginla and Shawn Thornton become unrestricted free agents on July 1, while Krejci, Carl Soderberg, Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell are UFAs after next season. Defensively, rookies Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski (who each stretched the meaning of “rookie” after prolonged NHL stints in 2012-13) are both restricted free agents this summer, and Dougie Hamilton’s entry-level deal is up next year.

There’s a strong case to be made for re-signing Iginla, but Chiarelli will have to do some serious gymnastics to stay under the cap if he wants to keep the veteran around.

“He was really good for us this year, a 30-goal season for him, and I think he brought an element of consistency to our line,” Lucic said. “That’s why it was such a fun year to have him here, and you hope that it continues moving forward, and he continues being a Bruin. He looked pretty good in our colors, and I’m sure he’d like to stay here as well.”

Either way, changes are coming to the Bruins lineup, and while the candle is still burning with hope for another Stanley Cup in Boston before Chara and the other Bruins staples move on, its light can only grow dimmer with each missed opportunity.

This article originally appeared in the June edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

Twitter: @A_Merritt