April 20, 2013

Waiting 'til playoffs to flip switch would be bad move for B's

By Jesse Connolly

The Bruins bench reacts after a fight between Nathan Horton and Pittsburgh's Jarome Iginla. (Getty Images)

After Saturday's 3-2 loss to the visiting Penguins, just five regular-season games stand between the Boston Bruins and the 2013 playoffs.

Their return to the postseason has basically been a formality since the Black and Gold began the lockout-shortened campaign with a 14-2-2 record, their best start in more than three decades.

Ever since that red-hot start, however, the Bruins have often looked like a team that hasn't had much to play for, stringing together unspectacular performances while treading water in the standings. The fact that this subpar stretch of hockey includes umpteen blown chances to take over first place in the division -- notably during head-to-head matchups with their historic rivals, the Montreal Canadiens -- a trio of "measuring-stick" games against the conference-leading Penguins that all ended in losses and a pair of letdowns this past week with perhaps the most emotionally-charged crowds to ever set foot in TD Garden there to bear witness, means it's beyond time to be worried about the Bruins' chances in the playoffs.

Boston's winless streak reached four games Saturday afternoon. After a sensational start in which they grabbed a 1-0 lead, the B's went into autopilot mode, took stupid penalties, couldn't complete passes or sustain any offensive pressure and saw their lone true bright spot over the last few months -- the penalty kill -- get dominated by a team missing the two best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, 40-goal scorer James Neal and top-pairing defenseman Paul Martin.

If you can't beat a Penguins team in that rough of shape, all while playing in front of your bonkers home crowd oozing with Boston pride in the wake of Monday's tragic bombing and the subsequent end of the manhunt Friay, for starters, you're doomed if you run into Pittsburgh in the postseason. But more importantly, you've got some serious soul searching to do.

With their run of lethargic, listless play at nearly two months and counting, betting on the Bruins being able to just flip the switch and go far in the playoffs would be delirious. What's even crazier, however, is that the players themselves are not only unwilling to just come clean and admit how disappointing they've been over the last 25 games. They're also confident they can go from sleepwalking to the regular-season finish line to sprinting toward the Stanley Cup finals with the snap of their fingers.

"Not really. No, " Brad Marchand said of the B's having a bad record against the top clubs in the conference being a cause for concern. "That’s how the game goes sometimes. Again, we’re in the regular season right now. We have a spot in the playoffs. We’re okay with that. Now we’re just playing for home ice advantage. Once we get in the playoffs, it’s a completely different story. We’re prepared for that when the time comes."

I know what some of you are thinking right now. What's Marchand supposed to say? That the team's been playing terrible and they're in for an early exit again this spring? Of course not. But the Bruins play since that 14-2-2 start leads one to believe this quote reflects their mindset, and that their recent woes aren't as troublesome to them as maybe they should be.

We all know, to some degree, experience has its benefits come playoff time. The Bruins went the distance in 2011 and have kept much of their Cup-winning roster intact (shy of, most importantly, Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, of course). Completely ruling out that coming in handy, especially if the Bruins finish as the fourth seed and go up against a team about to end a lengthy playoff drought like the Islanders or Maple Leafs, would be silly. 

But ultimately, what's more important going into the postseason: Having that valuable experience, or simply playing good hockey and coming in on a roll? I'll take the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Over their last 25 games, the Bruins are just 12-10-3, oftentimes looking disinterested for prolonged stretches during many of those contests -- win or lose. They're 4-4-1 over the last nine, during which they've gone 1-3-0 against playoff teams. Not exactly a team that should be brimming with confidence or feeling great about their current state of affairs, right?

Things are just the opposite for nearly all of Boston's potential playoff foes.

Phil Kessel and the Leafs are 7-3-1 in their last 11 games. During that time, the oft-defensively-challenged team has held opponents to one goal or less on four occasions.

The Senators, bolstered by the return of goalie Craig Anderson, have won four straight games. In those four games, their opponents have scored a total of four goals. Factor in the potential return of reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and the Senators sound like an unappealing first-round opponent.

But no team in the East begs to be avoided more than the Islanders right now. The John Tavares-led squad is 11-1-2 in their last 14 games and on the cusp of making the postseason for the first time since 2007. What makes the Islanders even more dangerous is their success on the road. They're 14-5-2 away from Nassau Coliseum, which doesn't bode well if the Bruins -- who haven't done so hot on home ice in recent playoffs -- get stuck facing them.

Prior to Saturday's game between Toronto and Ottawa, the Leafs and Islanders were tied at 53 points apiece, with Toronto owning the tiebreaker for the fifth seed in the conference. The Bruins, still two points back of Montreal for first in the Northeast, are fourth in the East with 57 points. Ottawa, meanwhile, is in seventh with 52 points.

Barring a run-in with the Rangers or the playoff-hopeful Jets, the Bruins are bound to get one of the three aforementioned squads in the conference quarterfinals. None of them have won a postseason series since 2007. 

In terms of being playoff-tested, regardless of how things shake out, the Bruins will have the edge. But if they can't figure out how to turn in a full 60-minute effort, highlighted by better execution, more intensity, more physicality and some sort of indication they're still hungry to stand atop the hockey mountain at any point over the final eight days of the regular season, that will matter little.

We're fully aware the Bruins know what it takes to achieve glory. But if they keep playing the way they have for the last six weeks, we'll soon see there's a tremendous difference between knowing and doing.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com