In the midst of the strangest times any of us have ever known, it stands to reason that the Boston Bruins have experienced predominantly anomalous results as of late.
The hands-down best team in the National Hockey League for 70 regular season games can now finish no higher than third when the Eastern Conference playoff seedings become official next week. The squad that dictated play, controlled puck possession, made smart plays in all three zones and received an abundance of stellar goaltending has seen the opposite happen since entering the bubble in Toronto.
A 3-2 round robin loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena dropped the Bruins to 0-2 in round robin play against their fellow beasts of the East. Since returning from a 4-plus month season pause, the Bruins have (including their exhibition loss to Columbus last week) been outscored, 11-4, and have not led for a single second of action.
This showing was, after a ragged first period, much better than their previous two. But a juicy rebound that was converted with 87 seconds to go erased what good Boston had done in coming back from an early two-goal deficit, so another ‘L’ went into the books.
But there were some positives that could be taken away from this.
For starters, the Bruins showed some fight — both literally and figuratively. Trailing by two late in the opening stanza, Torey Krug attempted to spark his club by dropping the gloves with Blake Coleman of the Lightning. A guy who likely won’t be on the Black-and-Gold roster next season because of financial reasons, the defenseman readily went at it with an opponent who was three inches taller and 15-20 pounds heavier than he.
That scrap seemed to give the Bruins life, who started playing with some more truculence by sealing the walls and entries into their own zone. As a result, the odd-man rushes that the Lightning feasted on for the first 12 minutes or so disappeared, and Boston started to play more of its usual style.
“That was great for us,” fellow blue liner Charlie McAvoy, who had Boston’s first goal Wednesday, said postgame. “That was great to create that energy for us on the bench. Torey is a guy who takes on a leadership role without having a (captain/alternate’s) letter.”
The Bruins were stronger on pucks down low from that point on than they had been at any other point during their time in Toronto. Their competitive level rose, and so did their urgency, which had been lacking for most of their first seven periods of post-COVID-19 hockey.
Back between the pipes after missing the last contest, goalie Tuukka Rask said he felt good in his first “real game” since March.
“I was seeing the puck well, I was moving well, I had legs, I was tracking the puck, so I’ve got to be happy with that,” he said, knowing full well he has to be at the top of his game for the Bruins to make another long postseason run.
Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement as the team gears up for Sunday’s round robin finale against the Capitals. A win and they could wind up as the No. 3 seed and would almost assuredly play the Hurricanes in the first round; a regulation or shootout loss means they’ll be the fourth seed, with a likely date against a dangerous Penguins squad awaiting them.
“Well that part sucks; I’m not going to lie to you,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said of his President’s Trophy winning team not having the top seed. “But that’s the situation this year with the stoppage of play; we knew the rules going into it, that we could lose a bit of the advantage we’d gained. We are where we are now.
“We’ll get ready for Washington and play the best game we can,” he continued, “and like I said, prepare for the postseason. That’s our ultimate goal: we have to win 16 games (to capture the Cup). We knew that going in. That will still be our goal.”
Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN