Sunday, February 15, 2009

B's sing a sad song in Music City

Four in a row. An official losing streak? Or, is it tempered by the fact that they've at least gotten one point in two of those games? I'm leaning more towards calling it a true losing streak, and something perhaps, to be concerned about. As February moves ever closer to March, we have to start thinking "Playoff hockey". And there are no moral victories in the playoffs. No shootouts. No "well, at least we got a point" silver linings. The harsh reality is, you lose four in a row in April or May, you go home for the summer.

Ok ok, obviously they've lost these four games to four different teams. Whereas in the post-season they'd face the same opponent every night. And, they lost two in a shootout. Who knows what would have happened had they just kept playing in overtime (which, by the way, is five on five in the playoffs, not four on four). So I understand that you can't compare this losing streak to a playoff round. But what I can, and will, do is express some of my concerns.

Mainly, where has the scoring gone? I know we were all surprised by the incredible offensive production earlier in the season. But, did anyone expect the well to dry up so suddenly? Yes, having Ryder on the shelf is an issue. But that doesn't explain why Kessel, Krecji and Wheeler (despite his tally last night) have all but disappeared from the score sheet. Getting Kobasew back could help, a little. But unless and until guys like Kessel and Krecji start showing up in the box score on a regular basis, the B's will continue to struggle. Too much pressure for the young guys? No, I don't think so. They're good enough, and experienced enough, to rise to the challenge. Which I'm sure they will. The only question is, how soon?

The Bruins struggles didn't just start either. Since the All-Star break, and really, for a couple of weeks before that, they weren't quite "right". Sure, they were winning games, but they just didn't look as clearly dominant as they had all season. At the time it was easy to dismiss the flaws as normal bumps in the road. After all, they were still winning damn near every night. Well, now some of those little things are becoming more obvious. Like what little things you say? Glad you asked.

For quite some time the B's fourth line has been their best. And as much as I like the Yell/Thornton/Bitz combo, if they're your best line on any given night, you're in trouble. The "little thing" that line brings to the table consistently is effort. What they lack in pure hockey skill, they more than make up for in effort, desire and "compete level". They crash, they bang, they create havoc in the offensive zone. Effort is the one thing within everyone's control. That group gives everything they have, every shift. (with a small caveat, which I'll address shortly).

The Krecji line, which lately has been Krecji/Wheeler and a wing du jour (most recently Sobotka), just isn't giving enough. They're obviously different players than the fourth line. So I don't expect the physical presence that line brings. But, what I do expect, is to see the same effort. And frankly, I haven't lately. Too many times both Krecji and Wheeler are trying the "pretty" play, instead of firing pucks in deep and going to get them. They've passed up far too many open shots from the slot, looking instead to make that one extra pass. All that is fine and dandy when everything is going in the net for you. But with the team wide scoring drought, simple is better. Shoot pucks, go to the net and you get rewarded. Just look at the Predators first goal last night. Tootoo fires a hard turn-around shot from along the boards. That's a shot that has no business going in, but because Nashville got to the net for him, Legwand gets a tip-in goal out of it. If Tootoo tried passing that to Legwand, it would have been snuffed out as easily everything most of the B's are attempting lately. I really like Sobotka on that line. He's bringing a bit of grit to compliment their talent. Wheeler's goal was a direct result of SOB taking the body in the corner then making the smart simple play.

Savard/Kessel/Lucic? Still not sure what's going on there. Savard and Kessel just seem to be snake-bitten lately. That happens, and there isn't much you can do but keep shooting. Lucic on the other hand....I really don't know what to make of his play lately. He'll have one great shift, then one horrible one. Sometimes he looks like a thirty goal guy, the next shift, he looks like a middling fourth liner. Trust me, anyone that knows me knows how high I've been on Looch for YEARS. I was singing his praises for at least three years before the B's drafted him. I feel somewhat personally invested in his progress. And to see him seemingly take shifts off is troubling to say the least.

Well, it can't all be the forwards, right? No, it isn't. Although honestly, they're by far the biggest culprits. The defensive pairs, by and large have been pretty good.

Chara has been his rock solid self, and scoring timely goals (none more so than the point-saving one he scored last night with Fernandez pulled).

Ward also has been the steady, physical presence we've come to expect.

Wideman? Well, he's Wideman. His play this year has really been elevated and he's turned in a terrific season (so much so, that I've actually started hearing his name and "Norris candidate" in the same sentence). But he is still prone to a big blunder on occasion. Again, that happens and you have to live with it. His upside FAR outweighs his negatives at this point.

Stuart and Hnidy have been good, not great, but good as well.

Goaltending? Come on, this has been our strength all year, right? Right. And it continues to be very good....despite the absolutely TERRIBLE goal Thomas allowed against New Jersey. Tough pill to swallow when you lose 1-0 on a goal like that.

Fernandez has been "OK" since coming back from his back injury. He was better last night, looking much more comfortable handling the puck. Still not his usual compact, steady self yet, but he seems to be coming around. Although honestly, is there a goalie that looks worse in the shoot-out than Manny? For a "Butterfly style" goalie, he sure does like to fall flat on his face (literally) on every deke. I don't get how he can rely so heavily on technique all game, then do a face plant on every shooter in the skills contest (Thank God there is no SO in the playoffs).

Now, about that little "caveat" I mentioned about the fourth line. Let me preface the following comments by saying this right up front; I am a huge fan of Shawn Thornton. He is far more than some hired gun, goon who's only purpose is to drop the gloves for no reason (ala Colton Orr for instance). The key phrase there is "for no reason". However, in several of these games lately there has been ample reason to grab someone by the scruff of the neck and dole out some punishment. Between his team being flat and some opponents running around taking cheap shots at his teammates (yes, Scott Hartnell, I mean you among others), there were plenty of times where some good old school roughhousing was called for.

But, Thornton isn't, nor should he be, a one man vigilante outfit. As much as we can all agree we want and need Lucic on the ice, he HAS to assert himself. He has been invisible as far as the "extra-curricular" stuff goes. Yes, he's occasionally thrown some decent hits (see my every other shift comments above), but he has not acted as an intimidating force at all. I fear he is starting to get a reputation around the league as a paper tiger. A guy that is very tough, but not really willing to "go" as often as he used to. I don't want Looch fighting every night. But I want him to stick up for his mates enough that the whole league knows they're in for a rough time if they start any nonsense, especially IN Boston. I just haven't seen enough "snarl" in Lucic's game of late.

What about Bitz? Big kid, playing the fourth line.....time to have another go kid. He rightly got a lot of credit for dropping the gloves with Brashear. But that can't be his only contribution in the rough stuff department. I understand that he isn't really much of a fighter, having played college hockey. But I'm sorry, if you're 6'5" and a fourth liner, you have to be expected to stick up for your smaller teammates and goalies. And the goalies have been getting roughed up WAY too much lately.

Finally,'s getting to be time for another statement from the big man. He's a hugely valuable commodity on the ice, I get that. But for him to take the abuse he has lately (Langenbrunner and Parise both whaling away at him as he lay on a puck in his crease jumps to mind) is unacceptable. But I'd rather see him square off in defense of someone else. For some reason, a lot of that great "chemistry" we've seen all year seems to have gone out the window of late. That has to change and quick.

So, among all this doom and gloom, do I see any bright spots? Fortunately, yes I do.

The play of Patrice Bergeron in the last two games has been very encouraging. He's physically involved (dropping Dumont was vintage Bergie), he's making smart plays with the puck and he's getting plenty of shots on net. He's very close to being "back". Hopefully a few of his near misses start finding the back of the net. And if Ryder comes back strong, they could be a strong duo going forward.

The other bright spot lately has been Vladimir Sobotka. I think other than Bergeron, SOB has been the B's best forward the last two games. Finally getting a chance to play on an offensive line, he's showing the kind of player he can be. He's a very good skater, has sneaky moves and is surprisingly strong on his skates for such a small guy. He brings just enough physicality to the Krecji/Wheeler combo to open things up for all of them. Julien even rewarding him with OT time in last night.

All in all, I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised the Bruins play has slipped. For starters, the pace they were on was almost impossible to maintain, even if healthy. But they've been far from healthy all year. The injuries and brutal schedule have started to catch up to them. Add the fact that they've had a double digit lead for the number one spot for a couple months, and I guess some let-down was inevitable.

So, even with as poorly as they're playing now, they still hold an eleven point lead over New Jersey for the top seed in the East. And a still staggering twenty point lead over Montreal for the top spot in the division. That may be the blessing and the curse. A big lead affords you the opportunity to go through struggles like this. Then again, a big lead may
cause periods of struggle like this. Chicken or the egg? I don't know. What I do know is, they have to right the ship, starting in Carolina Tuesday night.

If they don't, the sad song they sang in Nashville will look like zippity-doo-dah.
Go B's-Kynch

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