By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
What a difference a week makes. Before the Bruins embarked on a fruitless trip to sunny California, they had a tenuous grip on first place in the Atlantic Division. Losers of three straight in the land of the Looney Tunes, the B’s suddenly find themselves in the throes of a playoff fight, having played more games than any other playoff contender in the East, and only six points ahead of the suddenly surging Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild-card spot, who have three games in hand.
Few were overly optimistic as the team headed out to face some of the towering timber of the Western Conference last week. Each team – the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings – had manhandled the Bruins in their own building this year, so it would have been foolish to think that they could go on the road and come home with more than a couple of points.
As it turns out, they couldn’t even do that.
It is not because they didn’t play well at times, they dominated the second and third periods against an impressive Kings club on Saturday night; the problem is, the only thing consistent about this Bruins squad is their inconsistency.
The Black and Gold optimists can look to this trip and say that the B’s were in every game against three legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, while the realists can claim that the team’s Jekyll and Hyde performances will ultimately be their downfall should they make the playoffs.
It must be maddening for head coach Claude Julien to see his team transform from competitive to careless and then back again, in the span of 60 minutes on a nightly basis. Following another frustrating loss that saw his team play poorly for the first period and then pour it on, only to fall short once again, Julien said, “I wasn’t happy with our first period. As much as it was just a 1-0 game, we needed to be a lot better than we had been. I really feel that had we been prepared to push in the first period the way we did in the second and third; we might have had a different outcome.”
The bewildered bench boss added, “So, disappointed to say the least. You can like your team’s performance in the second and third. But at the end of the day, we’re going home empty-handed, and that’s not what we came here for.”
In their nine games remaining, the Bruins will face five potential playoff teams. And while it seemed that their participation in the playoffs was a fait accompli just a week ago, it is very possible they could be in a fight to the finish, should the teams behind and in front of them cash in on the games they have in hand.
Perhaps the most positive thing that the team can take from its pointless trip is the resiliency they showed throughout their journey down the coast of Cali. Although they did not win a game out West, they showed that they are just a couple of pieces away from being back to one of the top teams in the East.
Another positive development of the trip devoid of points, was that Julien’s seemingly endless patience with the play of Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly has come to an end. Finally, each of the under performers spent a night in the press box for a game. When asked about Hayes, specifically, Julien said, “This is the time of year when you’re looking for guys to come in and do the job you want them to do. He had zeroes across the board the last 10 games and hadn’t done much for quite a while. We need a little bit more out of him. We can use a little more from a few more players, as well. We’re at the spot now where you have to earn your spot on the team.”
It’s about time. Hayes’ replacement, Tyler Randell, scored the team’s only goal Saturday night. Why the rugged forward has not seen the ice more than the constantly invisible dope from Dorchester is a mystery. Randell has proven to be a physical presence whenever he has played, and his ability to drop the gloves and chip in an occasional goal is much more valuable than Hayes’ Disney on Ice performances provide.
As far as Connolly is concerned, it is mind-numbing to think that he is the preferred option over the likes Frank Vatrano, who is lighting the lamp at a breakneck pace for Providence. While it is true that there are aspects of his game that need improvement – Claude’s need for every one of his forwards to be a Patrice Bergeron clone is a large hurdle for any young prospect to cross – his speed and skill represent a huge upgrade over the clueless Connolly.
The playoff pack is once again tightening in the Eastern Conference, and the Bruins will need every point they can get down the stretch if they are to secure a playoff spot. Perhaps by adding some young legs in Randell and Vatrano will help in evening out the energy the B’s bring consistently throughout the 60 minutes of play. Whether or not Claude can handle shelving two veterans for unproven players is a question unto itself, however.
Nevertheless, the Bruins will need to rebound from their wanting West Coast trip if they want to maintain their playoff position. A win in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers on Wednesday night would go a long way in helping right the ship.
Time is running out on the regular season, there may be no better time than the present for the Bruins to see if the help they need is already in their midst, instead of mindlessly trotting out the lineup that can’t put together a consistent effort in games that mean so much to their tenuous playoff position.