The Boston Bruins continue to win hockey games headed straight into the holidays, but it hasn’t been quite seamless as it was earlier in the season.
Some of it is the hockey schedule beginning to take its toll midway through the season as last week’s West Coast trip through Colorado, Arizona and Vegas pushed the Boston Bruins into a pair of shootouts – one win and a disappointing loss to the LA Kings – and a Saturday afternoon win over the Columbus Blue Jackets where they most definitely weren’t playing great hockey while leading by a 2-1 score while also handing three different first period power plays to the Blue Jackets.
Some of it is the natural distraction caused by the looming holiday break and family plans that are tugging at NHL players trying to focus on the task at hand, a reality that the coaching staff wasn’t going to pretend doesn’t exist.
“I think teams have done a really good job of scouting us and they’ve adjusted their game plans. I think a little bit of it is that we don’t start off well, we get to our game for about 10 minutes and then we go up 2-0. Earlier we just kept our foot on the gas and kept going, but now we take the foot off the gas and kind of manage it seems like,” said Boston Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery, of the natural ennui that creeps in when a team is setting the pace for the rest of the NHL. “It’s the luxury we have of how we’ve been banking points, but it’s also the time of the season too.
“People are starting to think about family time. It happens. I don’t care if you’re 25-4 or 4-25 it’s just natural. It’s the human [element]. [On the ice] it’s a combination of them taking away the middle of the ice and they’re also having three or four back all the time. We’re not getting the rush chances we were earlier in the year. We do end up moving pucks up walls and skating with it leading to good entries, and those are plays that were happening at our blue line that are now happening at their blue line. That’s the evolvement of our team and it’s good to go through this and find different ways to score.”
Through the first 40 minutes of the Columbus contest, the Bruins had just a one-goal lead and they weren’t responding to warnings from their head coach. It’s something that Montgomery addressed after the game as a pattern that’s beginning to recur with the Black and Gold, and one that caused him to hand things over to his captain during Saturday’s second intermission.
Patrice Bergeron’s message during the second intermission worked in that particular contest as they went score a pair of third period goals to elevate them to victory.
“Never mind the Hall of Fame player [Bergeron] is, he’s a Hall of Fame person and leader – so much so that after the first I was not happy with our team, and I was not very happy in between the periods when I addressed the team,” said Montgomery. “Second period, no impact, so I said to Bergy with 40 seconds left in the second, I said, ‘It’s your dressing room.’
“We came out and played our best period of the game, and that just speaks volumes of…it’s how much I trust him, and it’s how much the players listen to him.”
Clearly it resonated against Columbus as the Bruins outshot the Blue Jackets by a 17-11 margin and the B’s held it to just one “holding the stick” penalty for Pavel Zacha in the final 20 minutes.
This week, it was a second period lull that had the Bruins clinging to a 4-3 lead against an injury-ravaged Florida Panthers bunch after the B’s had stormed out to a 3-0 lead after a sleepy start to the Monday night game.
Montgomery admitted after that game he probably would have taken a timeout if it was a younger hockey team rattled by the situation, but he sensed that the Bruins were handling things the right way on the bench.
“It’s different from any other team I’ve coached before, just because they are great leaders and they know how to win,” said Montgomery. “All the different ways we’ve won, it shows, so I’ve developed the ability to let them control a lot of what’s going on. I let them play through things more than I would other teams. Before, I would either get on them verbally or maybe call a timeout. You know the things that you can control as a coach.
“I think from the second goal through the third goal I thought about [a timeout], but the guys were saying the right things on the bench. There wasn’t a sense of panic among the players and our bench – more myself. But there wasn’t a sense of urgency with our play either. We managed to get out of it and again, found a way. We’re a resilient group.”
Once again, the Bruins snapped out of it – aided by a pair of, there he is again, Bergeron goals in the third period – for an eventual 7-3 win over Florida that has their head coach feeling like he can’t come down too hard on them.
“It’s like being a parent, right? Your kid has straight A’s and he comes home and you know he should be getting an ‘A’ in Math or English and he comes home with a ‘B’” said Jim Montgomery. “Well, it’s an opportunity to learn, right, but at the end of the semester if he still has an ‘A’ then it’s hard to really bash him about that ‘B.’
No doubt, none of this is going to amount to much as long as the Boston Bruins keep on winning, and sit atop the NHL in offense, defense and special teams. And it certainly helps that Boston is killing an NHL-best 85 percent of the PPs that they are allowing. But the winning can also allow weak points to take hold while a good, old-fashioned bout of extended adversity can force a team to address weakness that might become problems later down the road.
In the shootout loss to the Kings, Montgomery noted that his Boston Bruins team seemed “frustrated” while taking some retaliatory penalties and again handing the Kings some PP opportunities, including a final 5-on-3 LA man advantage in the third period that ended up tying the game. A lot of it was probably about not playing up their standard against a weaker team in the Kings, and that’s a testament to the standard that the Black and Gold have in place.
Certainly, the penalty situation is one worth watching and breaking down a little bit, however.
The Boston Bruins are tenth in the NHL with 329 penalty minutes on the season but are tied with the Edmonton Oilers for sixth worst in the NHL with 125 minor penalties taken this season in 30 games played.
Since Dec. 3, the Boston Bruins have taken 36 penalties that’s good for fourth-most in the NHL over that time period. For a team that’s been atop the NHL all season while humming on close to all cylinders, it’s a bit of an eye-opening statistic that actually did hurt them quite a bit when top penalty killing defenseman Derek Forbort was out for most of the month of November.
“We do think it can be improved and it has to be improved,” said Montgomery, on the sheer number of penalties that the Bruins taken in general. “It’s because when we check with our legs first, we don’t take a lot of penalties. There’s a lot of stick infractions in the offensive zone that we would like to eliminate. We don’t get scored on when it’s those instigator penalties when you’re defending a teammate or when you’re eliminating a scoring chance at the goal mouth, you kill those off. That’s what we’re looking at.”
The low point was a late November game on the road in Florida just ahead of Thanksgiving when the Boston Bruins gave up three power play goals while handing over seven total PP chances to the Panthers in one of only four regulation losses for the Black and Gold this entire season.
“We’ve been a little undisciplined this year,” admitted Brad Marchand, back after that November game.
“It bit us in the butt [against Florida]. We’ve had a really good PK. [The Panthers] were feeling it a little bit right now. They made some nice plays. It’s just unfortunate because we were outplaying them earlier in the game. Their power play took over [in that game].”
At this point it’s absolutely nit-picking with a team that’s 25-4-2 and leads the NHL by a wide margin with their 52 points on the season, but that’s the high bar that the Boston Bruins have set for themselves by winning, winning and winning some more from the very start of this season. They are striving to be the best, and some of the penalties and recent inconsistencies in their 60-minute efforts have not gone unnoticed by those carefully watching the Black and Gold as they keep on beating opponents regardless.