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Colageo: Bruins Hit Early by Winter Blahs



Boston Bruins

National Hockey League coaches like to drive their teams hard into the annual, three-day Christmas break, but the Boston Bruins were already looking punchy before head coach Jim Montgomery could determine where exactly to push.

If Logan Airport was the Bruins’ corner of a boxing ring, Bear Force One would barely reach initial descent and get a sponge full of water right in the windshield.

How very much the 19-7-6 Bruins have been depending on the performances of a few was exposed during a 2-3-3 stretch that sees them reeling and the gap closing between them and the pack in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

Their 14-1-3 start through Thanksgiving, the league’s initial signpost forecasting the playoff picture, was admittedly unrealistic in the long view. And credit Montgomery for his occasional reminders that the two things separating the Boston Bruins from the pack were Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. The hockey in between, not so much.

Results, however, are compelling. They decide the name of the suits behind the bench and which goalie will tell the league a boldfaced lie about the hockey being played between the nets.

Citing the exciting but sometimes sloppy, chance-trading hockey, many began to question amidst Boston’s fantastic start if faceoffs were ever that important. A few even questioned if Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were ever that important.

(Enters SMH emoji here.)

Minus those legends, Tyler Bertuzzi, Taylor Hall, Dmitry Orlov and others in last season’s bedazzled lineup, only once prior to Thanksgiving had the 2023-24 Boston Bruins failed to score at least three goals: a 3-2, overtime loss at Montreal on Nov. 11.

Through November 23rd, the Bruins had the NHL’s best goals-against average (2.08), save pct. (.933), penalty kill (.910) and goal differential (25).

My, what a difference a busy month makes.

Today the Boston Bruins are only six points ahead of the best record outside the playoffs; they hold two games in hand on Carolina, but will they win them?

Given their propensity – or by now is it a belief building in their opponents – to allow late-period goals, their inability to win a crucial defensive-zone draw has become a barnacle so heavy that it makes the ship list.

Friday night in Winnipeg was a stinker, the kind they were relieved to put behind them within 24 hours. Only an honest effort on Saturday in Minnesota was just as pointless.

What has changed? Lots of things. First, the predictable stuff:

Brad Marchand has hit a rough patch; nothing is happening for him at 5 on 5. If he is healthy, this will turn around.

David Pastrnak, tied for third in NHL scoring through Thanksgiving (12-17-29 in 18GP) has cooled off. At 8-7-15 in his last 14GP, his current point-per-game pace is still best in Boston.

At Thanksgiving, mainstay centermen Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha both had scored 7 goals and ranked among the NHL’s top 25 sharp shooters at 22.6% (15th) and 20.6% (23rd), respectively. Since Thanksgiving, Coyle has 3 goals, Zacha 1, and both have fallen off the top-30 shot-pct. chart.

James van Riemsdyk was 5-8-13 in 18GP through Thanksgiving; in 13 games since, he has scored one powerplay goal (6-15-21 in 31GP).

At 4-5-9 in his first 18 NHL games, Matt Poitras was tied for eighth in rookie scoring at Thanksgiving. He was 1-3-4 in his last 9GP and is spending Christmas in Sweden playing for Canada at the World Junior Championships.

Remember when three goals were guaranteed? Four times in their last eight games the Boston Bruins have been held to one goal.

Now for the less predictable:

Linus Ullmark started the season 7-1-1 with a 2.10 GAA and .932 save pct.; he is 3-4-1 in his last eight and his 2.87/.900 are middle-of-the-pack numbers. While Jeremy Swayman has only won one of his last five starts (1-2-2), his Thanksgiving stats (2.09/.933) stats are still handsome at Christmas: 2.25 (NHL 3rd) and .928 (tied for 2nd).

Of most intrigue in this space is the plight of Charlie McAvoy, who since his suspension for a miss-hit on Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been somewhat shy to risk penalties and has become a bullseye for opponents’ false courage.

Even the 73 on McAvoy’s back is taking a beating. The Bruins’ most important player is under siege. His point-per-game pace through Thanksgiving (3-10-13, +4 in 14GP) is way off the rails. Over his last 10, McAvoy has struggled to produce 5 assists and played minus-11 hockey.

Through the Bruins’ slide, neither he nor Hampus Lindholm (1-6-7, +1) have been able to support the forwards. Montgomery’s four-man attack, the basis of Boston’s offense, is sputtering.

There are many more data points that Bruins management will look hard at before the NHL’s roster freeze ends with Wednesday’s game in Buffalo.

No doubt tweaks are in order, but this is about more in my opinion.

I believe that, as Montgomery alluded before the wagon went off the rails, the NHL gets harder with every month and that, while the points the Bruins banked are invaluable, the task is not about restoring an order. It’s about manning up to the competition, which keeps stiffening.

The Boston Bruins need a left-shot, top-four defenseman with a physical edge that can ease the game for McAvoy. He doesn’t have to match Matt Grzelcyk’s speed on the retrieval, but he must be quicker than Derek Forbort, whose nagging injury has the PK specialist on LTIR.

After dropping six straight, is Ottawa’s interim GM Steve Staios (or a potential successor) desperate enough to consider parting with Jakob Chychrun, for instance?

I’ve heard/read the argument that the Boston Bruins need secondary scoring, and if hockey were played on paper I would agree. But it’s played on ice, with boards and plexiglass in hard equipment at high speed and often violently.

Finding a mercenary’s 25-goal stick might help the Bruins extend some leads and make them a slightly more comfortable regular-season team, but if there is a winger out there who can augment the top six with a menacing forecheck, sign me up over an aggregate approach eight days a week.

Maybe the grim reality is that Jakub Zboril has never been the same since blowing out his knee. The Bruins’ willingness to yo-yo Mason Lohrei in the left-shot lane of the I-95 corridor between Boston (NHL) and Providence (AHL) points to the former’s apparent banishment to the minors.

The burly and talented left-shot defenseman from Czechia (chosen 13th overall in 2015, the first of the three consecutive picks) was gaining traction in his NHL career when a December 2021 ACL injury changed everything. Although the Bruins were without Grzelcyk (shoulder surgery) during camp for the 2022-23 season, Zboril never fully regained form and never factored.

The Bruins soared without him, Grzelcyk returned, but neither his nor Forbort’s subsequent injuries have reopened the NHL door to Zboril, who sat out the weekend’s P-Bruins games with an undisclosed injury.

With the offseason loss so many forwards, I thought Georgii Merkulov would make Boston’s opening-night roster.

Like many deflated hopefuls, it’s taken Merkulov some time to rediscover his scoring touch, but with 8-6-14 scoring totals in his last eight games, the P-Bruins center was among the top scorers in the AHL at 13-15-28 in 30 GP.
According to eagle eye Mark Divver (, Merkulov has taken a major step this year in his play without the puck. In an interview with Bruins flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub, Divver called him “a classic, Russian center.”

When I think of the classic Russian center, I think of Detroit’s Magic Man, Pavel Datsyuk, who only went 5-11 and 194 but was rock solid in the tight areas of the rink. Merkulov, who shoots right (Datsyuk shot left), goes 5-11 and 176.

I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit when Merkulov gets in tight on the net and rifles a backhand over the glove he reminds me of Datsyuk.

Friday, the P-Bruins lit up Rochester’s Devin Cooley with five goals on 22 shots. The Amerks’ goalie coach: Seamus Kotyk, a former fifth-round pick of the Bruins in the 1999 draft held at the FleetCenter, the one where Brian Burke maneuvered the deal to take both Sedin twins to Vancouver. Boston’s top pick in that draft: Nick Boynton on a re-entry.

Boynton was an excellent example of organizational patience. Although he began his pro career with a shoulder injury and learned he has Type 1 diabetes, Boynton played a full 2000-01 AHL season, honed his craft, and not only made the NHL leap in 2001-02 but shot right to the top of the depth chart on a team that finished second overall to Detroit.

Boynton’s career went off the rails during the lockout, when he and Andrew Raycroft were restricted free agents. Neither had a strong lockout plan, and neither did the Bruins, who amidst their post-lockout chaos made the two sweat it out without contracts as camp opened for the 2005-06 season.

Both were traded after that season, Raycroft to Toronto for the rights to Tuukka Rask, and Boynton to Phoenix for Paul Mara (who became Aaron Ward, who became Derek Morris, who became Dennis Seidenberg).

Joe Thornton’s wasn’t the only career adversely affected by the 2004-05 lockout. We all know how Jumbo’s 2005-06 season turned out, but it took a coast-to-coast, blockbuster move to shake him out of his doldrums.

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