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Colageo: Boston Bruins Built for Desperate Hockey



Boston Bruins

It’s been a bumpy ride to the 42 victories and 15 unsuccessful overtimes that have the Boston Bruins in contention for the Atlantic Division title with eight games left on the 2023-24 regular season, and there may be value yet realized from the desperate style of play that has repeatedly been the difference for them between mediocrity and the stuff of champions.

For a team playoff clinched and a needing only one point to make it seven straight 100-point campaigns (counting the 56-game 2021 season) under General Manager Don Sweeney, the Bruins act like a team on the playoff bubble and in desperate need of points.

Since their third-period disappearance against the visiting N.Y. Rangers on March 21 (and some straight talk from Coach Jim Montgomery), the Bruins have been compelling theater.

No team, especially one so dependent on an extreme level of competitive intensity, is going to make it through 82 games without some mental fatigue. The Bruins have not been immune, but despite their 2-2 record in this rare-for-March, six-game road trip, Bear Force One begins its initial descent into April under sunny skies.

The 42-17-15, post-Bergeron/Krejci, less-is-more Bruins began the day among only five teams that have clinched a playoff spot. They are securely among the top 10 teams leaguewide in offense and defense. They remain the only National Hockey League team yet to lose 10 times in regulation at home or on the road.

With a three-point cushion on both the Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes, the Rangers look to earn their 50th win on Monday against Pittsburgh and are looking more and more likely to earn home ice throughout the playoffs. As an aside, winning the Presidents Trophy is no more a curse than handling the Prince of Wales Trophy (that goes to the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup finalist). Much on that coming soon in my Rink Rap blog. I digress.

As for the NHL at large, count me among the thrilled that the playoffs are less than three weeks out and not because the season is too long. (It’s only two games longer than it was the last time Bobby Orr led the league in scoring.) And not because people who have other priorities 10 months of the year will watch hockey for nine weeks. (I’m glad they enjoy it, but the sport doesn’t need anyone’s validation.)

Personally, I enjoy the playoffs like everyone else, but I also won’t miss watching regular-season overtimes go into a stall.

Last week while making a note about regular-season overtime, I accidentally wrote that NHL GM’s decided not to mess with the shootout. I meant the five-minute overtime itself. Citing an upward trend (to 70%) in extra-time games ending in OT (as opposed to requiring a shootout), the NHL decided to leave well enough alone.

One stated reason was hockey’s think tank does not want to see unintended consequences. Now there’s a second thought that would have come in handy before four decades of tweaking regular-season overtime only to see too many that amount to a terrible bore.

Rather than the end-to-end, firewagon finish that 3v3 OT promised, the emerging strategy has been to play keep-away, even if it drains away what were meant to be the most entertaining seconds of the three hours that fans are in their seats or glued to their flatscreens. Without a backcourt rule such as exists in basketball, teams retreat with the puck at the slightest sense of risk on a zone entry. They even pass back to their own goalie like a soccer match.

Last year, yours truly began banging the drum for a backcourt violation (my words) to prevent teams from stalling during regular-season OT. My rule would have been, if a team takes the puck back out of the attacking zone, it should result the same as icing (defensive-zone faceoff, no player changes allowed the offending team).

While it was encouraging to learn that management types were simultaneously thinking along these lines, it is disappointing to learn that the GM’s are suddenly afraid to tinker.

The whole idea of 3v3 was to open the ice to the sport’s most talented players and let them slug it out. Some OT games deliver up to that promise. You think it would happen more often with the assurance of a consolation point in the standings, but even pure pond hockey amongst three a side does not guarantee they’ll play to win.

Most of the NHL’s 2005 rules changes have had unintended consequences, but that didn’t stop the league from ignoring a high-energy 2004 Cup final played by Tampa and Calgary so this latest resistance could use a little explanation.

On the heels of that decision, the NHL has also relented against expanding the playoffs with a play-in round such as that now used in the NBA.

For that, I applaud.

Since expanding the playoffs to 16 (of 21) teams, the NHL has labored to sell TV viewers on regular-season relevance. While it’s impossible to bottle playoff emotion and inject it into the 82-game grind, the league has managed (via expansion) to make the regular season stressful. If that’s an unintended consequence of the 1990s growth from 21 to 30 teams (now 32), don’t go back now and forfeit the weight of regular-season results by expanding the playoff field.

I know the past is in the past, but I could do without regular-season OT altogether. Fans don’t like OTL’s any more than they liked ties.

Ever since the NHL introduced regular-season OT in the 1983-84 season on a “lose the game, lose your point” basis and teams played it so safe that fans booed, the Board of Governors have been searching for some magic bullet that will make the regular season feel like the playoffs.

Later introduced, the consolation point meant to free the mind to play to win has most largely served to prove that any intelligent competitor will build offense around defense.

In the playoffs, there are no participation trophies and no loser points. You have to play to win. Or else you lose.

Personally, I cannot wait.

NESN’s Steve Garabedian has too much to do during the Boston Bruins’ season of franchise-centennial celebrations to be looking up something like this, but I suspect that the most-replayed game in the TV flagship’s four decades is the “Tugnutt Game.”

That March 21, 1991, game will be remembered for the 70-save performance by Quebec Nordiques goalie Ron Tugnutt and that confusing, standing ovation that I was sure started for Tugnutt but then morphed into a chant for the great Guy Lafleur, who was lined up for his final shift in Boston. Fact: No one left the old Garden that night feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.

Speaking of goalies, has anyone else noticed that Jeremy Swayman relocated his mojo in Washington?

Two games remain on the Bruins’ road trip: at Nashville (8 p.m. Tuesday) and at Carolina (7 p.m. Thursday). Both hosts are 7-2-1 in their last 10.

ESPN and TNT won’t like this, but I could see a Preds-Canes Stanley Cup final. Why in the hockey reason not?
Carolina has quietly and consistently built a 99-point season and now has Jake Guentzel driving a line from the wing position. Freddie Andersen, meanwhile, has two shutouts and has allowed five goals over his last five starts, all wins.

The Western Conference is a funny beast.

Despite Vegas’ spectacular trade deadline, history stacks the odds against a repeat. Colorado has never been able to replace captain Gabe Landeskog. Vancouver, Dallas and Edmonton are all having a year, but it’s too soon for the Canucks and too physical for the Stars. Maybe it’s the Oilers’ time in the McDavid/Draisaitl era, finally … maybe.

Underdogs, absolutely, but you knew Barry Trotz the GM was going to make his mark in Nashville. Since a humiliating 9-2 loss on home ice to Dallas on Feb. 15, the Preds had gone 16-0-2 before finally hitting the wall (15 goals against) at Arizona and Colorado.

Something tells me the Boston Bruins are going to get their correction game.

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