A blueprint to beat the Bruins?
|01.06.09 at 8:50 pm ET|
“I think for every team, every game, we talk about [scoring first] and getting an early lead and taking control of the game. I think that’s an area that we will hopefully get better at tonight, starting tonight.”
Those were the words of Bruins bench boss Claude Julien prior to last night’s 1-0 snoozer of a loss at the hands of the trap-happy Minnesota Wild, and they didn’t turn out to be prescient in any way, shape or form. Instead the Bruins managed to squeeze off only six shots during an uneventful first period, took three penalties in the second period that culminated in a power play strike for the Wild and then watched as Minnesota morphed into full trap mode in front of show-stopping goalie Niklas Backstrom.
“Personally I wouldn’t pay to watch a game like that,” said goalie Manny Fernandez, who suffered his first home loss of the season in the dulled down hockey game.
After watching the B’s suffer from a distinct lack of bounces and battle through difficulties breaking the puck into the offensive zone once both the Wild and Sabres fastened the trap clamps on the hockey game, it almost appears as if a blueprint to beat the B’s is beginning to form.
A dastardly plan that will frustrate and eventually defeat the high-powered Bruins attack, and leave their scoring machine in the shop for repairs. Granted, not every team has the talent or discipline or chutzpah to implement Operation Beat the Bruins but teams with enough scoring skills — or grit — to get a lead and a good enough goaltender could do it.
In other words squads like the Buffalo Sabres and the Wild. It’s not something that’s always going to be possible given Boston’s ability to jump on the scoreboard fast and furiously, but teams may be finding a way to escape the hostile Boston Garden with a win tucked neatly under their arms. Play a checking game during five-on-five to frustrate and fluster the Bruins skaters and then try to do your offensive damage on the power play. Then hold on tight for dear hockey life.
The Bruins were certainly a frustrated and blocked up bunch after the game. Scorers like David Krejci and Blake Wheeler have been lighting the lamp with reckless abandon over the first 39 games of the season, but suddenly looked altogether human in Boston’s first zero goal effort of the season. Even Wheeler looked a bit out of sorts in a game against his boyhood team as he dangled and attempted to dazzle with one-on-one moves but couldn’t register a single shot in 18:15 of ice time.
“We were trying; we were battling, but they were just sitting back and basically chipping pucks out and shooting anything else. It was tough after that,” said B’s defenseman Zdeno Chara. “They don’t need much and then when they do get a goal or two, they start to play really kind of defensive trap and it’s really hard to get through. But, that’s not an excuse for us. We created some chances like I said, but we couldn’t score.”
Krejci and Michael Ryder both threw up three shots on net with Backstrom robbing Krejci in the second period when the crafty center seemingly had a wide open net to pick from. The Wild netminder athletically leaped across the crease to fill up the open real estate and smother the shot. Ryder smacked the left pipe with ringing authority on a perfect curl-and-drag set up coming off the left boards, and added to the B’s puck luck going south of the border just as the opposition’s defensive intensity strengthened.
Julien predictably isn’t buying any of the blueprint or formula for beating the Bruins talk, and is instead focused on what his team isn’t doing at this point: play with focus, creativity, passion and the two-way defensive responsibility that became a hallmark of their puck success.
“Our game just isn’t quite there. Then you get some good momentum at the end of the second period when you get the [shot off the] post by [Michael] Ryder, the unbelievable save on [David] Krejci, the goaltender [Niklas Backstrom] I don’t know how he saw that one. He made some really good saves at key moments,” said Julien. “All we needed was one shot to tie the hockey game, so it’s not the end of the world.
“Again, talking about our team, we’re just not in sync right now and it has nothing to do with the other team, more than it has to do with us. We see things from our team that definitely have slipped, and not as good as things are than when they were going well.”
So what do Julien and his staff do with a team that’s running low on confidence and a bit short of their ideal depth with Marco Sturm and Patrice Bergeron nowhere near returning from injury and Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward still working their way back into the mix?
“First of all you don’t panic. Like I said, I don’t think anybody thought we were going to be flying away, flying away for eighty two games without going through some bumps and bruises,” said Julien. “It’s a combination of a lot of things. [Andrew] Ference, [Aaron] Ward, [Patrice] Bergeron, [Marco] Sturm: I think those are four pretty important players missing out of our lineup.
“Eventually things catch up as well in different areas. We’ve got four real quality guys out of the lineup, you’ve got some top players that probably aren’t at the top of their game, so it doesn’t take much to slip a little bit. You just have to work your way through it. I think that’s all we’re going to be doing here: address the situation; we’re going to show the guys where we’ve slipped or what needs to get better. We’re going to work at and work our way out of it; that’s all you can do.”
Time to end the experiment
Claude Julien’s tactic of plugging lovable Swede P.J. Axelsson on the first line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel — along with placing him on the first PP unit — was excellent for the initial spark that it provided his club, but the time has come to insert a grittier player back up on the front line with the two skilled craftsman. It was the reason that Julien inserted Chuck Kobasew onto the first line in the waning minutes of Saturday afternoon’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres and it’s presumably why Shawn Thornton took at least one shift on the top line during the third period of last night’s limp showing.
Meanwhile, Milan Lucic is on the third line continuing to be the B’s leading body checker night in and night out, and he seems a bit miscast skating on the third line. Particularly so when he could be once again clearing much-needed space for Savard and Kessel on the top unit. It seems to only make too much sense when you begin watching a team search for an offensive spark over the last two games when they were awash in goal-scoring glory over the first 38 games.
There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that it was a temporary move to place Axelsson in the B’s offensive catbird seat, but there’s a reason the longest-tenured Bruins has only two goals on the season — and only one of them has come with an actual goaltender between the pipes. It might be take to shake things up again, or it might just be time to put things back the way they used to be.