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What to make of these Bruins as they head into homestretch

04.08.13 at 1:26 am ET
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Tyler Seguin will have to step up with Patrice Bergeron out indefinitely. (AP)

How good are the Bruins? Depends on your mentality.

The optimist loves their chances. He remembers that the team is one of just four with fewer than 10 regulation losses. The pessimist, on the other hand, is worried. He notices that five of those losses have come in their last 11 games. The realist, meanwhile, is trying to figure out just who these Bruins really are.

Good luck, realist.

Regardless of your level of hope, there is no doubt that Bruins are scuffling right now. The team that looked dead in Philadelphia, asleep for 50 minutes in Buffalo, gave up 87 shots in two home games and then embarrassed itself when it couldn’t even muster a shot in their six-on-four power play late in Montreal is clearly not the same group that cruised to a 19-4-3 record to start the year.

There are some obvious differences. These Bruins have had serious personnel changes since the start of the year. Not only have they lost the contributions from two key centermen (Chris Kelly and now Patrice Bergeron), but their loss has tested their depth at the position. It has forced Claude Julien to juggle his lines and shift both Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley from the wing, weakening two of his four lines. They’ve also been forced to test their depth on the blue line as Matt Bartkowski and Aaron Johnson have spelled the injured Adam McQuaid and Johnny Boychuck.

Fortunately for the B’s, I think the optimists win this one. Boychuck is already back. Kelly is close to returning. McQuaid has now skated with the team. Only Bergeron remains as a great mystery for the playoffs, and without him I think we all become horribly pessimistic. He is that important to their postseason chances. Without his presence, as Paul Pierce said about Kevin Garnett‘s effect on the Celtics, “They aren’t going anywhere.”

During this downturn, however, we’ve seen a run of third-period losses. A team once built upon late-game surges has seen its power turned off in key spots. I see two possible explanations: Either the Bruins are getting tired in the third periods, or their goalie keeps losing concentration.

I think the B’s are just tired, and so on this question I’ll remain optimistic as well. Much has been made of the condensed schedule and the toll it is taking on especially physical teams. Julien’s blueprint has always been to beat you up for 40 minutes then take advantage of your exhaustion late. If the schedule has prevented them from playing as physically as they’d like, I’ll assume that they are smartly keeping something in reserve for the playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t causes for major concern.

What worries me more than the injuries or the third-period collapses has been the players’ reactions (or lack thereof).

When Seguin was moved to center in the wake of Bergeron’s injury, Julien said that the kid had “earned” the chance to play his natural position. He was playing well at wing, yes, but still hadn’t exactly shown a proclivity for playing the kind of defense that makes Bergeron such a star at the pivot.

Two games into the experiment and it seems like an utter failure. Seguin lost 9-of-12 faceoffs against New Jersey, then was bumped back to wing early in Montreal. He was so invisible against the Habs that he wasn’t even on the ice for the six-on-four power play in the final minute. That means that not only did he not play well at center, but the transition knocked him out of the groove he had been in at wing.

Seguin’s coach took a chance on him and the player let him down. Worse, he seemed to pout about being returned to wing and went into a shell.

Hopefully, the real Seguin will return with the reappearance of Bergeron, but I’d feel a lot better about the Bruins heading into the playoffs if their young gun was at the top of his game, not searching for it.

More generally, I’d feel better about the Bruins if they could get up for a big matchup. I truly believe that in an NHL regular season, how you play matters more than the final result. Yes, wins are better than losses, but wins tend to follow quality play. We know the Bruins are going to the playoffs, the bigger question is how they’ll play once they get there. So while I’m willing to excuse a few lackluster efforts (even more so because of the condensed schedule), I’d like to see some evidence that they are capable of stepping up their game when necessary.

Saturday night in Montreal would have been a perfect time for it.

The Bruins had lost their last two to the Habs, blowing late leads in both games. Tuukka Rask had dropped to 2-7-2 against Montreal and was presumably looking to send a playoff message. What better game to get up for than one against you most hated rival? Sure, the Bruins were dealing with injuries, but some grit, determination, hustle and old-fashioned aggression could have propelled them to victory and made us all feel a lot better about the direction they’re headed.

Instead, we got an uneven effort that raised more questions than it answered.

Seguin’s disappearing act aside, we saw Brad Marchand play so poorly, he logged fewer minutes than traditional fourth-liners Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell. Peverley was on ice even less than Marchand. And before you object and wonder if Julien was trying to rest some of his stars because of the schedule, remember that Jay Pandolfo and Shawn Thornton played fewer than 12 minutes … combined. Somehow, Thornton still managed to take a shift with roughly 90 seconds left — exactly what you’d expect from the team’s weakest scoring threat in a key offensive situation. Ugh.

Even more bizarre were the makeshift lines Julien rolled out after 10 minutes of uninspired hockey. Sure, the David Krejci-Milan Lucic-Nathan Horton line stayed together, but newly acquired scoring leader Jaromir Jagr was left for dead with Paille and Campbell (a duo averaging 16 points per season in their careers). I can understand Julien’s difficult challenge: to find three productive centermen and a few offensive threats to play with them. But pairing his newly acquired (and legendarily temperamental) future Hall of Fame goal-scorer with a couple of checkers seems unnecessarily risky.

There are those who will call for Julien’s job, claiming the coach’s system subverts offense and necessitates an otherworldly goaltender to in a Cup.

I think that is reactionary.

But others who wonder if the coach is best motivating his players may have a legitimate question. The poor play has gone beyond assuming the team is tired and resting itself for the playoffs. They have now played uninspired hockey for the better part of a month and worse, failed to show up even for big games.

There are enough championship-caliber leaders on this team. When healthy, there is enough talent as well. As Kelly and (hopefully) Bergeron return, we’ll find out if this team is truly willing to pay the price to win. But until then, I’d feel a whole lot better if the B’s could just play well for a game or two. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, even for a realist.

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