By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent
The Boston Bruins had the Northeast Division within their sights. One game, two points, is all it would have taken for Boston to leapfrog the idle Montreal Canadiens in the standings, clinching home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Instead, they’ll be facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs as the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. Home ice advantage remains, but is only guaranteed for round one. And while the knee-jerk reaction may be to assume that the Bruins have an edge in the series, make no mistake, this Boston hockey club is not very good at the moment.
After going 17-4-3 in the first half of this lockout shortened season, Boston slipped to just 10-11-3 in its final 24 games.
The problems are not hard to spot. A lack of offensive production, and lapses in defensive coverage, combined with inconsistent emotional investment and the inability to protect third period leads have left Boston barely clinging on to their “Stanley Cup contender” moniker.
While Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin have provided elite level goaltending, the team in front of the net-minders has consistently failed to support them. Be it through underachievement or just bad luck, impact players like Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, Rich Peverley have far too often been rendered ineffective by opposing teams.
The hot/cold play of the defense has also let hesitancy creep into Boston’s game. If a team isn’t confident in their defense’s ability to hold, they’re less likely to be aggressive offensively. For a team that has prided itself on their physical and defensive-minded game, the word “timid” is not a desirable descriptor.
It’s often said that there is no quick-fix for slumping teams as they enter the post-season, and that viewpoint was reinforced by general manager Peter Chiarelli last week.
“I’ve seen lackadaisical play, and certainly it’s not the type of energy or attitude you want going into the playoffs,” Chiarelli told 98.5 The Sports Hub, “Teams don’t flip the switch, let’s be clear on that, it just doesn’t happen.”
That’s not good news for a Boston team that has been unable to establish good habits or learn from their mistakes in the latter part of the regular season. Instead of heading into the playoffs with the belief that their team is heading in the right direction, the Bruins will be hoping for some magic.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Bruins could get their act together at just the right time. Perhaps the “clean slate” the post-season represents will help this Boston team regroup and refocus. But their opponents will be playing in their first playoff series since the Bush administration, and the ‘underdog’ status could go a long way for Toronto’s confidence.
Many times this season, usually after a frustrating loss, Boston players have kindly reminded members of the media that their team has “a lot of guys that were here for the (2011) Stanley Cup run.” This is admittedly true, however those same players were also around for the team’s disappointing early exit last season, just as they were present for the many games in which the Bruins floundered this season.
The 2011 championship is certainly a wonderful memory for Boston, but it is in the past. It’s time for the Bruins to stop resting on their laurels and reputation, and begin establishing themselves as the elite team they have repeatedly claimed to be.
This will be the 68th playoff appearance for the Boston Bruins, and the 64th appearance for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is the 14th time the two teams have met in the post-season (the first since 1974), with Toronto holding a 9-4 advantage. Of course, none of this will matter once the puck is dropped.
There’s nothing left to be said for the regular season. Boston’s record of 28-14-6 is in the books, and the true test begins now. It is possible that this Bruins team will finally define themselves in the post-season. However, it’s also possible they’ve already defined themselves long ago as an underachieving and exhausted looking hockey team.
Game One is Wednesday night.