With the Boston Bruins leading by three entering the final frame of their Monday night Game-3 tilt versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, B’s fans felt they could breathe easy.
However, 47 seconds into the stanza, old friend Phil Kessel brought the raucous Air Canada Centre crowd to their feet with a powerplay goal to narrow the gap.
“Uh-oh… Here we go again…”
Knuckles whitening, Boston’s fans watched in trepidation as their club hoped to avoid another gut-wrenching loss.
Eight times in 2013, the Boston Bruins entered the third period with the lead only to be driven back on their heels by their opponents counter-attack. Eight times the Bruins had to settle for less than two points despite earning the advantage through forty minutes.
The Bruins finished the season with the League’s lowest point percentage in games they held the lead entering the final period (.739), going 15-4-4. Their end-of-game struggles confounded their fanbase, especially when viewed in the light of their dominant defensive game and recent history.
In 2011-12, the Boston Bruins won all 32 of their games where they took a lead to the second intermission… 32-0-0… And it’s not as though that was the start, either: In their Stanley Cup Championship campaign of 2010-11, the B’s went 32-2-2 when heading into the third up at least a goal.
Boston’s February 15 loss to Buffalo broke a stretch of 38 consecutive wins when leading at the second break.
But what caused this sudden downturn in third-stanza-fortunes? Why has a team with such a stalwart defensive-zone reputation failed to protect leads so frequently?
It’s not just a matter of the ‘prevent defense’. While some analysts (including this one) admonish the Bruins for falling into a pattern of neutral-zone traps, collapsing to the net-front and dumping the puck haphazardly in and out of the zone when up late; the data doesn’t back up those concerns.
Boston’s 2013 third-period possession-game is an actual improvement over their performance during their previous two-year run. With the lead entering the frame, they took 10.04 shots per period and allowed 10.44; in the 66 games in the previous two years, the B’s averaged 8.74 shots for and 11.61 against.
Even in the Bruins un-successful third periods show an improvement over recent seasons’ possession averages. They took just one fewer shot than their opponents in their eight losses following opening the third with the advantage.
All of this suggests that Boston isn’t just falling back into defensive coverage. They’re pressing the attack more than before.
What’s obvious is that the Bruins shooting and save percentages have been mediocre with third-period leads: The team is shooting at just a 5.6% clip and their goalies are stopping pucks just a hair above the goaltending “Mendoza Line” of .900.
Contrasted with their previous two-year stretch (elite-level shooting (12.8%) and save (.938) percentages) we get a new picture – perhaps one framed by luck.
A large faction of the NHL statistical community ascribes to the theory that the percentages (save and shooting) are tied significantly to simple ‘puck-luck’. The combination of these two rates, called “PDO” is often used as a shorthand indicator for team or individual puck-luck. The B’s PDO when going into the third period with a lead this season – a bone-dry 960 (with “average” luck working-out to an even 1000); in the past two seasons combined, that number was as high as 1101.
Some might point to the switch from the All-World goaltending of Tim Thomas to the merely All-Star netminding of Tuukka Rask as the answer. Well, Rask was in-net for 8 of the B’s 32 successful third periods in 2011-12.
Holes in the Bruins defensive game undoubtedly explain some of their struggles. Eight times the Bruins allowed at least two goals after taking a lead to the third. In three of their four regulation losses they gave up three goals. In their demoralizing March 12 loss to the Penguins, the Bruins blew a two-goal lead, allowing three even-strength tallies in the span of five minutes.
Given the small sample-size, it’s very likely that luck is a significant factor in their lead-holding failures with defensive lapses accounting for the rest.
Boston surrendered eighteen shots in the third period Monday night, but only Kessel’s crossed the goal line and the Bruins came away with their second win of the series.
Yet the formerly invincible third-period B’s have been very, very mortal in 2013. Earlier this year forward Brad Marchand said of closing out contests: “It’s part of our game that we’ve always been strong in the third period…” but that ironclad identity has escaped them down the stretch.
Whether luck or performance-driven, the Bruins ability to hold a third period lead must improve. This time of the year, blowing even one late-game advantage could cost them their season.
Follow Bob Mand on Twitter at @HockeyMand