Big Week for Banged-Up Bruins

The resurgent Boston Bruins saw their four-game winning streak come to a screeching halt Sunday afternoon versus a reeling Edmonton Oilers squad that had won just one contest over their previous five games. The B’s looked lethargic over the first 40 minutes, were outshot 27-11, outhit and generally outworked.

Moreover, the result again thrust the team’s goaltending situation to the forefront, as questions regarding Tuukka Rask’s play (and the team’s play in front of him) continue to dominate the Bruins news cycle.

Tuuka Rask Boston Bruins
Tuuka Rask (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Nevertheless, the Bruins were just one point out of the Atlantic Division’s third spot Monday morning, with two games in-hand on the idle Detroit Red Wings. Considering the cavalcade of injuries and light workload to this point (no team has played fewer games than Boson’s 22), the prognosis could be far, far worse.

An important week looms ahead for the Black and Gold. Though the schedule remains light with just two games, both present an opportunity. Moreover, the light workload will hopefully enable two of Boston’s key veterans to slide back into the lineup.

With the season’s Thanksgiving benchmark in the rearview mirror, the sprint to 2018 begins now.

Tampa Bay Power Outage

Next up on Boston’s docket are the Tampa Bay Lightning, currently the cream of the NHL’s crop. As of Monday, head coach Jon Cooper’s squad has the highest point percentage in the league; their 34 points in 23 contests has them on pace to eclipse 120 points this season. They boast the league’s most dynamic duo, as Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov sit first and second respectively on the NHL’s list of top scorers.

Nikita Kucherov Steve Stamkos Anton Stralman Lightning
Anton Stralman, Nikita Kucherov and Steve Stamkos (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bolts are far more than a two-man show, however. Vladislav Namestnikov and Brayden Point (along with Stamkos and Kucherov) are outscoring Boston’s top-scorer David Pastrnak. Nine players on the roster (including two defensemen) are on pace for 50-point seasons.

Not only do the Lightning lead the NHL in goals-per-game (3.70), they’re also sixth in the league in goals-against (2.65). They’re the only team out of 31 averaging an entire goal per contest more than their opponents. But before you soil yourself, consider the following: If there is a “right time” to play such an excellent team, it’s now.

The electricity has left the Lightning of late, with just one win over their last four contests. They even needed more than 60 minutes to secure that one win, a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve scored just nine times over that span, a far cry from the torrid rate in which they’d scored over the season’s first quarter.

Andrei Vasilevskiy
Andrei Vasilevskiy (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Moreover, Boston will be catching Tampa Bay on the back end of back-to-back games, with the Lightning playing in Buffalo the night prior. With backup netminder Peter Budaj starting the Lightning’s last contest versus Pittsburgh during another back-to-back, there’s a chance the Bruins could draw the struggling Budaj as opposed to the outstanding Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Statement Game

Despite Tampa Bay’s recent skid and tough schedule, this still has the makings of a statement game for Boston.

As the standard-bearers of the NHL and the leaders of Boston’s Atlantic Division, the Lightning have a bullseye on their backs. The opportunity is there for Boston to use the contest as a measuring stick and springboard moving forward.

The Bruins missed a golden opportunity on Sunday versus the Oilers to parlay a four-game winning streak, including a statement-win over the Penguins, into continued success. This season may not be off to the start Pittsburgh envisioned, but they’re still the two-time defending champs. With or without Malkin, beating them on national television was a statement in and of itself.

Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl
Leon Draisaitl (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Perhaps Boston’s slow start and poor effort versus Edmonton can be attributed to feeling a little too good about themselves. If nothing else, there’s hope that the loss to a reeling squad serves as a wake-up call prior to Wednesday’s tilt; one that will likely require a Herculean effort and pinpoint execution to secure two points.

Floundering in Philly

If Tampa Bay is “struggling” of late, the Philadelphia Flyers should change their logo to an image Sisyphus.

The Flyers are winless in their last eight games, compiling a record of 0-3-5 while being outscored 31-19 over that stretch. They officially bottomed out versus their in-state rival Penguins on Monday night, coughing up multiple third period leads before falling in overtime. The current stretch of futility has seen the team descend to the basement of the Metropolitan Division.

Philly’s top line of Jakub Vorachek, Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier has largely carried the club, with each averaging better than a point-per-game. Beyond the trio, depth scoring has been a major issue for the Flyers; only three other forwards have eclipsed two goals through 24 contests.

Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This plays well into the hands of a Boston Bruins team forced by injuries into top-heavy line combinations. Essentially, this contest boils down to neutralizing Philadelphia’s top line and in doing so, stopping the entire team.

Moreover, Philly’s penalty kill is ranked 28th. Despite breaking through with a power-play goal versus Edmonton, Boston has converted on just two of their last 30 chances with the man advantage.  A date with the hapless Flyers and their floundering penalty kill could be just what the doctor ordered.

Backes & Brad Back for Boston?

The upcoming week could bring a much-needed jolt to Boston’s lineup with the return of injured veterans Brad Marchand and David Backes.

Despite missing eight games and counting, Marchand remains second on the team in scoring with 15 points. It appears the “Little Ball of Hate” is on track to return Wednesday, giving the Bruins their own dynamic duo back just in time to combat Tampa Bay’s. Despite the team’s relative success in his absence (5-3 record), his ability to dominate in all zones has been sorely missed.

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Brad Marchand (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Even Patrice Bergeron hasn’t been quite the same without Marchand. Boston’s captain-in-waiting has five points across eight games without his sidekick, juxtaposed by eight points in nine games with Boston’s resident pest.

As for Backes…what more can be said about his toughness? Not only has he returned to practice just four weeks into an estimated eight-week absence, he’s even making contact; his return seems to be shockingly close.

If I had ten inches of my colon removed I’d probably pull a Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights and be convinced I’d never walk again. For David Backes, that same procedure results in nothing more than one month on the shelf. Unreal.

Pieces Sliding Into Place

The significance of their return extends beyond what they can inject into the lineup. It will allow for various players to slide back into roles and pairings more suitable for the team’s and individual success.

David Krejci Danton Heinen
Danton Heinen and David Krejci (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The return of Marchand will allow Pastrnak to slide back onto a line with David Krejci, giving Boston two dynamic pairs to build around. Backes’ return will bring some much-needed versatility, reliability and physicality into Boston’s bottom six, as well as an excellent net-front presence to the second power-play unit. With a combined 1,300-plus NHL games between them, one can’t overlook the experience and leadership either.

Neither figures to hit the ice in a dead sprint upon return. However, for a team that has largely been treading water in their stead, their arrivals will be a sight for sore eyes. And with a big week ahead,it’s not a moment too soon.