The 2020-21 season has come to an end for the Boston Bruins. The Cup window for this current core just shrunk a little more after Wednesday night’s Game 6 exit in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s the third time in four years they’ve been booted from the playoffs in the second round.
In most of their games against the New York Islanders this series, the Bruins looked like the better team. In four of the six games, they had more shots on goal and often found themselves on the attack. But, when it mattered most, they played their worst game of the series and found themselves eliminated.
The Islanders are a talented team with a truly admirable “bend, don’t break” mentality that was on full display in this series. Refereeing was incredibly suspect, as has been the case with most of the playoff series so far, with missed calls and varying standards across the board for what constituted a penalty or not. But, at the end of the day, the Bruins only have themselves to blame for another second-round exit.
Too Many Penalties
I already mentioned above that refereeing has been a point of contention all postseason for fans, players, and coaches alike, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that the Bruins took too many bad penalties. The two teams had similar total penalty minutes when all was said and done. The difference was that they lost one of their top penalty killers in Brandon Carlo in Game 3 and they never looked the same. The Islanders’ special teams were good on all fronts and the Bruins gave them plenty of opportunities to show that.
With Carlo and Kevan Miller out, their penalty kill was bound to suffer. Still, the Bruins took penalties that could have been avoidable and set themselves up for failure. The Islanders had six power-play goals, three of which came in Game 5 alone. That game had a final score of 5-4. If they had been able to prevent taking even just one of those penalties, we could be having a different conversation right now.
They similarly took some sloppy penalties in Round 1 and let their emotions get the best of them at times. The difference was that the penalty kill was firing on all cylinders against the Washington Capitals and they could make up for their penalties. This series, their penalty kill was not up to par and they missed Carlo, yet, they still took bad penalties.
Defensive Miscues and Sloppy Play
There are always going to be miscues and some sloppy passes in a hockey game. However, the Bruins felt especially sloppy against the Islanders.
Matt Grzelcyk, despite dealing with injuries throughout the season, took a step forward in 2020-21 and found success in an expanded role on the blue line. Unfortunately, Game 6 was quite rough for him. On two of the Islanders goals, he was the one to turnover the puck.
The blue line was exposed on multiple occasions in this series and the forwards, especially the bottom six, weren’t much help. They couldn’t keep the Islanders away from the net and had multiple bad turnovers. In general, the Bruins didn’t have much of an answer for their forecheck. This was especially prevalent as the series went on.
There were other mistakes as well. Who can forget David Pastrnak’s missed shot on a wide open net in Game 4? It was uncharacteristic of him, but is a perfect example of what this series felt like; guys not playing like themselves and making bad mistakes.
The Islanders were not faultless in this series by any means. The difference was that they were able to capitalize on the errors while the Bruins couldn’t do the same. They controlled the pace in Game 5 and had plenty of opportunities to pull away. But at the end of the day, they couldn’t get the puck in the back of the net and the Islanders could.
Lackluster Game 6
The Bruins played their worst game of the series in the one game they couldn’t afford to. Watching the game, it didn’t feel like the team had gotten the memo that they were on the verge of elimination. There was no urgency, even in the third period when they were down by three. Midway through the second period, it felt like the team, save for Brad Marchand, gave up.
During the first round, the Bruins got better as the series went on. In this round, they started out great in Game 1 and it went down from there. It was the same thing last year when they lost in the second round to the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were not the same team in Game 6 that they were in Game 5 against the Capitals.
The Islanders were the team that showed up and deserved to win that game. They looked like a team that knew they were on the verge of winning a playoff series while the Bruins ultimately didn’t look aware that they were about to be eliminated. Credit to the Islanders, they’re a talented team with a lot of depth that is going to give the Lightning some trouble in the next round.
Not Enough Defensive Depth
When all was said and done, this was not a team built for a long playoff run and that is on the Bruins’ front office, including general manager Don Sweeney. He is not a very popular man in Boston and, while he bought himself some time with the fantastic Taylor Hall trade deadline deal, it doesn’t make up for his inability to build a solid, complete team around a core group of players that is getting older and seeing their window close. It is frustrating to see the same issues with depth year after year.
This is nowhere more apparent in this roster than on defense. Charlie McAvoy is an elite defenseman in this league and should have been a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Carlo is a quiet lynchpin to the blue line. Grzelcyk, despite his poor showing in Game 6, has grown into a top-four position.
After those three, though, there really isn’t any depth. Connor Clifton has his moments and was an unsung hero in the first round, but works best in a bottom-pairing role. Kevan Miller is good when he’s on the ice, but spends too much time off of it with injuries. Jeremy Lauzon is inconsistent, as is Mike Reilly, who was just bad in this series. Jarred Tinordi is a good seventh defenseman, depth player. John Moore, similar to Miller, can’t stay healthy. Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril aren’t consistent NHL players yet and there are some questions to if they ever will be.
Giving young guys a chance isn’t a bad thing, but the Bruins relied too heavily on untested NHL talent and it showed. After Carlo went down, the Bruins were playing with two top defensemen and then a bunch of guys who are better served in a more specialized or bottom-pairing roles.
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For several years, the blue line was the strongest part of the Bruins, and now it is a liability and there is no one to blame but the front office. Both Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara supposedly expressed interest in staying in Boston but Sweeney decided to move on from them to give young guys a shot. In that case, letting one of them go makes sense, but both?
Injuries are inevitable in this league. The Bruins dealt with it all season, especially on defense. The team was not built to withstand injuries this year, but this isn’t new. The Islanders have depth. The Lightning have depth. The Bruins have as talented of a core group as any team in this league, but their inability to build around that group keeps coming back to bite them in the playoffs.
Questions to Address in the Offseason
The window is closing on the Bruins’ core. Patrice Bergeron will be 36 when the 2021-22 season starts, Marchand 33. Even if they don’t play like their age, it will catch up to them at some point. David Krejci and Tuukka Rask are unrestricted free agents (UFA) this summer. Bergeron will hit UFA status next year.
Rask, who will be having offseason surgery and will miss the start of next season, has expressed that he wants to stay in Boston. But the team may be looking to move on from him to make room for young talent like Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar, though I would hope they would learn from their mistakes on defense about moving on from a proven veteran too quickly.
The Bruins need to be aggressive this offseason if they want to get another Cup for Bergeron and Marchand. With their two largest contracts in Krejci and Rask coming off the books, they have more cap space to work with this summer than they have had in a while. If Sweeney isn’t willing to do something big with that, the team needs to move on to a new general manager. There are some big names that should be available this summer and they need to take advantage of that.
In an ideal world, the Bruins bring back Rask on a two-year deal to help ease the transition to the Swayman era. They also re-sign Krejci, Hall, and Reilly, and then make a pretty big signing on defense and a similar deal to Craig Smith to bolster the bottom six.
What do you think the Bruins need to do this offseason? Tell us in the comments below.
I’m Hannah Garfield, a graduate of Elon University with degrees in Film and Media Analytics. I’m a lifelong, passionate Boston sports fan and love all things Bruins.