The Bruins aren't suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover. They're suffering from an acute case of mistaken identity.
When they stare at their reflection in the Stanley Cup they see the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Detroit Red Wings, teams with enough talent that they can win by playing brilliantly in spurts and score goals with artistry. That's not the Bruins. They don't have a Henrik Zetterberg or a Pavel Datsyuk. Even minus Sidney Crosby, I would still take the Penguins roster over the Bruins'.
Winning Lord Stanley's chalice distorted their sense of self like a fun-house mirror. They've lost the gritty style of play that made them champions in the first place. They've traded their lunchpails for leather briefcases.
The Bruins won the Cup fair and square, and it was glorious. But the idea they were the most talented team in hockey is preposterous. They defeated a more talented and skilled Vancouver Canucks squad because they played harder and were tougher, physically and mentally. The Bruins won with guts, gestalt, great coaching, and sublime goaltending. Only the goaltending has carried over -- the Bruins are tied for ninth in the NHL in goals against (2.33).
That's why if the Bruins look at themselves today what they'll see is the worst team in the Eastern Conference. After last night's lethargic 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the Black and Gold are in the East cellar with six points and a 3-6-0 mark. The only team in the NHL with fewer points is the Columbus Blue Jackets.
That is a sobering reminder of how slim Boston's margin for success is.
Maybe, the mistaken identity extended to the front office. The Bruins did little but shine their trophy in the offseason, essentially swapping out Tomas Kaberle for Joe Corvo and adding Benoit Pouliot to a club that was feckless on the power play and went through stretches where it couldn't finish. (Rumor has it that Pouliot suited up against his old team, but you'd need forensic evidence to prove that.)
Both are still issues, as the Bruins are 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2.11) and 25th on the power play at (13.2 percent).
In fairness to general manager Peter Chiarelli, two of his top-line players are missing in action. Where is the David Krejci who led the playoffs in scoring last season? Krejci, who may still be affected by that mysterious core injury, had just one shot on goal in 17:16 of ice time last night, spending another evening as a blanked Czech. Winger Nathan Horton hasn't seemed the same since returning from the hit he took from Aaron Rome in the Stanley Cup final. The hero of last year's Cup run registered one shot last night and was largely invisible.
But most alarming is that the Bruins' problems go deeper than not lighting the goal lamp. They're not keeping the competitive flame lit for 60 minutes, a trend since the season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Last night, the Bruins took a 1-0 lead on a flukey power-play goal and held it at the first intermission. They were then outshot 29-20 the rest of the way -- 18-9 in the second period, when Montreal tied the game on an Erik Cole tip-in. Perhaps most damning is that the lace-curtain Canadiens outhit the Bruins in the game, 18-17.
"The inability to focus for 60 minutes is pretty obvious and apparent," said a peeved coach Claude Julien. "When you play the way you do in the first period and seem to be heading in the right direction, then come out in the second period and play that way, it certainly shows a lack of focus, and what that translated to was a lack of execution ... That's what we're going through right now.
"Unfortunately, we're not sitting here looking at one or two players you can move around. You're looking at the majority of the team."
There was far more emotion and intensity from the Spoked-Believers, who lustily booed Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban every time he touched the puck, than there was from their hockey heroes. It seemed not even a joust with the hated Habs could roust the Bruins from their early-season slumber.
Fittingly, the Bruins' lone goal was the result of a player falling down on the job. Patrice Bergeron went down trying to win a faceoff in the Montreal zone against Tomas Plekanec, who steered the puck back towards his own net. The trickling puck went through the wickets of Canadiens goalie Carey Price and deflected in off his right skate.
"I just Bill Bucknered it," said Price, quite aware of his surroundings.
One telltale sign of a team that is flatlining is when they're looking for artificially-generated emotion and momentum.
That was the case when the Bruins tried to trade punches with the Carolina Hurricanes. It was the case last night with Brad Marchand getting involved in three second-period tussles with Subban, the first two of which resulted in twin trips to the penalty box. The third encounter finally resulted in pugilism, or what passed for it with Subban throwing punches like he was blindfolded.
Shawn Thornton also tried to engage the Canadiens, but it shouldn't take fisticuffs to get the Bruins focused. That's a cop out and the lazy way out.
Marchand admitted that the Bruins have to get back to a point where they're not trying to manufacture momentum with fights.
"Yeah, definitely. We want to be able to carry the game with our play, and that's what we did so well last year," he said. "Someone had a good shift, and we were able to follow it up and continue building on that. And we just haven't found a way to do that this year. It just seems that guys are trying to step up and create momentum and energy, and we have to find a way to get it elsewhere."
It starts with remembering who they are and how they became Cup holders in the first place.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.