Their egos bruised, their scoring touch in need of fine-tuning, and their backline choppy, the Bruins return to work Thursday night with the suddenly respectable Maple Leafs visiting the Garden.
Now 14-3-3, the Bruins have yet to lose consecutive games in regulation this season, and it was only last week that team Black and Gold was humming along in the midst of a six-game winning streak. But after back-to-back 4-3 setbacks to the Canadiens and Capitals (in overtime), it appears they’ve got some fixing to do.
Following the loss in D.C., delivered by Eric Fehr’s snap to the top right corner at 37 seconds of OT, coach Claude Julien let a few things be known:
■ He was displeased, yet again, by his club’s inability to finish prime chances, especially those in the form of odd-man rushes. “We could have sealed the deal,’’ lamented Julien. Time and again at the Verizon Center, the Bruins botched prime scoring opportunities, be it because of poor shots, ill-timed passes, or sudden-onset amnesia — as if they forgot that the object of the offensive endeavor is to put a silly little puck into a 24-square-foot gaping hole.
■ The third line of Chris Bourque-Chris Kelly-Rich Peverley, which went a combined minus-7 against the Capitals, perturbed Julien. Third-line scoring is a bonus on most teams, even with Boston, but third-line defensive faux pas can be infuriating. The only offense that line saw Tuesday was what it allowed the Capitals. Kelly, in particular, was on for all three goals Washington used to erase Boston’s 3-0 lead. “We’re not getting [offense or defense] from that line,’’ said Julien. “It’s a concern we have to look at.’’
■ And though he didn’t address directly the backline duo of Dougie Hamilton-Dennis Seidenberg, Julien knew all too well that both were victimized badly on the tying and winning goals. They played the 7-10 split to the bowling balls that were Wojtek Wolski (equalizer at 13:55 of the third period) and then Fehr. It’s rare that Boston defensemen ever get their doors blown off in such fashion. “One guy beats two guys,’’ a bewildered Julien said of Fehr’s winner. “It says a lot.’’
OK, so what to do?
Don’t look for anything radical, even with the downsized season’s midpoint and the trade deadline (April 3) fast approaching. The Bruins didn’t become a bad team over the course of 72 hours. They will breeze into a playoff berth and they have the roster strength and game discipline to make a decent run at a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
Julien’s first point, lack of finish, has been an issue all season, especially on the power play (1 for 2 against the Capitals and a respectable 3 for 9 over the last three games). It is not a lineup of gifted goal scorers, exhibit A being Brad Marchand topping the list with 12. Marchand is a lot of things, but finesse isn’t one of them. That’s also true of top-line left winger Milan Lucic, hardly the definition of grace on skates.
Boston’s top three “touch’’ scorers are wingers Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton, and Rich Peverley, and they have combined for a modest 15 goals. All three should be significantly better, and can be, but it looks as if Julien now must tinker with his lines to try to summon that pop.
Which brings us to that underperforming third line, with Peverley on the right side and Kelly in the middle. For the most part, they’ve ridden all season with Bourque (18 games, 1-3—4). Daniel Paille, the fourth-line stalwart left wing, slipped into Bourque’s spot on that line and his speed benefited Kelly and Peverley. It wouldn’t be surprising to find Paille there against the Leafs, with Bourque yanked from the lineup or switched to Paille’s spot with grinders Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton. If Bourque is yanked, then Jay Pandolfo or Lane MacDermid could assume fourth-line duty.
As for the Hamilton-Seidenberg 7-10 split combo, that’s a more complex issue.
Hamilton, the splendid rookie, is the club’s highest-scoring defenseman. He picked up his third goal Tuesday and is now 3-9—12 in 20 games. He is also minus-3, the only “minus’’ member of the Boston defensive corps other than spare part Aaron Johnson (four games, minus-2).
In some ways, Hamilton has been a force fit as a top-four defenseman. If his offense and puck-moving weren’t so coveted, he no doubt would have eased into the NHL life on a third pairing, averaging maybe 12-14 minutes per game.
Hamilton is gifted and eager, just as Boston management is eager for his offensive gifts to blossom, and because of that his average ice time stands at 17:18. He plays much of the time with steady veteran Seidenberg (23:26), and most nights that’s fine. The Capitals exploited that pairing, however, and other clubs will hope to do the same. If opponents are successful at doing that, it could turn into a problem in a hurry.
For a fix, general manager Peter Chiarelli might look to acquire a veteran, top-four blue liner prior to the deadline. Easier to say than do, of course. But Seidenberg with a different partner would put less pressure on Hamilton, whose even-strength duties would have him likely aside Andrew Ference, while Adam McQuaid would be the odd man out. The Ference-McQuaid pairing also has struggled of late. Hamilton would be far less burdened on a third pair, and he would still be available for power-play duty. If the Bruins were behind in a game, in need of a goal late, then Julien could put him back with Seidenberg in hopes that they could help push the puck.
A day away
After watching his team play three games in four days, and go 1-1-1, Julien called off Wednesday’s practice. Everyone will report to the Garden Thursday morning for the customary day-of-game skate before taking on the Leafs at 7 p.m. . . . The Leafs took on Ottawa Wednesday night in Toronto. They likely will not skate Thursday morning on Causeway Street . . . He may not be known for his hands, but Marchand now has a three-game point streak, 2-3—5 . . . Tuukka Rask, in net for the losses to Montreal and Washington, most likely will start against Toronto, and probably again Saturday with the Flyers in Boston for a 1 p.m. matinee . . . With Toronto’s recent dismissal of Brian Burke as GM, ex-Maine Black Bear Dave Nonis moved up to the top management job. Ex-Bruin Dave Poulin moved into Nonis’s spot as assistant GM.