On Hockey

Too many men aren't concentrating

By Kevin Paul Dupont
March 15, 2009
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The regular-season finish line is only a dozen games away for the Bruins, and yesterday they picked up their league-leading 98th and 99th points in a 2-1 win over the Islanders, their second win in a row, their 30th victory this season with Tim Thomas (tying his career high) in net.

Just dandy, isn't it?

Not really.

With the playoffs just a month away (the start line is just a stride over the finish line), the Bruins, with 70 games in the books, are lacking a few valuable commodities at the moment. To wit:

  • Their focus is inconsistent. Exhibit A: They were caught twice in the second period with too many men on the ice (somewhere, Dave Lewis was grinning, ear to ear).
  • Their scoring, like their shooting, is spotty. They popped in their first two shots on Yann Danis, then went 0 for 23 over the remaining 55:39, and again were stymied (0 for 2) on the power play. In their last six games, they have gone a relatively fruitless 2 for 18 (11.1 percent) on the man-advantage.
  • Their overall physical presence and play around the net are acceptable, grading out at about a gentleman's C, with an emphasis on the gentleman. They have enough of both to get by the non-playoff likes of the Senators (a 5-3 win Thursday) and Islanders, but they would be a risky pick against anyone in a seven-game playoff series.
  • "Pittsburgh's on a roll right now," noted coach Claude Julien, his Bruins scheduled for a 3 p.m. faceoff today at the Igloo. "If we want a good challenge, we'll get it."

    For the moment, almost inexplicably, they are their own greatest challenge. They went up, 3-0, in the first period Thursday vs. the Senators, only to need an empty-netter to be able finally to take a deep breath in the third period.

    One of their too-many-men infractions yesterday led to the two sides skating four apiece in the second period, aiding in the Islanders cutting the lead to 2-1 on Mark Streit's goal at 10:25. The Isles pulled Danis in the final minute, and with a little more touch in their lineup they might have sent it to OT.

    Good clubs, confident clubs, clubs ready to kick teams around the block in the playoffs, turn early two- and three-goal leads into confidence-boosting beatdowns. Right now, the Bruins take those kind of advantages as the first hint that their day's work is coming to an end, only to end up having to work far harder, and for far longer, than necessary.

    The playoffs are pegged to start on or about April 15. The Bruins would be best to consider themselves on 30-day notice. They need to get back the grit, concentration, and shooting touch that made them the NHL's hottest club in November, December, and January, or risk the indignity of a first-round KO, which would be a brutal blow to a franchise trying desperately to get back its pluck 'n' strut for the last 12-15 years.

    "This is going to be our big challenge right now," said Julien, "trying to get out of it, and trying to find that game, that commitment, to do all the things we've been working on all year to be second nature. Right now, we're overthinking probably a little bit."

    But not productively thinking. Witness the pair of too-many-men-on-the-ice infractions, at 9:09 and 18:34 of a dreadful middle period. Blowing a one-time slapper in the slot is a matter of poor execution, a stick passed too high over the puck, or improper timing. When an extra body comes bounding over the boards, it means communication has broken down or someone isn't minding his P's and Q's. Poor concentration.

    "Absolutely, and that's what I said to the guys," said Julien, who couldn't recall one instance of his club being caught for too many men over the first two-thirds of the season. "It's not about sending too many guys - it's the change, a one-for-one change that's costing us right now."

    When boo-boos are folded into a victory, no one much cares about them. But when placed in context with the Bruins' overall struggles of late, and their need to show they are playoff-ready, they serve as telltale hints that things have to be better, much better.

    "You've got to work with it," said Julien. "I think it's important, first of all, that you don't let the guys off the hook. Screaming and yelling at them all the time's not going to make them better. Those things sometimes can wear on players, make them nervous."

    The good news, beyond the 2 points in the standings, was that the Boston penalty killers snuffed out four Islander power plays, including 42 seconds of five-on-three action. They've killed 15 of 20 (75 percent) over the last half-dozen games. The Bruins also won 59 percent of the faceoffs, with Marc Savard, David Krejci, and Patrice Bergeron winning 27 of 43 (63 percent) at the dot. For the second game in a row, they got a lead and held it, albeit precariously.

    "Obviously, it's good to get a lead," said senior statesman P.J. Axelsson, "but at the same time, you have to keep playing. We haven't been really sharp. It's just that we get to that point in the game, maybe after killing a penalty, where we need that good shift to switch the momentum our way, and that's not what we are getting right now."

    Are they a shift away? A hit away? A big goal away from breaking through the fog that now hovers over that giant pile of points they built up when times were good?

    Still time to find all that out, but it's dwindling, along with their game.

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