Thursday night is the Boston Bruins’ last call to claim a Carolina cupcake, something they whiffed on twice due to post-Stanley Cup hangover in October and once more with no logical explanation on Jan. 14.
It was that last meeting, a fall-from-ahead, 4-2 falter, that implicitly prompted head coach Claude Julien to tell the Boston hockey press corps, “Basically our whole game has slipped. We’re not to the point of being a bad team, but it’s slipped to us being a very mediocre team right now.”
Does that blunt assessment still apply nearly three weeks later? Thursday’s effort and result could dish up the answer to that because it will either signal the continuation or reversal of an unsavory trend on the Bruins’ itinerary.
Julien is still, by all means, supervising a certified bigwig. Boston is not and will not remain in the upper echelon of the NHL standings and most major team statistics by accident. But that fact only enhances the coach’s right to disappointment in a recent slew of subpar performances, particularly when confronting ostensible pushovers.
As usual, the NHL’s Southeast Division is constituted by a couple of basement-bound clubs and a race that will likely make the difference between first place and a postseason no-show. Yet in the month of January, the Bruins had one meeting with each Southeast squad and went 2-3-0, awarding a cumulative seven points to the adversary and being outscored, 19-15.
Two of those three regulation losses were against the last-place Hurricanes and the 22-23-4 Tampa Bay Lightning. The two wins included a shootout triumph over the Florida Panthers and a come-from-behind 5-3 victory over Winnipeg, two other teams who were below the playoff poverty line entering Wednesday night’s action.
As it happens, the Panthers hosted the Washington Capitals Wednesday night with the difference between third and eighth or ninth place in the Eastern Conference at stake.
Delving deep beyond the halfway mark of the regular season, the Bruins and four Atlantic Division teams all continue to have better winning percentages than the rotating Southeast Division leader.
If they were to simply flaunt the true black and gold against the league’s weakest division, the Bruins would decisively be winning their footrace with the New York Rangers for the best record in the conference. Consider the fact that they have interspersed their “mediocre” performances with an aggregate 3-0-1 January transcript against the Rangers, Devils and Flyers.
Save for the 5-3 loss in Washington prior to the All-Star break, Boston went 4-1-1 last against teams on pace to make the playoffs.
The two losses, one in regulation and one in overtime, were decided by an ill-timed and fatally sizeable lack of discipline. Vancouver struck four times on the power play Jan. 7 and the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik converted in sudden-death during a five-minute man-advantage Jan. 21.
The Bruins still bear the NHL’s most prolific offense with a nightly median of 3.54 goals, and that is hardly owed to body fat built on an autumn banquet before hibernation. They actually averaged 3.69 strikes per night over 13 games in January.
The once-peerless defense has stumbled down to fourth place on the league leaderboard with an overall average of 2.17 goals against. Dating back to the Vancouver game, they have authorized 3.27 per night.
But in three of those recent games, the Bruins were facing the second (Philadelphia), third (Vancouver) and eighth-best (Ottawa) offenses in the NHL. And whereas they have brooked 3.8 goals per game over their last five Southeast Division contests, they have allowed an average of 2.83 over their latest six meetings with clubs hailing from other divisions.
In addition, there is the Tim Thomas factor. The 37-year-old workhorse, who was in the crease against the Canucks, Flyers and Senators, clearly needs to assume the No. 2 spot indefinitely. He has let in three goals or more in six of his last nine starts and four or more on four occasions.
In terms of save percentage, though, Thomas’ two worst outings of late were in Carolina (.850) and Tampa (.867). Rask’s choppiest nights in recent memory were when he posted a .906 success rate against Winnipeg and a .818 save percentage in Washington.
That settles it. The Southeast Division is where the basis of Boston’s mediocrity lies.
Approach those teams like they typically approach the Rangers, Devils or most divisional cohabitants and neither the Bruins nor their backstops would have these pimples on their transcript.
Whether it has been through a win, a regulation tie or a one-goal loss, the Bruins have shown such reputable teams as Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Vancouver how good they can be. All that’s missing to improve Julien’s mood is an inclination to show the likes of the Hurricanes the same thing.