Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien’s postgame assessments underwent fascinating changes as his team’s weeklong westward excursion progressed.
Per The Boston Globe’s Amalie Benjamin, here is some of the skipper’s summation after his players perked up at the 11th hour to top a lowly Calgary club: “We didn’t have to be that bad, let’s put it that way...Those first two periods were really tough to watch.”
That was this past Tuesday, when the Bruins were making their second of four straight stops in four different Canadian cities. By then, their lineup was missing six regulars in forwards Loui Eriksson, Chris Kelly, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton as well as defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Adam McQuaid.
The same held true for Thursday’s tilt in Edmonton, where they got away with another less-than-60-minute effort. Ditto Saturday’s road trip finale, where reality resurged in a 6-2 falter at the hands of a more potent Vancouver squad.
Following that loss, which cut off a four-game winning streak, Julien summed up the journey to NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley: “I can’t say enough honestly about how our guys battled through it all, and the score tonight is unfortunate because it wasn’t indicative of our effort and the character and the guts our guys showed.”
Because he was resorting to stand-ins for one-third of his skaters, Julien should be relatively safe from cop-out accusations. Still, even if Saturday’s result was not indicative of Boston’s effort, it is a hint of delayed hardship picking up decibels as it declares its presence.
Self-imposed adversity or not, the main reason that Boston cultivated its third and fourth straight win in the middle of the past week was the comparatively weak opponents.
Entering both Tuesday and Thursday’s action, the Flames and Oilers owned the two worst records in the Western Conference. They constituted each other’s lone company as the only Western teams with less than 30 points.
Just as they escaped detriment despite early hibernation against Calgary, the Bruins barely got away with a lax latter half versus Edmonton. After his team subsisted on an initial 3-0 lead en route to a 4-2 win capped by his empty netter, Jarome Iginla told Derek van Diest of NHL.com that “They played well. But we also didn’t have the same legs that we’ve had at different times and we got ourselves into some penalty trouble.”
Saturday was sufficiently competitive in stretches, but things crumbled for Boston when its backstopping backbone Tuukka Rask yielded one major blemish too many.
To start, Rask was likely as startled as everyone else when Jannik Hansen’s slapper from neutral ice brushed backchecker Zdeno Chara’s stick and skipped straight home for the icebreaker.
Three goals later, Rask’s night met an abrupt finish early in the third period when he let in Yannick Weber’s straightaway point shot, which swelled Boston’s deficit to 4-1.
Granted, one can partially attribute the multitude of drawbacks―especially the mortifying ones―to the fact that Rask had been battling the flu during the trip. That notion, however, does not dispel any cause for future concern but rather sustains the potential for additional letdowns, both for Rask and his skating mates.
Odds are that the rest of the Bruins benefited just as much from an extended respite to start December. In addition, it is safe to assume that the first half of their winning streak―victories over Pittsburgh and Toronto―was partially a product of fueling determination for redress after a loss in Montreal.
There will not be many more of those team-wide respites going forward, and a shortage of rest exposes one to illness and injury. The fact remains that Rask is going through another marathon as Boston’s top goaltender after a five-month sprint through the 2013 regular season and playoffs.
He logs more minutes than any other Bruin and had a shorter summer than just about all of his NHL peers. Those facts are not going away for the balance of this season, and he also has the potential for an Olympic rendezvous in February.
Before his illness, Rask had stamped some more characteristic numbers. Facing Montreal, Pittsburgh and Calgary on Dec. 5, 7 and 10, respectively, he posted single-game save percentages of .926, .933 and .963 while allowing no more than two goals per night.
What followed his absence from practice and sit-down on game night in Edmonton was a return to those wretched numbers versus Vancouver. He mustered a .826 success rate with four setbacks on 23 shots in 41:34 of action.
The more he plays and engages in extramural activity, the more Rask is prone to any combination of illness, injury and underachievement. That goes for every 2012-13 holdover, and it brings things back to the likes of Hamilton, Kelly, McQuaid and Paille. (Eriksson’s recurring concussions are a different story.)
As much as the Bruins warrant credit for refusing to roll over, the wins from the middle portion of their trip were mere bandages. Saturday’s unraveling was an open wound seeping through those bandages.
When and if they get every regular back and re-jell their depth chart, they will be in better shape as a group. However, the volume of noticeable ailments lately means the mass mileage that this team has logged since the beginning of this waning calendar year is having a turn at holding sway.
Between Jan. 19 and Dec. 14, 2013, the Bruins have played a cumulative 96 regular-season and playoff games in 329 days―just less than 11 months or exactly 47 weeks. They have 49 left in 2013-14, with February offering a breather for some but likely more labor for several leaned-on players.
This is not to issue a firm forecast of doom down the road. Rather, it is to caution New England puckheads on the possibility of more fatigue-induced ailments on the health charts and stat sheets.
The Bruins have already brooked a bout of that over the past week. Had they faced stronger opponents than the Flames and Oilers, the underachievement would have glared on their transcript with more authority.
As it happens, more struggling squads are ahead for the immediate future. Boston’s next nine games include another match with the Flames, one meeting apiece with the Islanders and Jets and two bouts with Buffalo and Nashville.
All of those teams are presently last or second-to-last in their respective divisions. Therefore, the Bruins should win most of those games with or without a complete NHL-caliber roster and/or complete 60-minute grind.
Their next western swing promises to present a greater challenge. To delve into the second half of their schedule, the Bruins will drop in on all three competitive California teams Jan. 7-11.
Just like the evolution of Julien’s recent postgame remarks, it will be fascinating to see how this team’s outlook changes between now and then.
Will the Bruins be dealing with more or less of an epidemic? And will they have responsibly kept their feet, such as they are, on the accelerator to stock up on insurance in the standings?
That is the least they can do for themselves. The next three-plus weeks do not figure to reveal much more than the middle of last week did.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.