If it wasn't this past Wednesday, it should have been realized on Saturday that the Boston Bruins are engaging in pseudo-playoff hockey. The tests are not going to recede in difficulty for the balance of the 2013-14 NHL campaign.
In no area is that more clear than among their green batch of blueliners. Four first- or second-year NHLers are filling in while Dennis Seidenberg nurses a season-ending injury and Adam McQuaid continues to combat recurring aliments.
Per the team's Twitter feed, the latter veteran had "a setback" that zapped any previous plans to dress him against the Washington Capitals on Saturday. That means prolonging a sideline stint that dates back to Jan. 20 and follows two others this season that cost him eight and nine games, respectively.
Meanwhile, a sweeping check of the latest post-Olympic stat sheets and game highlights points to unprecedented exposure of the youth. Boston has allowed nine opposing goals en route to a 0-1-1 record since bringing its full roster out of the cooler.
While this slump may prove a matter of rust in the long run, preventive measures for the postseason appear advisable. The March 5 trade deadline marks the final opportunity to accomplish those measures.
Sure, Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller might shake off recent developments and embolden their stinginess. That does not mean general manager Peter Chiarelli should passively bank on a best-case scenario.
A move to sprinkle more seasoning on the defensive corps—especially in light of McQuaid’s roadblock to recovery—would be a harmless precaution at worst. Even if McQuaid is healthy enough for the homestretch and playoffs, he may not be nearly as effective as he has been in the past.
Overuse and over-reliance on anybody can and will drain the currently active sextet—physically for all and psychologically for the unripe four. Take Saturday’s 4-2 falter to Washington as a warning.
While the Bruins are virtually safe in the way of playoff qualification as they currently sit second in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals have no room for error in the congested Metropolitan Division. They entered their Sunday afternoon tilt with Philadelphia one point out of a wild-card spot and four other teams trail them by six points or fewer.
Washington’s desperation, which is what all participating teams will need when the actual postseason commences, was self-evident and caught Boston unprepared.
Alex Ovechkin sculpted a 2-0 edge for the visitors with back-to-back power-play conversions. Bartkowski effectively set the stage for the second strike when he went to the sin bin for tripping Jason Chimera in the opening minute of the middle frame.
Later that period, Bartkowski brooked a one-point dock on his plus-minus rating, opposite Johnny Boychuk, as the Caps augmented their lead to 3-0. Boychuk botched a would-be lateral pass to Bartkowski off a center-ice draw, and Joel Ward pounced for the eventual game-clincher.
A less-than-prompt reaction on the part of both blueliners gave the Washington striker the freedom to stay a stride ahead and slip home a backhand shot.
Boychuk was working with Krug when Eric Fehr deposited a dose of insurance and finalized the 4-2 score midway through the closing stanza. New England Hockey Journal reporter Jesse Connolly singled out that setback, writing, “Torey Krug could’ve kept the Caps from taking off to the races. Unfortunately, No. 47 fell down at the offensive blue line, setting up Fehr to streak right down the middle and in alone on Rask.”
It was not the 5'9", 181-pound rookie’s only egregious blunder from the past week. Krug’s rating went down two points during last Wednesday’s 5-4 overtime loss in Buffalo.
Part of that drop was a consequence of losing a battle in the corner after the Sabres opted for a routine dump-and-chase in the tone-setting stages. Krug watched as Brian Flynn collected the biscuit and dished a textbook centering feed to Zemgus Girgensons for the icebreaker.
Flynn scorched Krug, along with Miller, for Buffalo’s third tally at 9:10 of the second period. That came within 12 seconds of Boston restoring even strength as winger Milan Lucic finished a two-minute sentence for boarding.
A goal in the afterglow of a special teams segment can be just as momentous as one scored during that sequence. The fact that there were two rookies patrolling Boston’s blue line at that point is nothing to overlook.
Yes, team captain Zdeno Chara was the lone defenseman in action when the Sabres buried the sudden-death strike. However, the bonus round may not have happened if not for a few of the Bruins' breakdowns in regulation.
None of this is to diminish any of the promise the various youngsters have flexed in previous outings. Krug’s offensive productivity (12 goals, 34 points) and Miller’s aggressive style, in particular, have translated to glimpses of a radiant future.
The fact is that the present is having its say at the moment and the odds are against the future showing up again in the immediate future.
The unseasoned portion of Boston’s blue-line brigade needs a measure of collective relief for the sake of finishing 2013-14 on a palatable note. Anything it faces for the balance of this winter and spring projects to fall under the "growing pains" heading.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com