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Bruins not in trouble yet, but should play like they are

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  April 20, 2012 10:09 AM

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What the Bruins are being reminded of now is what the Vancouver Canucks were reminded of a year ago, albeit far later in the process. In the NHL playoffs, there are no easy series. There are no easy games. There is a merely a succession of tightly contested one-goal affairs that can often depend on the bounce of a puck, and leaving the outcome to chance can be dangerous business.

Let's hope the Bruins tell themselves this before they take to the ice this weekend for Games 5 and 6 of their first-round series against the persistent Washington Capitals.

Here's an alarming thought for you, folks: if the Bruins are not careful on Saturday and Sunday, the 2011-12 Boston hockey season could be over by the time you show up for work next week. How's that for a dose of reality?

As Globe hockey guru Kevin Paul Dupont has noted, the Bruins have led for just 14 minutes, 51 seconds in their current first-round series with the Caps. Boston's opponent, by contrast, has held the advantage for a whopping 72 minutes and 13 seconds since the start of Game 2 - Game 1 was scoreless before the Bruins won in overtime - numbers that deliver a rather disturbing message as we creep into the later stages of Round 1.

However passively, Washington is controlling these games, no matter the differential in shots on goal. (Boston 148, Washington 110.) The Caps, quite simply, generally have been dictating the style and pace of play, frustrating the Bruins in the process.

The good news? If the Caps have controlled the games, the Bruins still have controlled the series. The Bruins won Game 1. After Washington responded, the Bruins won Game 3. Games 2 and 4, as a result, have been virtual must-wins for Washington lest the Capitals fall behind in the series by a pair of games, the kind of gap that heightens desperation and is difficult to overcome.

And so, we wonder: Do the Bruins have some aversion to putting a team away when they can? Or does this all have more to do with desperation, urgency and the fact that human nature inspires us to do things only when we have to?

For the Bruins, as we all know, the pattern of this series is a significant departure from even the earliest rounds of last postseason, when they repeatedly dug themselves holes. They fell behind in games to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, 2-0. The subsequent series with the Philadelphia Flyers was a Bruins sweep, but the lingering memories of having blown a 3-0 series lead to the Flyers in 2010 were a variable that few postseason series ever possess. The Bruins seemed to treat every game against the Flyers like a must win.

After that, the Bruins reverted right back to form. They dropped Game 1 against Tampa Bay. After taking the next two contests, they held a 3-0 lead in Game 4 and appeared on the verge of a commanding 3-1 series lead before - you guessed it - they stumbled. Against the Lightning, the Bruins looked shaky in a victorious Game 5 and lost Game 6 before ultimately putting forth their best performance of the series in Game 7, a 1-0 victory that was virtually airtight.

And then, against the Vancouver Canucks, the Bruins again fell behind in the Stanley Cup finals, 2-0, and never led the series until they won Game 7.

The point? In the last two years, the Bruins have played their best hockey when they have absolutely, positively had to. They have seemed to respond far better when pushed. In 2010 against the Flyers, they led the series, 3-0, and then led Game 7 by the same score. They went to sleep and lost both. They did not take a series lead against the Canadiens last year until Game 5, then lost Game 6. Against Tampa Bay, they twice had the chance to go up by two games (in Games 4 and 6, the latter a potential clincher) and lost both.

See a pattern here? For all of the growing the Bruins have done as an organization, there is still more they can do. Last year, they learned how to win. But what the Bruins could still benefit from now is learning how to make things a little easier on themselves, particularly with an aging goaltender and following an extended playoff run last year.

When you get right down to it, even the regular season suggested a similar pattern. The Bruins came out sluggish in the first few weeks and then put the pedal to the metal over the next 25 games or so. Once their place in the NHL hierarchy was securely established, they went on cruise control for about two-and-a-half months. Only at the very end, with the playoffs coming, did they kick it up a notch.

If you interpret all of this as the sign of a relatively mature team, you'd be right. The season is long. The veteran clubs know where they can cut corners and cheat a little. Relative to a year ago at this time, the Bruins collectively have a far better understanding of who they are and what they are capable of, which is why nobody should be ready to sound any alarms.

Still, here's the problem with that kind of thinking: once you get to this stage, a bad bounce or hot goaltender can completely foul up your plans. In hockey more than any other sport, the margin for error can be microscopically thin. The failure to grab a team by the throat early in a series can prove terribly costly at the end, something the Canadiens and Canucks both learned against the Bruins last season.

And so, are the Bruins in trouble now? Not yet. Not really.

But based on their history over the last two years, maybe we should tell them they are.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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