So, the best is yet to come. Be thankful that they are in the playoffs. For lack of anything else to say, or hope, that’s what the Bruins were leaning on when they left the Garden Sunday night, fresh from another frustrating, hair-pulling, head-shaking, mind-blowing 60 minutes of trying to sink a round chunk of vulcanized rubber into a 24-square-foot rectangle.
“We’ve just got to bear down,’’ said coach Claude Julien, trying to demystify the mystification and frustration of his club’s lost offense, often because of good shots/scoring chances that never make it to the net.
“It’s probably more concentration than anything else. We’ve got to focus and concentrate on hitting the net.
“We can do it 100 times in practice and hit the net 100 times — we’ve just got to focus a little bit more in that area and hopefully that will solve part of the issue.’’
The new season, the Stanley Cup playoffs, is finally upon them. The Bruins’ 4-2 loss to the Senators Sunday night left them parked (or stalled?) in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, matched up with Phil Kessel’s Maple Leafs in a best-of-seven first-round series that begins Wednesday night on Causeway Street.
Had they scored a goal or two more when it counted, they would have finished second and faced the Islanders, which would seem an advantage, given that the Islanders are decades beyond their glory days (four Cups, 1980-83) and haven’t been to the playoffs since well before the Great Recession.
Boston’s finishing kick to the lockout-shortened 2013 season was anything but assuring or promising, no matter whether they were to match up against Klub Kessel, the distant sons of Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin, or the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Bruins went 2-5-2 over the last 2½ weeks, and only once (a 3-0 win over the sad-sack Panthers) scored more than two goals. They shot, but they scored only rarely, failing too often to capitalize on the fine netminding of Tuukka Rask — pinned for both weekend losses to the Capitals and Senators.
For their 3½ months of work over 48 games, the Bruins finished with a 28-14-6 mark, a hair under Montreal’s 29-14-5, which allowed the Habs to clinch the Northeast Division and face the Senators in Round 1.
The Bruins finished with 131 goals, for an average 2.73 per game, a sizable slip from the 3.00 per game they scored in the 2010-11 season, which they capped with their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.
Granted, a drop of 0.27 goals per game sounds like the splitting of so many carbon fibers, but such is the state of today’s NHL.
Goals are painfully difficult to manufacture, though the Bruins suffer more than many clubs when it comes to production. Of the eight teams to qualify in the East, for instance, only the Rangers (130) and Senators (116) scored fewer goals than the Black and Gold.
The Leafs, paced by Kessel’s 20-32—52 line (ranking him seventh overall in the league) finished with 145 goals. But consider their finishing kick: a final month in which they went 6-5-1, scoring 32 goals and allowing 31. True, they’ve got a little more offensive pop, but their defensive game is more yielding than the Boston brand. All of which means the Bruins will try to win a trip to Round 2 by grinding away with front-to-back defense and hoping that Rask can be at least as good as he has been since the start of the season in mid-January.
“He’s hungry,’’ said Bruins winger Shawn Thornton of Rask. “I know he wants this opportunity to prove himself.’’
Rask, originally a Leafs draft pick (traded here for Andrew Raycroft), will get the chance, likely making every start. That’s not to say Anton Khudobin couldn’t win a game, but it is to say that Boston’s best chance to advance is that Rask be at least everything that Tim Thomas was to the Bruins in the 2011 playoffs.
Remember, that team went to Game 7s against Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver en route to the Cup. The current Boston offense sets up a reasonable expectation that a Cup redux would necessitate four Game 7s. Et tu, Tuukka, have you got a little Thomas in ya?
“[We] don’t want to dwell on it too much,’’ offered Thornton, trying to add some levity to the dour conversation of Boston goal scoring. “[We’re] just going to probably sacrifice a chicken or something . . . a rooster. I love animals . . . I’m just kidding.’’
What the Bruins have proven again is that their power play will not be a threat. They scored on 1 of 2 chances Sunday, which by their standards is sizzling. That strike included, they went a woeful 5 for 46 (10.9 percent) on the advantage over the final 22 games, nearly half the season.
As bad as that was, more troubling was their penalty killing over the last two-plus weeks. Typically a strong suit, the PK was a bend-and-break 21 for 30 (70 percent) over eight games. So, while the Bruins were cashing in on the power play only twice in that stretch, their opponents were sticking nine in the net.
“Probably our biggest challenge going into the playoffs is the ability to score some goals,’’ lamented the ever-honest Julien, who showed greater willingness than normal to try different line combinations during the late-season slump. “If we can find that, it’ll make a big difference . . . at the end of the day, that’s the main thing that I think is hurting us.’’
Either they find it now or fold up. Bear down. Concentrate. Finish. Or go home.