These last 10 days at TD Banknorth Garden were supposed to be a reward, the early Christmas present for surviving a grinding stretch of nine roadies in 10 games during which the Bruins posted a 6-3-1-0 record.
But yesterday, after a 4-1 loss to St. Louis before 14,200 fans, the Bruins scurried out of town with a 1-3-0-1 record in their last five games at the Garden.
"Obviously, we want more points at home," said P.J. Axelsson. "That's for sure."
It has been a startling downward spike for the Bruins, who returned home after their road trip with aims of separating themselves from their Eastern Conference competition. But a string of injuries - Aaron Ward (broken left foot) being the latest casualty - has left coach Claude Julien with a battered lineup that's missing two key defensemen (Andrew Alberts sat out yesterday) and the two season-starting alternate captains, Patrice Bergeron and Glen Murray.
Yesterday, Julien was forced to play three rookies - Milan Lucic, Vladimir Sobotka, and Petteri Nokelainen - up front, while 21-year-old Matt Lashoff, called up Friday, appeared in his second NHL game of the season on the back end.
But perhaps more concerning than the team's inexperience is the fatigue that's starting to show in Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, and Marc Savard, three players who have been tapped to jack up their contributions.
Chara (33:01 of ice time) came out of the loss with a minus-4 rating, while Wideman (32:16) and Savard (24:17) were on the ice for two St. Louis goals. Chara and Wideman rolled over the boards a combined 56 times, but the fifth and sixth defensemen - Lashoff (5:40) and Bobby Allen (5:50) - hit the ice for only 13 total shifts.
"Absolutely, there is a worry," Julien said of the increased workloads. "I think it showed [against the Blues]. We are in that situation where guys are logging a lot of ice time. It's going to be important for those guys to do less but to do better and simplify their games. That way, they can kind of last this situation out."
In the first period, St. Louis right winger Lee Stempniak used Chara as a screen and whistled an off-wing wrister over Tim Thomas (25 saves), picking the top-right corner at 11:56 to give his club a 1-0 lead.
Then, with 2:20 remaining in the second period, ex-Bruin Brad Boyes netted the winning goal. Forward Jay McClement slid a pass between Chara's skates to Boyes, who slammed a shot past Thomas for his 21st strike.
Chara got the goal back in the third period to make it a 2-1 game. With forward Dwayne King in the penalty box for tripping, Chara went back door on the power play after Axelsson had the puck in the opposite corner. The Blues clogged up the middle to prevent a cross-crease feed, so Axelsson slid a pass to the point for Wideman, who put a shot on goal. Chara, still parked at the left post, found the rebound of Wideman's shot and shoveled it past goalie Manny Legace at 7:10 for his fifth goal.
But any momentum the Bruins might have built was snuffed out when Savard was called for slashing at 16:41. St. Louis defenseman Erik Johnson was called for tripping just 11 seconds later, wiping out the power play, but the Blues scored during the four-on-four situation.
Chara was on the bad end of the game-sealing strike. First, Chara's shot from the right point was blocked by Ryan Johnson. The St. Louis forward took off, starting a two-on-one rush against a backtracking Chara. Johnson found forward Jamal Mayers trailing the play and fed his teammate for St. Louis's third goal at 17:02. Keith Tkachuk added an empty-netter with 41.8 seconds remaining in regulation.
"The toughest thing we did was getting down a couple goals," said Lucic, who battled Barret Jackman in an extended second-period fight, putting an end to the scrap with several rights while pulling in the defenseman with his left hand. "We made it close by making it 2-1 and had a big push, but it wasn't enough. We've got to get back to having good starts like we did at the start of the season."