PITTSBURGH - Their confidence has taken a hit, their roster is thin because of injury, and their scoring touch has gone from lukewarm to just a degree or two better than stone cold.
Happy holidays? For the Bruins, 4-2 losers here yesterday to the Pittsburgh Penguins, there isn't a whole lot making them merry.
"Yeah," said veteran defenseman Andrew Ference, who finished minus-2 on an afternoon when the Bruins carried a 1-0 lead into the second period, "losing is always frustrating. But it's still the same system we're playing, and we've won with these players. It [stinks] not having some of our top guys - but it would be a cop-out to say we're losing because of personnel."
"We work to score goals, and that's the fun of playing the game," added veteran pivot Marc Savard. "So when you're only scoring once or twice every game, yeah, it's frustrating. It weighs on you."
The loss, delivered on the strength of a pair of goals by the aged Gary Roberts, left the Bruins with a 1-4-0-1 mark over the last six games. In five of those games, they scored only once or twice. Now officially on holiday break, and also officially in a tailspin, they won't return to game action until Friday night when they face the Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C.
"It's not about saying it's OK [to lose]," said coach Claude Julien, whose No. 1 job now could be managing fragile, if not sinking, morale. "But I've told them, 'Hey, let's not hang our heads, guys.' We're in a situation here where we're in a lot better position (18-14-2-2) than a whole lot of people predicted. We've got this break now, and it's important we get some rest - I think that's what we need most right now."
Fresh legs and a sharper scoring touch no doubt would helped here in front of a sellout crowd of 17,060 (a record 31st straight full house for the flightless bird franchise). There was some promise of that in the first when P.J. Axelsson, working on a new line with Marco Sturm and Savard, potted his sixth this season at the 3:48 mark.
"It was a game of momentum out there, and they took advantage - a couple of penalties and a power-play goal," said Axelsson. "They just came at us in waves in the second period, and that's their style . . . they have the talent to do that."
On this day, though, it really wasn't Pittsburgh's high-end talent that dictated terms. The 41-year-old Roberts scored a pair of goals, and added an assist when the ham-fisted Georges Laraque knocked one home for the 3-1 lead in the second period. Dropped in between the first by Roberts and the third by Laraque: an Evgeni Malkin one-time bomb, a power-play goal that the talented Russian hammered home from the right half-board. It was one of those shots that all but sucked the oxygen out of the Igloo.
"What a shot by Malkin," said an admiring goalie Alex Auld (21 saves), who was beaten high on the glove (short) side. "I thought I had it. I got my glove on it, but obviously not enough . . . and to make it harder, he shoots a rising puck."
Laraque's goal, a goal-mouth tip of a Roberts shot, boosted it to 3-1 only 30 seconds later, and that all but ended it for the Bruins. Julien, already working with altered lines, further tinkered with his trios to try to wring some scoring juice. The alteration left Phil Kessel, his game again all speed and not much more, nailed to the bench for the final period. It was an obvious prod by Julien, who needs the sophomore forward to add some grit and determination to his toolbox.
"For a different look," said Julien, noting why he altered the combinations at forward. "You try to put players out there who you think are deserving."
While Kessel sat, rookie pivot Vladimir Sobotka received extra duty, and the broad shouldered Milan Lucic found himself working with first-liners Savard and Sturm.
The Bruins got a glimmer of hope when Petteri Nokelainen banged one in with 54 seconds to go in regulation, with help from Peter Schaefer and Matt Lashoff. But with 10 seconds left, and Auld yanked for an extra skater, old man Roberts put it away for good on an empty-netter. Sidney Crosby, limited to only one shot for the day, picked up his only point with an assist.
Last season, the Bruins rattled off three straight wins into the holiday break, and stood 18-13-0-2 on Christmas morn. A year later, their record is virtually identical. They need a jolt, and some help from the injured list, and they need it in a hurry.