Some cracks in the Bruins’ foundation
Defense hasn’t held up too well
Yesterday morning, just hours after being punted out of Canada with their seventh and latest loss, the Bruins regrouped at TD Garden.
Not a skate blade touched ice. All eyes were trained on the video screen in their dressing room. The Bruins watched the clips outlining the many shortcomings to their game, which stands in shambles just 10 matches into their Stanley Cup defense.
In the heat of the moment, players don’t often realize the mental mistakes they’re committing and the corrections that must take place. Yesterday’s video session served as an ugly reminder of how many lapses have crept into their system and how they have affected the first 10 games of 2011-12.
“A lot of times players don’t think they’re as bad as they are until they see it,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “When they see it, it kind of opens their eyes. We’ve attacked different areas at times and showed them. Today was more of the whole package. That’s why we kept our whole day on video more than on practice. They need to realize it before they can do something about it.’’
On the surface, the most glaring problem is the team’s lack of finishing. The Bruins are averaging 2.10 goals per game, sixth-worst in the NHL. In Saturday night’s 4-2 loss in Montreal, the Bruins rattled three posts, including two in the first period. The supposed top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton is responsible for only six goals. Zdeno Chara is the only defenseman who’s found the back of the net. Rich Peverley (three goals) should have twice as many strikes if he had the touch to convert his chances.
But the foundation of Julien’s system is defense. Everything flows from being stout in front of goaltenders Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, including the offense.
Team defense, more than their ham-handed ways around opposing nets, has been the Bruins’ downfall.
“Any time we’ve been good defensively, we’ve been able to feed offensively from that,’’ Julien said. “Which means that when we come back hard, we backcheck hard, all five guys come back in the zone, we [get a turnover] and we go up the ice together, that’s where our strength offensively comes from. We’re not a very good team when we stretch or try those long passes, because when the guy gets the puck, he’s by himself. We’re a team that relies a lot on support, chips, races, and stuff like that.’’
Thomas (3-4-0, 2.14 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) and Rask (0-3-0, 2.71 GAA, .906 save percentage) haven’t been the problem. Had Rask not stopped several point-blank chances, Saturday night’s game could have been a rout well before the third period.
Instead, it’s the scattershot defensive play by just about every skater that has prevented the goalies from stealing wins. Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the team’s defensive strongmen last year, have not been close to serving as shutdown players. The rest of the blue-line group has been below average.
That’s why opponents are getting so many good looks from an area foes seldom visited last year: the slot. The focal point of Boston’s defensive system is the net-front real estate, what teams refer to as the house. Wingers are instructed to collapse to that spot on the ice. One defenseman must be stationed there as well.
But forwards aren’t collapsing. Defensemen are roaming. As a result, what used to be a forbidden zone has become an underbelly softer than a couch potato’s gut.
“Hesitation happens when you’re thinking too much,’’ defenseman Andrew Ference said. “You can get trapped into the mode of trying to play too positional and trying to think exactly of where you’re supposed to be, instead of letting your body react because you know where you’re supposed to be. You’re reading the play.
“It’s a systems game. But it’s not strict X’s and O’s like football, where 10 steps in, you’re supposed to be exactly here. You have to read the game as well. That’s where hesitation can hurt. You have to play good systems. But you have to be able to read breakdowns and all that stuff as well.’’
When the Bruins are sound defensively, they limit the opposition to one shot. The forwards, who have come back to support their defensemen, then can turn up the ice and trigger the attack. Because they’ve come back hard, they have more time and space to rev their wheels in the neutral zone, giving them speed over the offensive blue line. Then they can follow their offensive blueprint: driving pucks deep, turning defensemen around, initiating the forecheck, and activating their blue liners to support the attack.
“This is what we are as a team,’’ Julien said. “This is what we have to understand. Right now, our transition game isn’t very good. We’re not all coming back. We’re using those long passes. Those long passes are getting there, except he’s got three guys around him and he’s by himself.
“That’s how our team is built. There’s nothing wrong with being built that way, because it got us a Stanley Cup last year.’’
It also doesn’t help when, as Ference did to P.K. Subban when the Montreal defenseman sticked him in an uncomfortable area, the Bruins retaliate and are sent to the box.
It all adds up to having lost seven games. That’s why general manager Peter Chiarelli is working the phones in hunt for a forward with shooting touch. And that’s why the Bruins are the worst team in the Eastern Conference.