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They’re not setting the pace

Playing catch-up isn’t Bruins’ style

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / March 11, 2012
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If there is an easy way out of this, we likely would have seen it by now. The Bruins aren’t bad or bumbling, but they also aren’t very good, all of which was on full display Saturday in their 4-3 loss to the Capitals at TD Garden.

For two solid, fair-to-mediocre, Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da months, the defending Stanley Cup champs have clunked along like a club with a playoff berth guaranteed, waiting for the postseason to begin. That is to be expected at this time of year, but they lapsed into this mentality in mid-January, a mind-set that clearly has their coach concerned.

“We have to pick up the pace,’’ Claude Julien said following Saturday’s loss, which had his squad down by a pair of goals by the 8:15 mark of the first period.

When asked if he meant “pace’’ as in leg speed, or as in mental pace, he said, “The mental pace.’’

After finally cobbling together back-to-back wins last week for the first time in two months, the hibernating wake-us-up-when-the-faux-season-is-over Bruins again arrived on Causeway Street with little urgency in their game.

Washington’s Alex Semin popped in the 1-0 lead at 7:50, Tim Thomas leaving a rebound hot on his doorstep. Matt Hendricks muscled in the 2-0 lead at 8:15, with an accommodating Joe Corvo failing to tie up or otherwise eliminate the veteran center from Thomas’s front porch.

Timeout, Boston. Two goals up on the board for Washington on the strength of a 12-3 advantage in shots.

It’s rare for Julien to reach out so early for the clock-stopper, but the time was right, his squad once again destined to spend the game chasing a lead. When the day was over, the Bruins stood 1-11-0 in games immediately following their 12 wins since mid-January. And the vast majority of those L’s were the product of allowing the game’s first goal and/or barely ever carrying a lead into the third period (only five times in 27 games).

“We had a couple of chances late in the game,’’ said the ever-diligent Patrice Bergeron, who, despite the loss, still finished plus-3 for the day, chipping in with an assist and winning 15 of 23 faceoffs. “But we have to find a way not to get in that position early.’’

“I can’t put my finger on it,’’ added defenseman Johnny Boychuk. “We’ve got to be ready.’’

Meanwhile, there is little in Julien’s bag of tricks that can break the cycle. With Benoit Pouliot (lower-body injury) the latest to go hors de combat, career defenseman Mike Mottau was pressed into service as a fourth-line winger.

American Leaguer Max Sauve was summoned after the loss and will be prepared to plug in for Sunday’s matinee in Pittsburgh.

The biggest boost to the front line would be if injured top-six wingers Rich Peverley (knee) and Nathan Horton (concussion) came back, but that’s not likely to happen until the end of this month at the earliest.

So, for now, they are the make-do Bruins and they are doing very little.

“It’s like when they scored those goals,’’ said Julien, reflecting on Washington’s 2-0 lead. “All of a sudden, we lost battles in front of our net. We talked about that before the game . . . if [the Capitals] have some loose guys around the net, they’re dangerous.

“The first goal was that . . . and the guy’s all by himself [well out of Adam McQuaid’s reach]. Second one, there’s a loose puck right in front of our goaltender and we’ve got two defensemen there.’’

In other words, Thomas wasn’t getting a lot of help. He also hasn’t been the same Thomas who last year was sensational throughout the regular season and then superhuman through the playoffs. Seven of the 15 losses since mid-January have been by one goal. Five others have been by two goals.

Even with goal scoring an issue of late, the Thomas of last year likely would have been the difference in a handful of the recent losses, and the Bruins would be pushing the Rangers for the top spot in the East. Instead, they have the Senators hard on their heels for the Northeast Division lead.

Consider: The Bruins scored 14 goals in their last four games, all with Thomas in net, and broke even, with two wins and two losses. He turned back 87 of 100 shots, well off his record-setting save percentage last season of .938. The four opposing goalies, meanwhile, stopped .890 of Boston’s 127 shots.

Thomas hasn’t been much worse than the opposition, but he certainly has been no better, and when he’s no better, the Bruins usually lose.

It’s March 11 and the clock has been turned ahead. The Bruins have more daylight on their side, 15 regular-season games remaining in their pocket, enough time to pick up the pace. But they are also overdue for doing something with that opportunity.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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