The litmus test for the Bruins Monday night at the Garden was Carolina, which is to say the Black and Gold’s easy, breezy 6-2 victory, while an improvement, carries an asterisk familiar in the financial world:
* — Prior results do not guarantee future performance.
The ’Canes , with the loss, fell to a woeful 1-11-1 in their last 13 games, and have been outscored, 24-7, in their last five outings, which includes the half-dozen Boston posted (two by Brad Marchand) as its season high.
So, what can we take from this 60-minute Bruins mental health day? To be honest, not much, possibly a whole lot of nothin’. The Canes were without their franchise goalie, Cam Ward, and they also lacked the services of top forward Alex Semin. Right now, the Candy ’Canes are another of the NHL’s JV entries. Their continuing, if not harrowing, freefall led to a Bruins’ offensive free-for-all, which included, among other things:
■ Three assists by dependable back liner Dennis Seidenberg — both a career high in assists and points for the ex-Hurricane. Amid all that fortune, Seidenberg didn’t have to fire a single shot on net.
■ Marchand and four other Bruins, including linemates Greg Campbell and Jaromir Jagr, finished with two points apiece. The Czech ’n’ Mates line amassed a 2-4—6 line and rung up eight of Boston’s 36 shots.
■ After not attempting a shot in the opening 20 minutes, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton perked up and landed nine of 12 shots over the the final 40:00, and Horton picked up a goal with a deflection of a Dougie Hamilton shot for the sixth Boston strike late in the third.
With the playoffs now only three weeks away — 10 games remain on the club’s 48-game schedule — it’s the back end of Boston’s game, and how it relates to offensive pressure, power-play opportunities, and goals, that needs to be addressed most. We saw it again Monday night, especially in the first period, when the ’Canes at one point held a 15-5 shot lead and kept the Bruins penned up in their zone.
“You can judge for yourself,’’ said Seidenberg, asked to assess what was happening in back early in the night. “The first period, we were under a lot of pressure. And we couldn’t get the puck out with a pass play. We have to get sharper, support each other better, and everything else is going to come.’’
Overall, it’s about movement, flow, fluidity, an ease and confidence with the puck between defensemen and up to the forwards that Boston’s blue liners have demonstrated only in spurts this year. Without a quick, smooth breakout or transition game, the Bruins rarely generate enough speed to force the opposition into fouls.
Consider: In their most recent 12 games, the Bruins have been awarded a meager 22 power-play opportunities. In their first 12 games this season, when they bolted to their hottest start in decades, they had 46 of those man-advantages. It’s one thing not to score on the power play (the Bruins are a measly 1 for 22 in those 12 games), but it’s all the more frustrating and counterproductive when a club doesn’t move the puck well enough, or skate fast enough with it, to draw fouls.
The stagnant, station-to-station approach of chugging the puck up ice isn’t the whole of what has been holding the Bruins back of late. They have been without star pivot Patrice Bergeron the last 3½ games, and his absence alone has contributed to shot disadvantages in the last three games. It’s the first time this year they’ve been upside-down in three straight games.
They may not get rightside-up until Bergeron’s return. How soon for that? No telling, although one of his close pals said Monday that Bergeron, now recovering from a fourth career concussion, received encouraging update when he was examined Friday by Dr. Robert Cantu, the Concord-based concussion expert.
If “encouraging’’ leads to Bergeron getting back for the playoffs, it will be an important emotional surge for a club that needed such a jolt even before he exited the lineup.
Bergeron is among the game’s top 3-5 faceoff men, and his slick stick leads directly to puck possession, leading to time in the offensive zone, and to shots and goals. The pivots against the ’Canes were David Krejci, Campbell, a returning Chris Kelly (back from a broken leg), and Rich Peverley. They did fairly well, winning won 47 percent of the draws, with Campbell on the No. 2 line posting the worst night (7 for 19, 37 percent).
“I think as we stand here and we, not demand, but question . . . I’m going to tell you again, like a lot of teams, these players aren’t robots,’’ said coach Claude Julien, underscoring the truth and drudgery of a demanding 48-game season. “The schedule has been as tough as it could ever be on an athlete. We’ve got to be careful how hard we push those guys, because they are tired.’’
True enough. The lockout, and subsequent compressed schedule, has most teams bushed.
Such reminders read akin to the Surgeon General’s words on the side of cigarette packs. Something like: “Warning: the schedule agreed upon by the NHL and the Players Association could lead to dead legs and crushed dreams.’’
The playoffs are fast approaching. The little bit of improvement the Bruins displayed Monday night was encouraging, but the opposition clearly was not the stern stuff they’ll see at the start of May.
When the puck drops on the second season, they’ll need Bergeron for the front, and a different answer for the back.