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The Boston Bruins had significant chances to extend their 1-0 lead in Game 5 after David Pastrnak’s wicked one-timer found its way past Semyon Varlamov. They didn’t.
As it turned out, the Bruins battled two teams on the ice, an opportunistic Islanders bunch and another head-scratching officiating crew.
Bruce Cassidy watched as his struggling penalty kill — without Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller — couldn’t bail them out. Yes, Chris Wagner, Matt Grzelcyk and Patrice Bergeron committed textbook interference, cross-checking, and delay of game minors. But the officials lacked consistency and ignored the same calls in the other direction. This as the crew assessed a rather soft minor on Sean Kuraly for slashing, providing the Islanders the opening they needed.
The Bruins had their spurts, from Pastrnak’s bomb to Brad Marchand’s highlight-reel second-period equalizer. They mustered a comeback bid in the third from three goals down, with Jeremy Swayman pulling a relief appearance for Tuukka Rask in the final 20 minutes. But it wasn’t enough, and now enter Wednesday’s Game 6 with their season on the line following Monday’s 5-4 loss.
“It’s obviously frustrating,” a fiery Bruce Cassidy said afterward. “We felt we were the better team and we didn’t win.”
Here’s what we learned as Boston’s season was put on the brink following a pair of frustrating setbacks.
The Bruins can look directly at their penalty kill (or lack thereof) and the missed opportunities as the turning point from an X’s and O’s standpoint.
Yet, Cassidy couldn’t help but acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or, for a more appropriate zoo analogy, the zebras on the ice.
It took more than two hands to count the missed infractions on Monday. The Bruins clearly didn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often than not. And yes, they committed their own obvious penalties, like Grzelcyk’s cross-check on Leo Komarov in the slot, Wagner’s high stick on Barzal, and Bergeron shooting the puck over the glass. But for every call on the Bruins, the Islanders officiating crew ignored the rather clear calls on the likes of Casey Cizikas — following a knee-on-knee collision with Pastrnak — an Islander high-sticking Craig Smith and a plethora of others.
Cassidy expressed similar concerns on the officiating following Game 4. He’ll likely need to have his checkbook ready to pay the NHL following his extended referee quotes sprayed with a few comments directed at Barry Trotz’s club.
“We’re playing a team that has a very respected coaching staff and management who have won a Stanley Cup [elsewhere]. But I think they sell a narrative over there that it’s more like the New York Saints and not the New York Islanders,” Cassidy said. “They play hard and they play the right way, but I feel we’re the same way. And the calls that are getting called on us do not get called on them, and I don’t know why.”
Unlike certain teams in the league, the Islanders don’t necessarily pride themselves on embellishing. They’ve done it a time or two, sure, but they don’t make a habit out of it.
Heck, they were the second least penalized team in the league in 2021, trailing only the Columbus Blue Jackets. And in an all too familiar soundbite from Craig Berube’s comments during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, Trotz echoed that statistic with his response to Cassidy’s “New York Saints” quote.
Cassidy heard a handful from Trotz throughout this series. The latest war of words also factors in Trotz’s comments on Patrice Bergeron ‘cheating’ at the faceoff circle.
The battle-tested Bruins aren’t strangers to win-or-go-home scenarios. But they’ll face plenty of distractions as a heated Game 6 awaits in less than 48 hours.
“Maybe Game 6 will go our way and we’ll get the calls,” Cassidy added. “But we need to be ready to play. We have to be. It’s do or die.”
Rask did all he could to keep the Bruins alive in Game 4. He hardly looked like his usual self in Game 5.
Rask labored through the first 40 minutes as he missed some timely saves at a time where the Bruins needed it between the missed calls and the glaring penalty kill issues. He only saw 16 shots through 40 minutes, but hardly looked sharp with his nagging injury catching up to him at the worst times.
As Cassidy provided Rask some ‘maintenance,’ Jeremy Swayman made a relief appearance in the final 20 minutes. The former University of Maine standout stopped Jordan Eberle on a breakaway attempt in the very first career postseason shot he faced. He was hung out to dry on a defensive breakdown moments later with Brock Nelson taking advantage of the turnover to give the Isles a 5-2 lead 1:59 into the third.
“There was some maintenance that needed to be done. He wasn’t 100 percent, so we made a decision,” Cassidy said regarding the Rask/Swayman swap in the third period. “That’s the call we had to make between periods. I’ll just say [Rask] wasn’t himself. He certainly could’ve went back in, but we made a decision not to put him back in.”
Swayman only saw three shots in his first career playoff appearance. Even in relief, he was tabbed with the loss.
And now a goaltending conundrum awaits for Cassidy. The fifth-year bench boss right now expects Rask to be ready to go for another postseason elimination contest. Yet, his ongoing health issues could force Cassidy’s hand into tabbing Swayman for his first career postseason start.
The Bruins shouldn’t have any doubt in Swayman if he starts in Game 6. He helped navigate the Bruins through an injury-riddled stretch into a playoff position during the 56-game regular season. And he at least has one taste of playoff hockey, albeit brief.
But even as the social media circus and sports radio personnel share another round of hot Tuukka takes over the next 48 hours, Pastrnak and company still have faith in Boston’s all-time winningest regular season and playoff netminder.
“Obviously he’s one of the best goalies in the world,” Pastrnak said of Rask. “[We have] zero doubt.”
No matter if it’s Swayman or Rask, the Bruins need to clean up significant areas of concern, like the usually reliable penalty kill, come Wednesday. And surely, they hope to have a pair of reinforcements helping them out whenever they enter these shorthanded situations.
Carlo’s injury in Game 3 put the Bruins in a tougher back-end situation. After all, they played the first games of the series without another steady right-shot blue-liner in Miller.
The defensive breakdowns piled up as the Bruins trotted out only one righty defenseman — Charlie McAvoy — in Games 3 and 4. In particular, the usually stout penalty kill suffered a significant setback without Miller and Carlo.
The Islanders’ power play converted on seven of their thirteen chances through the first five games. Three of their man-advantage tallies came on Monday — with an assist to the officials — on just four shots in their quartet of chances.
The penalty kill frustrations came on a night of 5v5 dominance. Heck, the Bruins even netted one power-play goal of their own from Pastrnak’s third-period blast. But without the timely save from Rask and the failed attempts to clear the puck out of the zone, the Bruins found themselves in catch-up mode trying to make up for their shorthanded issues.
“We have to fix some things. Obviously, the PK, Carlo and Miller eat up a lot of those minutes. We miss them back there. We had some breakdowns we need to correct. Guys don’t have their abilities on it, but we’ve got to coach them up and make sure they’re better…I thought 5v5 we were dominant, but the PK let us down, and we’ve got to get better at it.”
Carlo and Miller skated after Monday’s pregame skate at Warrior Ice Arena. Clearly, they’ve progressed after sustaining concussions. But the Bruins hope for a much better prognosis from the training staff for Miller and Carlo. They’ll need them both — especially on the penalty kill — in order to force a do-or-die Game 7 for Friday night at TD Garden.
“We’re going to New York to win a hockey game and that’s all that’s on our mind,” the Long Island-born McAvoy said. “This thing isn’t over.”
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