Sleepy Bruins know they need to poke the bear: 'We have to fight through this'

Sleepy Bruins know they need to poke the bear: 'We have to fight through this'

PITTSBURGH — The Boston Bruins have been to the brink before. In 2011, they went to overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadians. Had the puck gone into their net, they would have fired coach Claude Julien. It went into the other net instead. They went on to win the Stanley Cup.

In 2013, they faced a three-goal, third-period deficit in Game 7 in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Milan Lucic said then: “You start thinking to yourself, ‘Is this the end of this group here?’ Because it probably would have been.” They stormed back and won in overtime. They went on to make the Stanley Cup Final.

Now here they are in a 1-1-3 funk, a point out of a playoff spot, ninth in the Eastern Conference, 18th in the NHL. Charlie Jacobs, the son of owner Jeremy Jacobs, the new CEO of the Bruins’ parent company, declared Tuesday that not making the playoffs would be “an utter disappointment and a complete failure.” He also said the Bruins were in “a constant state of evaluation.” He described it as “a fluid process.”

The Bruins need Tuukka Rask to return to Vezina-caliber form. (USA Today)
The Bruins need Tuukka Rask to return to Vezina-caliber form. (USA Today)

In other words, everyone is on notice – general manager Peter Chiarelli and his staff, Julien and his staff, and of course the players. The Bruins better turn it around again, perhaps soon, or somebody’s gonna be gone.

“If you like it here, you can use that as motivation as well to want to stay here,” Lucic said Wednesday before a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I know for myself, there’s no place I’d rather play than in Boston. For myself, it’s kind of a … I guess you need to use it as a wake-up call to get yourself going.”

Think of the Bruins at their best. They have a Selke winner at center in Patrice Bergeron, a Norris winner on defense in Zdeno Chara and a Vezina winner in goal in Tuukka Rask. They have others capable of playing at a high level, like Lucic and David Krejci. They have four lines. They have a deep defense. They have structure, and they have snarl.

Now look at these Bruins. Bergeron, Chara and Rask have not been award-worthy. Others have struggled, like Lucic and Krejci. The depth has thinned up front and on the blue line. The structure has cracked too often, and the snarl has not been the same. Most alarming, there has been a lethargy, a lack of passion.

“I think guys all want to win, but right now, it’s just little things we don’t do right,” said defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “It’s mental sharpness. We don’t execute the game plan the way it’s supposed to, and it’s costing us right now. When things go bad, little things turn into big things. I think it’s magnified. Every little mistake ends up in our net.”

Julien once called the Bruins a “Jekyll and Hyde” team, because they would look dominant at times and sleepy at others. He would like to take that back now, because the label stuck and it haunts him. Every team goes through ups and downs. But he had a point then, and the point now is that this is different. This is deeper.

“It’s just been longer,” Julien said. “I think our team right now is not so much Jekyll and Hyde. It’s trying to find itself.”

There are lots of reasons, including drafting, salary cap management, roster moves and injuries.

Power forward Milan Lucic has been mired in a season-long slump. (USA Today)
Power forward Milan Lucic has been mired in a season-long slump. (USA Today)

The lowlights:

— The Bruins traded Tyler Seguin after the 2012-13 season partly because of off-ice issues, partly because they didn’t want to wait for him to mature. To be fair, who knows if Seguin would have had the same success had he stayed in Boston? Maybe he needed a wake-up call, a new environment and a first-line center role. But he ranked fourth in scoring last season, and he’s second this season, and he turns 23 on Jan. 31.

— The Bruins have too many no-trade clauses and too little cap space. They had to let Jarome Iginla leave in free agency. He’s 37 and in decline, but he scored 30 goals for them last season. They had to trade Johnny Boychuk before the season. He was a top-four defenseman and a dressing-room favorite.

— The Bruins have played 18 games without defenseman Adam McQuaid, 19 games without Chara and 20 without Krejci. They haven’t had the depth to make up for the departures and the injuries.

Still, this is a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team in 2013-14. This is a team that is still ranked eighth in a leading possession metric (score-adjusted Corsi). This is a team that is still on the cusp of a playoff spot and has more than enough talent to get in, at the very least. You wonder if there is still some Jekyll and Hyde here.

Julien said he has actually tried to loosen up the players, “taking away the unnecessary pressure and frustration and trying to turn that into positive energy.” He doesn’t want them to do too much. He wants them to trust the system and each other. “Our system has always been our best friend,” he said.

“This year obviously things haven’t come as easy for us as we would like, but we have to do our best to fight through this and get into that playoff spot,” Lucic said. “We have to start putting a string of wins together and start feeling confident in our game as a team and as individuals, and once that happens, we know what team we can be. It’s just about finding that.”

Lucic has been to the brink before. He had seven goals in 46 games in 2012-13. He struggled so badly that he was a healthy scratch down the stretch. But he took the playoffs as a fresh slate, and he scored seven goals in 22 games on that run, including one in that epic comeback against Toronto.

He has six goals in 39 games this season. He knows the Bruins have to decide whether to sign him to a long-term deal, because he has one year left on his contract. He knows he might be the most moveable asset that Chiarelli has right now. But he’s trying to look at the new year 2015 as a fresh slate, to play with the excitement he did when he was younger, to stay in Boston.

“We’re lucky to have the guys that we do in this locker room because of the chemistry and the culture that we’ve been able to build over the last however many years,” Lucic said. “To have that type of chemistry and camaraderie … We just have to start doing it. We’ve been talking about the right type of things, but right now it’s just about doing it.”