The postseason is a grind.
Ask any Bruin — or any hockey player for that matter — and they’ll likely raise their eyebrows, shrug, and nod in agreement. The potential for 60 minutes or more of hockey almost every other night, paired in between with travel to cities thousands of miles away, makes for a viciously prolonged cycle that requires players to be in peak condition physically, mentally, and emotionally for every game.
And, sometimes, the players just aren’t there.
On Wednesday night, the Bruins were outplayed physically, mentally, and emotionally in a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of their second round playoff series. Now down in the series 2-1, the Bruins muffed the opportunity to jump ahead in what would have been a best-of-five with a home-ice advantage favoring Boston.
We’ve seen this before: the symptoms of complacency from a team so talented that they should know better than to show up without any real desire to win. Matt Grzelcyk, an otherwise steady defenseman, misplayed the puck that led to the Lightning’s first score. The bungle triggered a night of total chaos for the Bruins in their own zone, capped off late in the first period when Anthony Cirelli was left alone four feet in front of Tuukka Rask to convert on his third straight shot attempt. In fact, had it not been for the Black and Gold goalie, the Lightning could’ve converted on even more. But Cirelli’s goal — the Lightning’s third of the night — was all they needed to secure a win.
The offense stuttered, too. David Pastrnak, tied for the league lead in points this postseason, was held without a shot on goal for the first time since February 24. Rick Nash and Brad Marchand had one shot apiece. Aside from capitalizing 29 seconds into their only power play of the night, the Bruins’ 5-on-5 forechecking attempts were some of their least inspired of the season.
And yet, the fact that Boston dropped Game 3 on home ice doesn’t elicit enough of a panic button push as some may think. We’ve seen this before, too: the Black and Gold built their reputation this season on resiliency.
The Bruins made a habit out of playing from behind in the regular season. Turns out the playoffs aren’t much different. The B’s are still a 112-point team matching up against an opponent with a slight advantage in that same column. As poorly as Boston played in Game 3, the Lightning are only able to claim one overall victory after all of the Bruins’ missteps. It’s a long series that’s still only beginning.
Of course, that’s not to say that the B’s don’t have pressing issues to address — they do — but don’t believe the sky is falling as fast as others may say.
Rask — Boston’s biggest concern going into the series — has been their best player, making key stops and essentially holding the Lightning’s potent first line to almost nothing. Jake DeBrusk continues to impress and Charlie McAvoy is finally finding his game after an MCL injury. What should have been the major problem areas going into the series are actually working for the Bruins. It’s up to them to start going back to what worked for them all year: a functioning fourth line that can disrupt opponents in their own zone, better puck management all around, and a dedication to keeping the game simple.
But for Game 4, the Bruins have to reload.
There are bound to be lineup changes. The once-sturdy third line of Danton Heinen, Riley Nash and David Backes is almost certainly heading for a split. Personnel could change, too. Ryan Donato could check in for a number of bottom-six forwards who have skated lifelessly the past two games. It’d make sense to reunite Donato with DeBrusk and David Krejci, shaking up a second line that has grown dormant in generating scoring chances.
Brian Gionta might even be considered as a safe, two-way option to slot on the fourth line. On defense, Bruce Cassidy showed patience with Grzelcyk by keeping him on the ice for his next shift after he misplayed the eventual first Lightning goal. However, he could make the move to dress Nick Holden for a more veteran presence.
Even though Cassidy has committed to the guys that have gotten the team this far, it’s safe to say he’s not afraid to adapt. He can’t be. The tinkering of lineups and reforming of set plays are all part of the process — a process that is arduous, even more so after a loss that sets the Bruins back another step in a seriously tight playoff series. Revisiting missed chances and could-have-been’s in May are a futile exercise often reserved for only the most dedicated.
After all, the postseason is a privilege.