For every small accumulation of momentum they’ve gained over the past month and a half, the Boston Bruins then take a significant stride in the opposite direction. They’ve only won consecutive games once since notching a 10-game point streak in the early portion of the season.
Bruce Cassidy’s offensive challenged squad failed to sustain a steady attacking zone rhythm. They encountered a steeper climb when Brandon Carlo — in his second game back — left in the first period with an upper-body ailment. Between the offensive dry spell and consistent defensive breakdowns, the Bruins found themselves chasing the game throughout the 60-minute tilt.
The red-hot Penguins never looked back after Zach Aston-Reese and Mike Matheson found their way behind Boston’s defense with their second-period tallies. They had a brief scare following Brad Marchand’s 14th goal of the season to put the Bruins within one, but an untimely turnover by David Pastrnak led to Jason Zucker’s fifth tally of 2021 shortly after.
Dan Vladar did all he could in his third career NHL start to keep his team afloat, but the Bruins left him out to dry in Thursday’s 4-1 setback. Here’s what we learned following Boston’s fourth loss in six games.
Boston’s veterans failed to lead
The Bruins need their reliable go-to guys to get them out of their rut. Marchand and Charlie McAvoy both provided some decent moments. The former cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 2-1 in the third period amidst the disappointing effort. The latter stayed physical and assertive in all three zones, highlighted by his solid hit on Aston-Reese.
The rest of the old-reliables, like Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci, hardly brought their ‘A’ or ‘B’ games. A struggling Pastrnak, in particular, hit the roughest point of his season Thursday night shortly after Marchand netted his 14th goal of the season.
With the Bruins somehow within striking distance, Pastrnak attempted to start an odd-man rush up ice along the wall. Pens defenseman Marcus Pettersson intercepted Pastrnak’s self-pass before setting up a 2-on-1 chance down the other end of the ice for Evan Rodrigues and Zucker. Rodrigues promptly delivered a tape-to-tape feed to Jason Zucker to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead a mere 1:53 after Marchand’s tally.
“I think at times we make it a little tougher on ourselves than we have to,” Marchand said afterward.
Some difficulties aren’t necessarily surprising with GM Don Sweeney opting for a younger lineup this season. Boston’s veteran core hoped to bring the younger players along smoothly.
But the Bruins encountered several rough patches since their 10-1-2 start. Cassidy needed his vets to help the youngsters along and at least stabilize some of the problems at hand. Instead, the experienced-laden group has left their fifth-year bench boss disappointed.
“I’m not frustrated with those guys. I’m disappointed that they don’t recognize the value of the puck and where we are in the game and that they haven’t stepped up a little more,” Bruce Cassidy said. “There’s no frustration with the older guys. They know what’s at stake — they’ve been to Stanley Cup Finals — so they know the way the game is played. They just need to respect it and play that way.”
The Bruins have dug themselves a hole over the last month and a half. Their care-free decisions with the puck against the Penguins slid them further into this ugly rut.
The Bruins have a thin margin for error
The Bruins outshot the Penguins 31-23. Those numbers hardly resembled their performance.
In the first period, the Bruins fired a paltry two shots on net. They found a little rhythm later on, firing seven shots at Casey DeSmith in the final seven minutes of the second period.
Thursday’s tilt proved the Bruins have little room for error. They aren’t built to exchange goals against a skilled team like the Penguins. In a game full of mistakes, the injury-riddled Bruins struggle to fully put forth a well-rounded effort even on their best nights.
Through his disappointment, an honest Cassidy hasn’t lost faith in his club. They’ve showcased resiliency before with thrilling come-from-behind efforts earlier in the year, albeit with a healthier lineup. Perhaps a fortunate bounce or two will help the Bruins trend upward and stop the snowball effect when the two teams meet again on Saturday.
“I trust this group to bounce back. They’re very resilient. We’ve proven that over the years,” Cassidy said. “We’ve had games like this where we don’t respect the process, and we don’t respect taking care of the puck. Good offensive teams kind of shove it right up, you know, and that’s what happens…”
Defensive upgrade may be a bigger priority at the trade deadline
Watching the team through the past month and a half suggests the Bruins might be better off selling assets at the trade deadline. Yet, with games in hand, they still find themselves sitting three points ahead of the Flyers and Rangers for the final playoff spot in the East Division.
The Covid situation provides significant uncertainty with every team at this year’s trade deadline. Couple that with the upcoming expansion draft and you have the 31 GMs across the league walking on proverbial eggshells as the buyers attempt to improve and the sellers trying to position themselves for future success.
The Bruins failed to address their secondary scoring depth and 5v5 scoring concerns over the last few years. Conventional wisdom suggests they’d aim for a top-six winger to finally ease those concerns assuming they’d enter the buyers market.
An injury-plagued blue-line, however, may make a defensive upgrade a higher priority, especially if Carlo misses another significant portion of the year. The Penguins exposed Boston’s shorthanded D without Carlo. The lowlight of the night came when ex-Boston College defenseman Matheson breezed past Jeremy Lauzon to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.
Without Carlo, the Bruins only have a pair of bonafide NHL everyday defensemen in McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. There aren’t many significant defensive names other than Mattias Ekholm rumored on the trade market. Nashville’s recent resurgence may prompt the Predators to keep Ekholm for the time being.
But David Savard (Columbus) and Vince Dunn (St. Louis) fit the Bruins’ build. Savard’s heavy right-shot presence would provide a suitable replacement if Carlo enters a murky long-term outlook. Dunn, a two-way left shot blue-liner, could give the Bruins a shot in the arm within their transition game. Both would provide top-four upgrades over the young defensemen currently on the roster.
Any potential upgrade comes with a risk. Sweeney needs to decide if it’s worth a shot to improve the back-end and the forward depth under these unique circumstances.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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