Another off-season of uncertainty awaits for the Boston Bruins.
This season-ender didn’t come in a bitter Game 7 Stanley Cup Final loss or a nail-biting overtime affair. Instead, it came with the Bruins putting forth their worst effort of the series against an opportunistic New York Islanders bunch.
It didn’t matter if the Bruins faced the Islanders or the New York Saints. Very few players put forth an effort worthy of extending the season for at least one more game. Not Tuukka Rask. Not a turnover-prone Matt Grzeclyk. And certainly not the usually reliable leadership core.
Everything fell flat for the Bruins from the get-go. They managed to keep things even through the first 20 minutes, with Brad Marchand netting a power-play equalizer late in the opening frame. But they unraveled in the middle stanza.
The frequent turnovers in the defending end found the back of the net through two Brock Nelson tallies. The Bruins hit their lowest point of the season with Kyle Palmieri, who escaped a minor call at the start of the middle 20 after elbowing Charlie McAvoy behind the net, promptly giving the Isles a three-goal cushion off one of the ugliest giveaways in recent memory.
Marchand added a power-play tally in the third. He was one of the few Bruins who played up to the elimination game atmosphere in front of a hostile Nassau Coliseum crowd. As a result, the Islanders will have a ‘Final Four’ rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning following their 6-2 victory.
“They were able to win when they didn’t have their ‘A’ game,” Bruce Cassidy said regarding the difference maker of this second-round series. “A couple of games at home in Games 2 and 5 I thought they found a way to win. So give them credit. That’s what it was about this time of year. It doesn’t have to be pretty. They were much more opportunistic than us.”
Here’s what we learned following another disappointing finish to a Bruins’ season.
The Bruins rode Rask to the end
Rask’s nagging health issues became front and center heading into Game 6. The Bruins tabbed their reliable netminder, hoping he’d at least navigate a shorthanded defense — still without Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller — to a winner-take-all Game 7.
Boston’s all-time winningest netminder was hung out to dry by his turnover-riddled defense. Yet, he hardly looked sharp at all, coming up short on the timely save front more often than not. His shaky pass to Mike Reilly leading to Nelson’s second goal highlighted Rask’s Game 6 outing.
The calls for Jeremy Swayman intensified with every goal Rask allowed. Asking a rookie goalie to start his first playoff game with the season on the line isn’t ideal by any means. Putting Swayman in for another relief appearance wouldn’t have ailed the Bruins from the costly giveaways. Maybe it would’ve given the Bruins a bit of a spark, but not a complete turnaround.
The entire Bruins squad laid an egg on Long Island. Every Bruin made available to the media via Zoom — Cassidy, Rask, Marchand and Patrice Bergeron — echoed that sentiment as questions on the team’s future began its rounds on social media.
“This isn’t on Tuukka,” Cassidy said. “This was a team loss all the way down the line.”
“I think it speaks volumes of him,” Bergeron said of Rask playing through his injuries. “It wasn’t easy at times for him for what he was dealing with, but kudos for him for being there for us.”
Perhaps Rask wanted to soldier on after exiting the postseason bubble in Toronto last year to attend to a family matter. Every competitive athlete wants to play through pain in high-stakes scenarios like the postseason. If anything, the coaching staff deserved some critiques for giving Rask the green light.
Injury or not, Rask certainly didn’t sugarcoat his final outing of this unique 2021 campaign.
“I could’ve made a couple of more saves definitely,” Rask said. “I should’ve made a few of those saves to keep it tighter, but I didn’t do it today and the season ended. So it’s disappointing. But I battled and I tried, and I just fell short.”
No matter. The Bruins would’ve had their hands full with the Lightning again in the next round. The Islanders’ exposed Boston’s thin defensive depth once Carlo joined Miller on the injured list in Game 3. They’ll attempt to address that during another uncertain off-season.
Wednesday might have marked the last time we see a pair of battle-tested veterans in Rask and Krejci don the Spoked B for the last time. Given his polarizing status within the Boston sports landscape, Rask — who didn’t rule out off-season surgery — will certainly draw another round of heated discussions as Swayman lurks in the wings.
Has Boston’s Cup window closed?
The Bruins faced this question last year with Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara. They didn’t bring back either veteran blue-liner in the off-season as Krug inked a long-term deal with the St. Louis Blues, and the future Hall of Famer Chare netted a one-year contract with the Washington Capitals.
Chara — at the twilight of his career — nor Krug made it out of the first round. In a year of transition on the back-end, the Bruins finally had their ideal defensive core intact for the postseason, only to lose Miller and Carlo at the worst time possible.
After years of failed drafting and developing on the back end — highlighted by first-round draft whiffs on Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakaninen — Don Sweeney enters a pivotal off-season to strengthen his defensive depth. This as he faces important decisions regarding Krejci, Rask, Taylor Hall and the rest of the UFA’s, as well as an Expansion Draft protection list.
Bergeron enters the final year of his contract in 2021-22. It’s possible he and Marchand will be the last two holdovers of Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup squad come the fall. As another run ended earlier than they anticipated, the potent duo acknowledged the team’s closing window.
“It’s disappointing,” Marchand said. “We expected a longer run in this room. We felt we had a group that could go really deep this year. I think it just came down to a couple of breaks. They capitalized on a few opportunities that they got, and we didn’t on the other end. So I think there are games that we really outplayed them and came up short, but that’s playoffs. Things like that happen.”
“That core is getting one year older to the next, and it’s disappointing that way,” the 10-time Selke finalist Bergeron added. “You have a good team, you have opportunities and you know they don’t come often, especially later in your career, and you want to make the most of them. So, you take it a year at a time and see what happens.”
Barring drastic unforeseen developments, Bergeron and Marchand will return for another go-around. The next core of leaders waiting in the wings, like Carlo, McAvoy and David Pastrnak, want nothing more than to give the popular vets another ring before they hang up the skates.
Yet, as the window closes Sweeney has his work cut out for him as he addresses the thin depth on the blue-line and bottom six. This as the Bruins will return to facing the likes the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Habs and Panthers in a deeper Atlantic Division come the fall.
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