BOSTON — Whenever things started to go bad for the Bruins last season, there was always one sure cure to snap them out of the doldrums: Find a willing combatant, shed the mitts and feed off the energy that ensued.
It worked when the club was in a December funk, losing four of five capped by an embarrassing emotionless loss to Anaheim at the Garden. The next game, Shawn Thornton dropped the gloves for a marathon bout with Atlanta enforcer Eric Boulton off the opening faceoff and a revitalized Bruins squad rolled to a 4-1 win to start a stretch where the Bruins earned points in 10 of the next 11 games.
When they had lost their first three games against archrival Montreal, they responded with an epic fight-filled night at the Garden in February that produced 182 combined penalty minutes and their first win over the Habs in an 8-6 triumph.
Fights were rare in the playoffs, but the physical play continued. And when the Bruins needed a lift once again facing an 0-2 hole in the Stanley Cup Final, Claude Julien reinserted Thornton into the lineup and his spark helped turn that series around.
But this year, opponents have seemingly finally caught on the fact that the Bruins play their best hockey when they are physically and emotionally engaged. Teams have been turning the other cheek, ignoring the invitations to drop the gloves and gladly accepting the power plays if the Bruins push the issue.
Thornton has all but begged for a fight throughout the first six games of the year. And not only has he not found a taker, he's now riding a career-high streak of 16 straight regular-season games without a penalty. That's not a stat you necessarily want from your primary enforcer.
On Tuesday, the Bruins' frustrations reached the boiling point as they were charged with 18 penalties for 82 minutes, all but handing the Hurricanes a 4-1 win thanks to two late 5-on-3 goals.
"I think people know that we like to feed off emotion and we have a tough team," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. "Teams just want to let us sleep. They don't want to wake the sleeping bear and that's all that's really happening right now. They're trying to make sure we sleep and don't bring emotion into our game."
So what is the answer if the opponent doesn't want to get into the alley war with the Bruins?
"I think we just have to bring it ourselves," Marchand said. "Create momentum from hard work and good play down in their end. Get the crowd into it and try to feed off that."
And just because the opponent isn't willing to engage doesn't mean the physical play has to stop. The Bruins have to stay out of the box if they're not bringing someone with them on a matching penalty, but there are still plenty of legal ways to get the team and the crowd fired up.
"Rough stuff is fine, it's a good part of our game," Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said. "This is a game where you're allowed to hit and allowed to be physical and even allowed to play with a severe edge. But it has to be part of a game where you're not sitting in the box, doing it all the time. Once in a while you are going to get penalties for being physical and throwing big hits and getting in altercations. They have to be part of the play and part of doing something productive as well. It's emotional and I have no problem seeing guys get emotional and get physical as long as it's not every night where you are behind and you are just reacting to frustrations.
"If you're mad at a guy and want to start a fight and he's not going to fight, obviously you're going to be frustrated," Ference added. "But there's other ways to get involved. There's plenty of opportunities to hit guys and go to the front of the net and get engaged in battles. The game allows for that."
The Bruins have to get back to that kind of game. And hey, if they keep finishing their hits enough, eventually it's going to be the other team getting frustrated. Then the opponents will be getting off their game, and may even be willing to drop the gloves. And that would make everybody in Boston happy once again.