Last season the Bruins were both one of the stingiest and highest-scoring teams in the NHL, ranking first in goals against and second in goals scored. Their two-way game and goaltending were the main factors in their ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender and Zdeno Chara took home the Norris as best defenseman. But while both Chara and Thomas played major roles in the squad's balanced attack and success, the Bruins won as a team and lost as a team. So far this season, something appears to be askew. This has been clearly evident in the team's first five games, as they have been outscored 19-16 and hit the road Friday with a 2-3 record.
As head coach Claude Julien and the players pointed out following their 4-3 loss to the Avalanche on Monday, the Bruins seem to have lost their identity as a balanced team. Until they find it, chances are they will regularly be fighting to come back from early deficits, as they have in three of their first five games.
"You've got to get back your identity," Julien said. "We used to be very good at that, and until we can get that straightened out, we're going to have to battle and come from behind all the time."
Julien seems to be puzzled at his team's lackluster start and the uncharacteristic tendencies they've shown thus far.
"When you watch the game from upstairs, and we watch it from behind the bench, and you see those kinds of things happening out there, you just wonder what the thought process is at that time," he said. "It's very uncharacteristic of our hockey team. It's something that we have to work on and something that we can get better on."
Thomas (1-2, 4.00 GAA, .868 save percentage) hasn't been close to the All-Star he was last season and backup Tuukka Rask (1-1, 3.39 GAA, .883 save percentage) has been slightly above average, at best. But as Julien pointed out, this start isn't just because of bad goaltending, and it would help if the team in front of Thomas and Rask played its game a bit better.
"We can say that [Rask has struggled], but what about those guys in front of him that don't play as well?" Julien asked. "Why should we pick on Tuukka [and Thomas] and leave the other guys off the hook? There are some bad mistakes made up front. The poor goaltenders are always the ones that are pointed about because they're the last [line of] defense. Unfortunately, I think he was good enough [Monday against Colorado]. When I say good enough, he was good. Do I think he was at his best? No."
Forward Blake Wheeler agreed with his coach and believes that his team needs to execute its game plan and system with more consistency.
"We pride ourselves on defense and we are giving up quite a few goals here," Wheeler said. "It's not the goalie's fault at all. Tuukka and Timmy have kept us in a lot of games. They've done an outstanding job and we have kind of come out flat, so it's all about buying into our system. We talk about it ad nauseam before games and during games, and it's there sometimes, and when we do it well, we look great. When we do it poorly, the puck ends up in our net and we look for answers again. I think to a man, everyone has been kind of going through the mental ups and downs, and I think that is what is hurting us the most right now."
Defenseman Andrew Ference believes he and his teammates aren't paying enough attention to details, something that was a main ingredient to their success last season.
"One of the things that we did last year was figure out how to get that little edge and get those extra little minor details that mean winning more games than not," Ference suggested. "Right now I think some of those little details are things that we're getting beaten on by other teams. It's a very, very small margin, so it's just a matter of bumping up a couple of those little details. It's not complicated."
Complicated or not, the Bruins need to establish their identity again and stop being the NHL version of Jekyll and Hyde. It's still early enough, but there's no need to wait until it's too late. Will the real Bruins appear in Dallas and Phoenix this weekend? We shall see.