After looking like they were poised to challenge for a spot among the NHL's elite at the start of the month, the Bruins have quickly trended in the opposite direction the past couple weeks, and they certainly picked the worst possible time to be mired in their worst slump of the season.
With just 11 games remaining in the regular season, Boston is running out of time to get things turned around and head into the postseason with any kind of momentum. They are struggling in just about every facet of the game at the moment. The offense, outside of the top line, has been virtually non-existent, the defense uncharacteristically porous, the power play impotent, the penalty kill mediocre and even the goaltending suddenly suspect.
There's plenty of work to be done in these last handful of games, all while trying to hold off Montreal for the division lead. So while the Bruins work at rediscovering their game, here's a look at a half-dozen items from the past week that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks in this week's edition of the Bruins Shootout.
1. The Bruins will face some interesting lineup decisions down the stretch. They are already scratching one defenseman since Andrew Ference returned from a lower-body injury on Saturday. Now, they'll also have to scratch a healthy forward up front with Brad Marchand's two-game suspension over. The interesting thing is that the usual suspects relegated to the press box — fourth-liner Daniel Paille and rookie Tyler Seguin — don't appear to be in jeopardy this time around. In practice Sunday and Monday, the third and fourth lines remained intact, with Seguin skating with Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley and Paille alongside Greg Campbell and Shawn Thornton, while Seguin also saw time on the power play in drills.
The extra skater was on the second line, with Marchand, Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder splitting time as Patrice Bergeron's wings. Ryder was a healthy scratch for the first time as a Bruins last week in Columbus and rejoined the lineup only after Marchand was suspended. Ryder had an assist and seven shots in his return at Nashville, but like most of the Bruins did little against Toronto on Saturday. Overall, he's gone eight games without a goal and has just one in his last 16 games and could be headed to the press box again.
But Bruins coach Claude Julien might also not be so eager to immediately throw Marchand back in the lineup. The rookie has no goals and just one assist in his last nine games and was benched for a bad penalty against the Islanders, only to respond with the elbow that got him suspended the very next game. Recchi could also be a candidate to get the occasional night off to rest the 22-year veteran, but Julien hasn't shown an inclination to do that yet. The coach has some tough choices ahead, and the guy sitting out might not be the most obvious one.
2. Julien's decisions on defense will soon get tougher too. Shane Hnidy is eligible to be activated from long-term injured reserve on Tuesday, and he appears ready to go after participating in full contact in practice the last few days. The Bruins signed the veteran last month for depth on the blue line, and recent injuries to Ference and Steven Kampfer illustrate how crucial that is. But they can't expect to throw Hnidy into the fire of postseason play after not playing all season due to a shoulder injury. He'll need to see some action over these final 11 games to have any chance of contributing if needed in the playoffs. The only problem with that is the Bruins are already basically in the playoffs, as they try to cling to the division lead and a favorable seeding down the stretch. Can they really afford to put him in the lineup in any of these games either? Julien will have to if he wants to call upon Hnidy when needed in the postseason.
3. The Bruins have excelled away from the Garden for most of this season but have been rather mediocre at home. Even after their disappointing trip last week, Boston's road record (23-10-5) is the best in the East and second only to Detroit in the NHL, while the Bruins are just 24th in the league at home (16-12-5). That doesn't bode well for the home stretch of the season, which mostly comes at home with eight of their final 11 games at the Garden. The Bruins are embracing the chance to establish a better home-ice advantage when the games mean the most, however.
"I think this is a great opportunity for us to get our home record to where it should be," Julien said. "We've got lots of game here and obviously some good challenges here. To me there's nothing wrong with what's going on here as far as the schedule is concerned. I think it's a great opportunity and we have to take advantage of it."
4. For most of the season, the Bruins have been remarkably consistent. After following a season-opening loss in Prague with four straight wins, Boston hadn't won — or lost — more than three games in a row through the first 57 games of the season. But in the last month, the Bruins have become one of the streakiest teams in the league. They rattled off a season-best seven-game win streak, then followed it immediately with a four-game losing streak and just one win in their last seven games. The win streaks are fine, but the Bruins have to find a way to bounce back from the losses and not let them snowball like their current skid, or their playoff stay is going to be a short one.
5. The Bruins play best when they're emotionally involved in games, but not all emotions are a positive for each individual Bruin. Goalie Tuukka Rask has been known to let his emotions get the best of him, most famously with a milk crate-tossing tirade after a shootout loss in the AHL a few years back. Despite a frustrating season, Rask hasn't lost it quite like that this season, but he did cause some waves with his outburst Saturday in Toronto.
Rask came on in relief of Tim Thomas in the second period and allowed just one goal. That came while being screened by defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, and Rask wasn't shy about letting Seidenberg know how displeased he was. Julien insisted that incident wasn't the reason he went back to Thomas to start the third period, but he did make it clear that he doesn't condone such displays which can put team chemistry at risk.
"I don't support that, and I don't think anybody supports that," Julien said. "It's something you don't want to see from anybody because it has a big impact on your team."
6. Late in the season is not the time for a team to be forcing itself to take on any extra work. The Bruins did just that on Sunday when their poor performance Saturday caused Julien to cancel a planned day off and replace it with a grueling practice. Even during games, the Bruins have been forcing themselves to work even longer than necessary of late. After having 24 straight games decided in regulation, the Bruins have had to go to overtime or a shootout in four of their last seven. The extra work hasn't been paying off, either. Boston was just 1-3 in those four games and they're 3-10 overall in overtime and shootouts this season. By comparison, they were 17-7-0 in that 24-game stretch without overtimes and 36-22 overall in regulation decisions.
A few early nights down the stretch won't just keep them better rested for the playoffs; they might just help them get a better seeding for the postseason.