Commentary

Effort is there, but not the goals

Bedraggled Bruins need a break -- in more ways than one

Updated: February 3, 2010, 12:52 AM ET
By Matt Kalman | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Those ridiculous screams for Bruins coach Claude Julien's head were reduced to murmurs by Boston's performances in two hard-fought losses this weekend.

They should be completely silenced now, even though the Bruins' losing streak stretched to eight games with a 4-1 loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals Tuesday night at TD Garden.

You fire coaches when players lose faith in the system and stop playing within it, or when the bench boss' words start to fall on deaf ears. If anything, the Bruins are relying too heavily on the system in which they have undying belief. How else to explain Matt Hunwick's egregious decision to pass the puck with his backhand back around his own net rather than shoot it out, a turnover the Capitals converted into the go-ahead goal 5:04 into the third period.

In that situation, no matter what the game plan is, a player has to realize that when a player such as Washington's Alexander Semin is on the ice, the puck has to be moved forward.

Alexander Semin, Matt Hunwick
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaThis puck gets away from Washington's Alexander Semin as he's hit by Matt Hunwick, but Semin later would convert a Hunwick turnover in the third period for the go-ahead goal.

"Obviously I think I've replayed that about 100 times in my head," Hunwick said. "If I could redo it, I would just shoot it off the glass and let our forwards go chase it and not go back with it there. After I blocked a shot, I controlled it for a second and I just wanted to keep puck control for us. I wanted to keep possession and not just fire it off the glass, but obviously, in the third period, that's the safer play."

If the Bruins' past three outings have proved one thing -- other than the fact that general manager Peter Chiarelli should be offering up everything but Toronto's first-round pick to acquire someone who can insert puck into net -- it's that the Bruins buy into Julien's system and want to play hard for him. Maybe their attempts to keep him out of the line of fire are throwing them off kilter. Maybe they could use a "mental health" day.

It all started in Buffalo, where they outshot the division-leading Sabres 31-23 and outchanced them by a decent margin, but couldn't solve Olympic goaltender Ryan Miller. The next night, they outshot Los Angeles 33-29 and at worst matched the Kings chance for chance en route to a shootout loss.

Tuesday night, the Bruins outshot Washington 42-26, hit a couple of posts and missed by a hair on a penalty shot by David Krejci. The Bruins' second-line center led the frustration brigade not only with seven shots on net (he scored the lone Boston goal) but also with one shot blocked and two that missed the net. In all the areas in which one can quantify hard work -- 23 hits, six power plays earned -- the Bruins proved they're sufficiently motivated and ready to play.

Physical and mental breakdowns can be killers, especially against a team that set a new franchise record with its 11th straight win and is built around a guy who just earned player of the month honors with 25 points in 16 games (Alex Ovechkin). But everything would be a lot easier if the Bruins could finish off even a third of their golden scoring opportunities. And, of course, that has nothing to do with coaching.

It might have to do with practicing.

"How else? Sometimes it just happens, it just goes in," said Krejci, who noted he would have a tough time sleeping Tuesday night. "But things aren't going in for us, so we just really have got to make sure every opportunity, every shot in practice, you've got to bury. And make sure something's going to happen. Things aren't going the right way for us, so we've got to change it somewhere."

Or the Bruins might just need to take a mental respite.

"I don't know if it's a mental thing, but sometimes when you're not scoring and you get that opportunity, you get a little excited and that happens," said Michael Ryder, who fired five shots on net in his best all-around game in months (and maybe the season). "I know that one that [Blake Wheeler] threw to me across, it hit the defenseman's stick … and I just wanted to shoot it but I had time to hold onto it and put it in. But it's definitely a little disappointing, frustrating. But we can't get down on ourselves."

Julien said after the game that he wasn't sure how he was going to handle his team on Wednesday. Anything more than a scrimmage similar to the one he let his players stage after a disappointing loss to the Kings this past spring would be foolish. As positive as the Bruins players are out in public, you can tell they're not having a lot of fun.

All we knew as Tuesday evening turned to Wednesday morning was that the Bruins had switched venues for Wednesday's practice from Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, Mass., to the Belmont Hill School in Belmont. Could there be a fun day awaiting the Bruins when they land on campus?

"From my perspective, I've seen a team that's working hard and that's getting some great scoring chances and, after two periods, there's no doubt which team was the better team tonight," Julien said without committing to what Wednesday holds in store for his club. "The minute they score a goal in the third, and again, with what's been happening, we kind of tightened up and it got worse."

Skating his team into the ground isn't going to make any of his players turn into Ilya Kovalchuk, Ray Whitney or even Chuck Kobasew. There's no doubt the Bruins need to lighten up, then hope the sight of the hated Habs from Montreal on Thursday is enough to get them back to business and remind them of everything they earned, with not just hard work but a finishing touch, the past two seasons.

The Bruins players have pulled their coach away from the firing squad by playing hard, and now they need to loosen up to stop their losing ways, regardless of the coach's decision about Wednesday's practice and beyond.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.

Matt Kalman

Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. He has been on the Bruins beat since the lockout for numerous publications and has been covering the Boston sports scene for a decade.

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