- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BOSTON -- In every series, there seems to be one designated whipping boy.
That one, lonely, unfortunate player whose underachieving, faux pas or foibles make him a lightning rod for criticism and derision.
There was Marian Gaborik in New York as the Rangers bowed out in the first round.
There was Nicklas Backstrom in Washington as the top-seeded Capitals were swept in the second round.
There were the goaltenders in Philadelphia who imploded all spring.
And in Boston, there is Tomas Kaberle.
The Bruins, of course, remain a part of the playoff story, competing in their first conference finals since 1992. But Kaberle's tepid play remains one of the most perplexing stories of this postseason and makes the Bruins' attempts to advance to the Stanley Cup finals significantly more difficult.
Maybe it's the history -- the failed attempts by the Bruins to acquire the smooth-skating defenseman from Toronto over the past couple of seasons -- that has ramped up the disappointment meter this spring.
There had been much anticipation at Kaberle's arrival in Boston at the trade deadline. When GM Peter Chiarelli finally pulled the trigger on the long-awaited deal, sending a first-round draft pick, a conditional pick and prospect Joe Colborne to Toronto, there were some who thought Kaberle represented that elusive final piece to the puzzle in ending the Bruins' long Stanley Cup drought.
Now, he's just a puzzle.
With each passing game, Kaberle's confidence seems to be leaking out of him like air from a punctured balloon. Game 1 might have been the low point of his short stay in Boston, a stay which has produced few high points. There was the ghastly turnover that led to the third Tampa Bay goal, as the Bruins gave up three in a 1:25 span. Then, at one point during one of four failed power-play attempts, Kaberle wound up and prepared to shoot. Or was it a pass? Either way, the puck skittered harmlessly into the corner of the ice, far from any other player on the ice, causing many in press row to look quizzically at each other.
The Bruins went on to lose the East finals opener 5-2.
"There's no doubt he's pressing a little bit. I would say that because he knows what's expected of him," Boston coach Claude Julien said Monday as his team prepared for Tuesday's Game 2. "He knows what's being said about him and he knows all that stuff. At one point, you know, you hope that he's capable of focusing on just doing the job, and we have confidence in him.
"And we're going to work with him for him to get better because we're going to need him to play at his best if we plan on moving on here and winning some hockey games. So that's something that we all have to work with, himself, and us, and working through this together."
Whether it was conditioning or adjusting to a new team for the first time in his career, Kaberle's transition in Boston has been anything but seamless. Kaberle was supposed to help elevate the Bruins' special-teams attack, but their power play has been a dud all spring, scoring twice on 41 attempts.
Kaberle has become less and less of a factor at even strength, too, as Julien has slowly whittled away his ice time. After playing 20:44 and 28:04 in the first two games of the playoffs (both losses against Montreal, by the way), Kaberle is now regularly reduced to fewer than 20 minutes a night. Three times in the past 10 games, he's played fewer than 15 minutes.
Julien talked Monday about trying to help Kaberle get his confidence back, but he noted the journey back to an acceptable level of play needs to be a two-way street.
"It takes the cooperation of both," Julien said. "He's got to try and push himself to be the player he can be. At the same time, it's up to us to help him through that. He's got to have the confidence of our group here, and I know how well he can play when he's at his best. Certainly, him feeling our support is going to reach that."
It is a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma for the coach. He has to be careful of how much he uses Kaberle for fear of hurting the team because of his defensive liabilities. Yet, as Julien restricts Kaberle's ice time, it reinforces whatever self-doubt is clearly afflicting him.
When talking to the 33-year-old blueliner, it's hard to gauge where he's at emotionally. When asked if he's putting too much pressure on himself, he seemed to agree.
"Sometimes [you] take it too much [to heart] and think about it," Kaberle said. "Just go on the ice and try your best. That's what I'm going to focus on tomorrow. Game 1 is behind us and we all know we have to play way better. It would be nice to get a win and go on the road. We have a good team. We can play good on the road."
When asked to assess his own play, he acknowledged he could do more.
"I think I could play better," Kaberle said. "I would like to help my teammates more. That's how I'm going to approach it from now on. You just have to take it a shift at a time."
In many ways, this looked like a tidy little marriage; Kaberle was expected to bring a nice veteran presence to a blue line dominated by captain Zdeno Chara. He was expected to be a nice complement to the hard-working Chara. And after he agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Boston, the thinking was the potential free agent would sign a contract extension after the end of the season.
Now, Kaberle's inconsistent play may hasten the Bruins' exit from the playoffs, not to mention throw his own future into doubt.
"Now, I concentrate on every game and what happens, happens," Kaberle said when asked about his future in Boston. "It's something to consider after the season. I think this is a great team and a great organization; [there are] a lot of great teammates here and having fun with them. Hopefully we can finish strong and then we can talk about it."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.