A large portion of the Boston Bruins' success over the last 15 years has been tied to elite defense. It's a huge reason why the B's have won more regular season games (743) since the start of the 2007-08 campaign than any other franchise.
The Bruins are off to a great start this season, too. Boston enters Monday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets with a 14-3-3 record, and their 31 points are tied for the most in the NHL.
But even though the Bruins are in a good position as far as the standings are concerned, some worrying trends are starting to emerge defensively. And if these issues aren't corrected, we could be headed for another season that ends with an early playoff exit for the B's.
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The latest example of the Bruins' struggles defensively happened during Thanksgiving week.
The Bruins lost 5-2 to the Detroit Red Wings at home Friday. On Saturday, the B's gave up a season-high in goals and lost 7-4. The Bruins, in these two games combined, gave up 122 shot attempts, 69 shots on goal, 65 scoring chances, 31 high-danger chances and 12 goals. The 23 high-danger chances the Bruins allowed to the Rangers are a season-high and the most they've given up in one game since 2017.
“I think it’s a continuum,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery told reporters Saturday, when discussing the last two games. “We played similarly. Not willing to forecheck. Not willing to work for offense. And then the breakdowns defensively. We’re not giving our goaltenders an opportunity like we were before of stopping strong-side shots. They’ve got to worry about the weak side. They’ve got to worry about the back post. Unfortunately, our habits and details have kind of eroded on us defensively here in the last two games.”
"Did we sense this coming? We've been giving up a fair amount of chances," Montgomery added. "The East-West chances are something that we hadn't been giving up as often."
The Bruins have the league's best goalie tandem in Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. But no tandem is going to bail out defense as bad as what we saw from the B's this past weekend, particularly against the Rangers.
“It’s unacceptable,” Bruins center Charlie Coyle told reporters after Saturday's defeat, per Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald. “That team played a back-to-back and we looked like it way more than they did. And that’s not fair to our goalies who’ve been so great for us. We’ve left them out to dry the last couple.”
The Bruins feasted on lackluster opponents over the first 10 games, and they took care of business by winning nine times in that stretch. The schedule has been far more difficult over the last 10 games, highlighted by matchups versus the Red Wings (twice), Rangers, Lightning, Stars and Panthers.
Boston has been an average or worse team in several metrics over those last 10 games. The defensive issues aren't just a two-game concern.
There have been very few instances over the last 15 years when the Bruins have ranked 20th or worse in these metrics.
The penalty kill is another area that's worsened for the Bruins. It was the league's top-ranked unit with a 97.4 percent success rate over the first 10 games. The PK has been successful just 78.4 percent of the time over the last 10 games, which ranks 19th. And it's not like the Bruins have been shorthanded more often during these last 10 games. They're actually averaging 2:09 less shorthanded time per game in the last 10 games compared to the first 10, and yet the penalty kill is performing worse. The Bruins were shorthanded nine times in the last two games and gave up three goals -- two to Detroit and one to New York.
The Bruins' goaltending has saved them in a lot of games this season, and it's easily the biggest reason why the team is tied atop the league standings. Despite the problems defensively over the last 10 games, the B's still have a league-best .921 save percentage. But the Bruins can't expect their goaltending to bail them out every night. That's no way to enjoy consistent success, particularly in the playoffs. The mission is to make the goalies' jobs easier, not harder. And it's obvious that over the last 10 games, Swayman and Ullmark have had to work a lot harder.
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A two-game losing streak isn't a reason to panic. Fortunately for the Bruins, they've built themselves a large cushion in the standings. Around 75 percent of the teams in a playoff spot at U.S. Thanksgiving reach the playoffs, and Boston is well above the postseason line. The Bruins should make their eighth consecutive playoff experience barring a stunning collapse.
But the Bruins aren't just looking to get to the playoffs. This team's goals are far bigger than that, as they should be. If the Bruins are going to be a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup come playoff time, they must clean up their act defensively. The attention to detail needs to be there. The forecheck has to be more aggressive. The defensive structure has to be more disciplined. The penalty kill needs to make the simple play. Taking bad penalties can't happen. There's plenty of time to address these concerns, but improvement won't come overnight.
The Bruins haven't faced a ton of adversity since Montgomery became head coach. The last two games represent just the third instance in his brief tenure that Boston has lost consecutive matchups in the regular season. So it'll be fascinating to see how the team responds to two of the worst defeats of his time behind the bench.