Haggerty: Thanksgiving position reminds Bruins that playoff hopes are fragile

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There have been some encouraging signs for the Bruins through the first couple of months of the new season. 

The emergence of some key rookies to support the veteran core group, the skyrocketing breakout of 20-year-old David Pastrnak as one of the league’s most dangerous goal-scorers and Tuukka Rask’s rebound to Vezina Trophy form all serve as reassuring reminders that these Bruins are different than the groups that ultimately failed in the past couple of seasons. 

Still, the Bruins’ 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thanksgiving night was another harsh reminder that Boston still has a ways to go and could be in danger of again missing the playoff cut after falling out of the playoff picture on Turkey Day. 

“We’ve been a better team than that. In an important game like this, we came out with one of our poorest efforts tonight,” Claude Julien told reporters in Ottawa following the defeat. “I didn’t like the way we played tonight: the decision-making, the puck management. I would say there were a lot of no-shows as well and that’s something that you can’t have in this kind of game. I’m definitely not happy with the outcome, and we definitely need to be better.”

The Bruins could only muster a season-low 20 shots on net against Guy Boucher’s trapping 1-3-1 defensive system. Mistakes on the defense and in puck management underscored the absence of No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara with a lower body injury. 

If the many things the Bruins have accomplished in the season’s first few weeks have been feel-good, then the loss in Ottawa was the ultimate Turkey Day bummer for the Black and Gold. 

The loss can certainly be explained away by the absence of Chara, of course. The Bruins are basically a .500 hockey team without their captain over the years and it’s not easy for undersized Torey Krug to be thrust into a No. 1 defenseman-type role. Predictably, Boston’s makeshift top-pair D-men, Krug and Adam McQuaid, were on ice for a pair of goals allowed. Krug threw a rough, blind clearing attempt that immediately turned into Chris Wideman’s go-ahead goal after a deflection in front of the net. 

Combine that with Joe Morrow falling asleep at the switch for Mark Stone’s tying goal in the second period, and it was another reminder at the thinness of Boston’s depth on the back end. The loss of one of their top pair D-men immediately pushes other blue liners into roles beyond their ability level and makes the Bruins look much more like the group that struggled to a 19th overall finish in team defense last season.

This is not a new problem, but it’s concerning on many levels to know how much of Boston’s fate this season is tied to a creaky 39-year-old defenseman who has logged a lot of hard miles in the NHL. The early indications made to CSNNE from multiple hockey sources were that Chara’s current lower body issue isn’t a dire one, but it’s a fact of Bruins life that Chara is going to miss more time with bumps, bruises and injuries as he turns 40 this season. 

It’s really too bad because the Bruins defense has stabilized with Chara and 19-year-old Brandon Carlo forming a shutdown pairing and the rest of the group has filled into more appropriate roles behind those two workhorses. 

Perhaps the more concerning issue is with the Bruins offense. 

The Bruins rank 22nd in the NHL in offense while scoring a paltry 2.4 goals per game. Game-breaking David Pastrnak is really carrying a B’s offense with his 11 goals in 15 games this season. There isn’t enough offensive support around the 20-year-old wunderkind and that includes the tandem of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron that hasn’t been scoring all that much aside from the home drubbing of Winnipeg last weekend. 

Ryan Spooner has struggled with three goals and seven points with a quarter of the season in the rear view mirror. Krug’s offense isn’t creating as much now as he did before adding top-four defenseman responsibilities on his plate. We could kick around the perpetually underachieving Jimmy Hayes, with zero points in 34 games along with a team-worst minus-11 rating this season, but the Bruins don’t seem to care that he’s literally done nothing since last February. 

So, why should we? 

The bottom line is this: the Bruins have scored two goals or less in six of their past eight games and they’re not going to be able to rely on Rask’s superhuman act lasting all season behind a defense that’s still working it out. 

Being out of the playoff picture by a single point in ninth place in the Eastern Conference certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world. The NHL stats on the subject indicate the Bruins still have a fair chance at the playoffs as long as they’re within a handful of points of a playoff spot on Thanksgiving. They’re just a point behind a Blue Jackets team many feel is playing well over their heads right now. 

But the numbers don’t lie: since 2000, roughly 78 percent of the teams in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving remain in that position. Just three teams, Anaheim, Florida and Philadelphia, qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs last year after missing the Turkey Day cut. 

Last season, the Bruins were in playoff position at Thanksgiving  with everybody getting a warm and fuzzy feeling about it.  We all remember how last season ended: a 3-8-1 crash-and-burn tailspin with a regular-season finale loss to the very-same Senators team that was dry heave-worthy in all respects. 

So, all is not out the window with the Black and Gold and there is still plenty to be optimistic about provided their 6-foot-9 captain is back soon. But Turkey Day’s Bruins letdown was a sharp reminder that heartbreak isn’t far away with a team that is going to be living on the playoff bubble all season just hoping that it doesn’t burst on them again. 

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