Nick Goss

Why blown leads is the No. 1 issue Bruins must fix before playoffs

If the Bruins don't address this issue, it'll be one-and-done in the playoffs again.

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The Boston Bruins have a really good team. They wouldn't be tied for first place in the Eastern Conference standings this deep into the season if that wasn't the case.

But are the B's one of the top three or even four Stanley Cup contenders?

Right now, the answer is no, and the biggest reason why is they can't protect late leads.

This isn't a new problem for the Bruins, even though it's been front and center of late. Boston has blown a third-period lead in four of its last six games, including Monday night's road loss to the Seattle Kraken. They had a 4-1 advantage over the Edmonton Oilers last week and needed overtime to win 6-5. Overall, the B's took five out of eight points (1-0-3) from a tough road trip, but the inability to close games sticks out.

"You want to look at it both ways," Bruins captain Brad Marchand told reporters after Monday's loss. "You want to be happy that we had a decent road trip. There are some positives. We had the lead in a few games that we lost. But the negative is obviously that we lost those games and should have done a much better job closing them out.

"It's a little disappointing because we had an opportunity to have a much better road trip, that's where the expectations are. Going into the third period with a lead, you expect to win the game, and we have to. Coming down the stretch and into the playoffs, you've got to be able to win those games and close them out. We have to do better there."

The Bruins were 47-1-2 when leading after two periods last season. The next-closest team was the Toronto Maple Leafs at 37-2-5. Once the B's got the lead, it was pretty much game over for the opponent. But it all started to unravel in the playoffs, particularly in Game 6 and Game 7 of their first-round series versus the Florida Panthers. Most notably, the B's had a 3-2 lead in the third period of Game 7 and allowed the Panthers to tie the score with under a minute remaining in regulation. Florida won in OT to upset Boston and end its record-breaking campaign.

Fast forward to 2023-24 and the problem hasn't gone away. Even when the Bruins were racking up wins at a strong pace early in the season, blown leads were an issue. The B's are 25-1-8 when leading after two periods this season. Their .735 win percentage in those games ranks 28th out of 32 teams and is by far the worst of any club currently in a playoff spot.

What is causing the Bruins to blow so many late leads?

Special teams is probably the primary issue. Boston's penalty kill ranks 26th with a 73.3 percent success rate in the 11 games after the All-Star break. The B's are taking too many penalties -- 11th-most penalty kill time during this span -- and they aren't doing a good job defending the front of the net or clearing the zone. The power play has been even worse post All-Star break. This unit is converting at a lackluster 11.3 percent rate, which ranks 31st during that span. Only the New Jersey Devils have been worse.

Protecting the front of the net isn't just a penalty kill problem for the B's, it's happening in all situations. They've allowed the fourth-most high-danger shot attempts in all situations after the All-Star break. They've given up the seventh-most high-danger shot attempts for the whole season.

Thanks to their goaltending, the B's have allowed the fourth-fewest high-danger goals, which shows you how screwed this team would be without Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. It also shows you why trading one of them in-season isn't the best idea.

The Bruins didn't defend the front of their net well enough during the last road trip.

The Bruins also haven't scored at a high rate -- whether on the power play or even strength -- in the third period lately. Their six goals in the third period over the last 11 games is the second-fewest of all teams. Conversely, the 16 goals they've allowed in the third period during that span is tied for the second-most. Boston led the league with a plus-54 goal third-period goal differential last season. They have a plus-7 third-period goal differential right now.

The offense should be OK, even though another middle-six wing would be a good pre-trade deadline addition. But the defense, especially in and around the low slot, might not be OK. This is why the Bruins have to acquire a defenseman before the trade deadline who can kill penalties, block shots, and just add more physicality to the group.

It doesn't have to be a premium upgrade such as Noah Hanifin. A third-pairing veteran such as Nick Seeler, Joel Edmundson, Ilya Lyubushkin or Matt Dumba would be a meaningful addition.

The Bruins haven't let these blown leads completely sink them in the standings. They've shown good resiliency to force overtime in these games. The Bruins have lost seven of their last nine matchups, but they've taken one point from five of those defeats.

But if the Bruins are going to be a top Stanley Cup contender and win multiple rounds in the playoffs, they need to figure out how to stop blowing late leads and be on the attack in the third period. If the Bruins continue to play this way, they won't beat teams such as the Leafs or Lightning in Round 1.

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