Last Thursday, as they tried to pump up Bruins fans for the first of two must-win games against the Detroit Red Wings later that night and the Ottawa Senators Saturday afternoon, local sports talk radio hosts Scott Zolak and Marc Bertrand reeled off movie clips and songs to get their audience excited. Well ‘Zo’ and ‘Beetle’ here’s a clip you can open up with Monday morning as you dissect the on-ice 2015-16 Boston Bruins because in the famous words of former NFL coach Dennis Green, “They Are What We Thought They Were” back in October. Off ice though is a completely different story.
For a second straight spring, the Boston Bruins will be (if they do at all) watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs on TV. Thanks to their 6-1 loss to the Senators in the regular season finale Saturday, the Bruins had to wait a couple hours for their inevitable fate until the Philadelphia Flyers officially eliminated them from playoff contention with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. But did no one see this coming? Why is everyone so flabbergasted? If you’re one of the many who seem to think this second consecutive late season collapse is “shocking,” let’s take a look back at what should’ve been a predictable season if you paid attention to this organization over the last two years.
The Bruins began this season 0-3-0, looking lost and flat. They followed that up by going 6-0-1 for the rest of October, giving the early false rays of hope. They then started November by going 2-5-0 in their first seven games before bouncing back to finish the month with a five-game winning streak. Boston had a respectable 7-4-3 in December and as the calendar turned and the Bruins prepared for the 2016 Winter Classic against their arch-rival Canadiens, they surprisingly had a chance to overtake the pre-season Atlantic Division favorites for the division lead. But then…
The Bruins were a complete no-show on the big stage and in front of 67,246 fans and a National audience. This game would be a tell-tale sign of not only this team being what many predicted but also of a growing defect in the culture and make-up of the team’s collective ability to win when it counts. Now the season was getting real and so was the true identity of the 2015-16 Bruins.
Gone was the resilient bunch of 2011 and 2013; but there, if the still blinded by the shine of the 2011 Stanley Cup management, media and fans cared to see it, was the reality of where this organization started to go when they fell to the hated Habs in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Furthermore, where they went in the 2014-15 season when they became a mediocre bunch and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, leading to current head coach Claude Julien taking over the reigns and helping to turn the franchise around.
Boston followed that New Year’s Day debacle against Montreal with a loss to the Capitals in what would be another sign in the growing trend of losing to contenders and losing big games. They would finish the month of January at 5-5-1 culminating with a 6-2 loss to another contender in the Anaheim Ducks.
They then went 8-6-1 in the month of February and as the trade deadline approached, there was a swell of optimism that management should approach the deadline as a contender in the “weak” Eastern Conference. This was despite the fact that on February 9, in one of the most anticipated games of the season, Milan Lucic’s return to TD Garden, the Bruins were embarrassed in a 9-2 drubbing by the Kings. Or the fact that they lost to another Western Conference contender in Nashville with a 2-0 defeat to the Predators on February 18.
Instead, the team, a good portion of the local media and plenty of fans were blinded by the standings and a late February 7-3 win against Tyler Seguin and the now Central Division Champions, Dallas Stars. They ignored the fact that in typical fashion of this team, the Bruins lost their next game to the lowly Blue Jackets. But then came the real tease as to what this current team is and where they’re headed.
The trade deadline on February 29, saw the Bruins acquire defenseman John-Michael Liles and forward Lee Stempniak for a bevy of low end picks and prospects, and basically apply a band aid to their biggest weak spot, their defense, and add some forward depth. Yes, instead of trading an eventual 30-goal scorer — and an impending unrestricted free agent who everyone knew and still believes they’ll lose on July 1 in Loui Eriksson — the Bruins decided to take a 180 from the moves they made towards the future last June when they dealt away Lucic and defenseman Dougie Hamilton.
Suddenly, the team so many around the NHL, and to an extent themselves, said were in a soft rebuild mode, decided they were contenders to at least make it past the first or second round in the playoffs. Had Mr. Magoo taken over the war room on deadline day? It was just another telling sign that an identity crisis was forming within the management ranks. For the remainder of the season, that false sense of who and what this team and organization were when the season started and are now, took over.
The Bruins went 5-0-2 after the trade deadline and then after two overtime wins back-to-back at Florida and Tampa Bay, they found themselves sitting a top the Atlantic Division and the bandwagon was filling up while the young and inexperienced portion of the team joined them. Lost in this surge up the standings though was the fact that in those two wins against the Panthers and Lightning, the Bruins were out-shot a combined 93-65 and outplayed in both games. Even an 0-3-0 road trip against more contenders in the Sharks, Ducks and Kings late in March didn’t wipe the black and gold off the glasses of management and plenty of media and fans. But then, reality started to set in.
The Bruins finished March 6-6-2 and would go on to win just two of five games in April. They went 3-8-1 in their final 12 games and once again fell just short of a playoff berth, right where many NHL insiders pegged them to be. Again, “they are what we thought they were.”
Following practice this past Friday, and on the heels of one of their most complete games of the season, a 5-2 win over the Red Wings on Thursday, the Bruins, rightfully so, still faced some doubt from their fans and the local media as they prepared to play another essentially do-or-die game against Senators at TD Garden on Saturday afternoon.
When informed of the fans’ skepticism that the Bruins could have a repeat clutch performance in front of their home crowd Saturday, Bruins forward Matt Beleskey scoffed at those who possessed such incertitude.
“Don’t come to the game if you’re expecting a letdown. I don’t care if you’re there,” Beleskey said to the media with smirky chuckle.
Obviously Beleskey was putting on a strong face and trying to defend his teammates with that ‘us against the world’ mentality. His mistake however, was directing it at fans who had every right to expect that Beleskey and his teammates would follow up a great game with a stinker. That’s exactly what they did on the ice all season and that’s what they did again Saturday.
The bigger problem though, is that management and quite possibly with some influence from ownership, allowed that unwarranted bravado to develop within the dressing room with their actions at the deadline. They did so by themselves being disillusioned or in denial, veering away from doing what they promised when they fired Peter Chiarelli and replaced him with Don Sweeney as general manager last April.
Ironically, a year ago Sunday, Chiarelli, still on the job and likely sensing he was going to be dismissed, called an impromptu press conference.
“There’s obviously issues with the roster and there’s issues with the roster that have to be looked at. That’s where we are today,” Chiarelli said on April 10, 2015. “I don’t see the will. I don’t see the will, whether you want to put it as complacency or . . . I don’t see that push. I haven’t seen it. To me there’s a collective will and you see these teams making pushes and I haven’t seen that.”
It’s likely, as Chiarelli did then, Julien will pay the price this time around. But the onus is now even more on Sweeney and President Cam Neely put this franchise back on track to not let Chiarelli’s words from a year ago, repeat themselves and define the culture of this team for years to come. It’s time to identify what needs to happen to change that culture and do it. Stop holding onto 2011 and 2013 and move on. In honor of the late Merle Haggard…