BOSTON – The Boston Bruins were notorious during the 2013 season for failing to close out games. It was their Achilles heel: give them a lead and they would find a way to blow it. The Bruins were looking to fix that tendency headed into the playoffs while also hoping to solve a magnified version of the same issue: closing out playoff series before Game 7.
Entering Friday night’s Game 5, the Bruins were 3-6 in the Claude Julien era in non-Game 7 close-out playoff games. This year, with a 3-1 series lead over the Maple Leafs, the Bruins had an opportunity to show they can win a series without having to play seven games.
Instead, they showed via a 2-1 loss that they still do not have that finishing touch. Following the loss Friday night, multiple Bruins cited their playoff experience as a way to learn how to develop a killer instinct. But, with their 1-5 record in non-Game 7 playoff clinchers since 2010, it was not surprising that few had any specifics as to what they could do to better prepare themselves for knockout games.
Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk came closest to explaining how to take care of business before Game 7. When asked how to prepare when facing a team on the brink of elimination, he responded, “You just be ready.”
The Bruins were not ready early Friday night. The first period was a mess for Boston, and the Leafs set the tone for the period early after benefiting from a tripping penalty on Chris Kelly. Before the penalty, both teams looked equally tentative, and the Bruins mostly controlled possession of the puck while leading, 1-0, in shots on goal. But thanks to a power play in which the Leafs attempted six total shots and put three on net, Toronto grabbed control of the game. The Bruins continued to hand the Leafs opportunity after opportunity in the period, allowing 19 shots while failing to find an answer to the Toronto pressure.
“We just weren’t prepared,” said forward Brad Marchand on the team’s slow start. “Maybe we thought it was going to be a little easier than it was going to be. They came out very hard and really put a lot of pressure on us, and we weren’t ready.”
Boston improved slightly in the second period and actually outshot the Maple Leafs, 17-10. The Bruins even had a great scoring chance when the normally reliable Patrice Bergeron had the puck right on the doorstep with a slot of open net in front of him, but he rushed the shot and took a bad one that Toronto netminder James Reimer was able to stop. Still, the Bruins did not look truly “ready” until the third period, when Toronto took a 2-0 lead on a Clarke MacArthur goal 1:58 into the frame.
“[The Maple Leafs] were a desperate team,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “It showed at the beginning of the game and we were down 2-0 and all of a sudden, we became the desperate team. Hopefully it doesn’t take the score to make a team desperate and that’s what we have to understand.”
But even as the “desperate team”, the Bruins could not find a way to capitalize on good opportunities. Rich Peverley and Kelly also had looks at open nets in the third and failed to get their sticks on the puck. A 2-on-0 down low featuring Tyler Seguin and Bergeron was neutralized when the puck hopped over Seguin’s stick just as he was closing in on Reimer.
Boston had possibly its best chance to tie the game at the end of the third period when Tyler Bozak took a delay of game penalty with 3:48 left to play. After the MacArthur goal at the beginning of the third, the period had been all Bruins as Boston outshot Toronto, 19-4, and kept play mostly in the Toronto end. The Bruins were primed to score on the power play.
But the power play only seemed to slow the Bruins down. The team that was averaging nearly a shot-per-minute only put one on net during the two-minute man advantage. Both Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr sent potential game-tiers wide of the net, while Zdeno Chara’s slap shot from the top of the slot was tipped high.
Thus the Bruins, unable to take advantage of opportunities to win both the game and the series in Game 5, will head back to Toronto for Game 6, still searching for that killer instinct. And while the Bruins did not have an answer as to how to play with a killer instinct in Game 5, Julien said the way the team played once it was desperate in the third period could bode well for the Bruins in Game 6.
“The killer instinct for me would be to play three periods like we did in the third period,” Julien said. “We’re very capable of doing that.”