Bruins Won’t Go Far Unless the Defense Improves

Coming into the playoffs, the Maple Leafs had gone 13 straight games without recording more than 30 shots on goal. The Bruins have now allowed them to post 32 or more in four straight games.

Obviously the Leafs deserve credit for creating more chances than they did in the regular season. James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have given the Bruins’ defense fits all series. Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski have looked dangerous at times. Clarke MacArthur has two goals in limited playing time.

Another factor is the tempo at which both teams have been playing. These games have featured a lot more back-and-forth action than you would expect from a series that includes the defensive-minded Bruins.

But that’s the thing. The Bruins haven’t been very defensive-minded these last four games. They were in Game 1, when they held the Leafs to 20 shots on goal and just 33 total shot attempts. It was easy to chalk up their Game 2 struggles to Andrew Ference’s suspension, which forced Claude Julien to change up his defensive pairings.

Ference returned and the Bruins went back to their usual pairings, but the defense didn’t really improve. It was just easy to ignore the fact that the Leafs put up 95 shots in Games 3 and 4 because the Bruins happened to win those games. The combination of the David Krejci line catching fire and Tuukka Rask standing on his head masked the fact that the Bruins were still giving up way too many chances.

In Friday’s Game 5 loss, the Bruins found themselves on their heels throughout the first period. They lost seemingly every puck battle, they couldn’t get the puck out of their own zone, and they wound up allowing 19 shots in the frame. Fortunately, Rask was once again up to the challenge, and the period ended 0-0.

The Bruins were a little better in the second, but they fell behind 1-0 on a horrendous turnover by Ference. He tried to shift the puck from backhand to forehand at the offensive blue line, but wound up knocking it out of the zone and springing Bozak on a shorthanded breakaway.

Another turnover early in the third allowed the Leafs to go up 2-0. Nathan Horton misread an indirect pass from Johnny Boychuk, MacArthur picked it off, beat Boychuk 1-on-1, and slid a backhander past Rask.

The Bruins finally shut Toronto down after that, mostly because they found another gear offensively and spent most of the rest of the game in the Toronto zone. They cut the lead to 2-1 and had several chances to tie the game.

It would be easy to look at the 2-1 score and say that offense was the problem. That’s usually the case when you only score one goal. But the Bruins did register 44 shots on goal. In fact, they’ve tallied 38 shots or more in all five games. They’ve scored four or more goals in three games. To call the offense a problem is a stretch. Heck, even the much-maligned Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Tyler Seguin line had 12 shots on goal Friday. They had a dominant shift right before the Bruins’ lone goal.

Given what we’ve seen in this series, it would be a pretty safe bet that if the Bruins continue to generate this many chances in Game 6, James Reimer won’t hold them to one goal again.

The more worrisome problem remains the defense — the entire team’s defense, not necessarily just the defensemen. That great defensive effort in Game 1 was a long time ago. The last four games have been more in line with the way they played for the final month of the regular season, when they gave up 30-plus shots eight times, including five times against non-playoff teams.

The Bruins may very well survive this series without a defensive turnaround. They’ve already won two games in which they’ve allowed 40-plus shots, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them win another game like that.

That’s not a recipe for long-term success, though. The Bruins won’t make a deep run if their defense doesn’t improve. They’ll run into teams that aren’t going to give up 40 shots every game. They may run into a hot goalie. Rask’s .955 even-strength save percentage may prove unsustainable (he finished the regular season at .938).

We know the Bruins are capable of playing good defense. They’re a veteran team that has done it throughout Julien’s tenure. They did it for the first two months of this season. They even gave us a glimpse of it in Game 1. The question is whether or not they can get back to playing that way before it’s too late.


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