Inconsistent Play Catches Up With Bruins, Top Line

After a borderline abysmal regular season for Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton, the trio carried the Bruins for the first three rounds of the NHL playoffs and into the Stanley Cup Final.  A combination of size, speed and skill, when these three players are at their best, they are one of the most effective lines in the entire NHL.

After a demoralizing 6-5 Game 4 loss in Boston, the Bruins first line and the rest of their teammates were hoping for a much better outcome in Game 5.

Instead, Chicago took a 3-2 series lead with a 3-1 win on home ice. The Bruins’ first line and first defensive pairing were on the ice for both Chicago even strength goals, and were receiving a lot of deserved criticism.

Lucic in particular was visibly frustrated after Saturday’s loss, breaking his stick on the goal post after Chicago’s empty-netter sealed the victory. After Monday’s morning skate, Lucic talked about his team heading into perhaps their last game of the season.

“Well, I think we just got to play our best,” said Lucic. “You got to come out with your best game at moments like this. We’ve been through it before and we know what we have to do in order to be successful. Like I said, it’s going to take our best with this team.”

Lucic said it. The Bruins knew what they needed to do to win, and playing injured or not (Nathan Horton), it was crucial for the Bruins’ top forward line to take care of the puck in their own end, fight for neutral zone space, and play smart, clean Bruins hockey.

Often in elimination games, the Bruins (who are now 6-2 in these games dating back three years) are forced to play their more aggressive yet conservative style of play — a heavy forecheck and strong defensive awareness — and it has worked. But that wasn’t the case tonight.

In the first period, the Bruins’ first line had a couple strong shifts, putting momentum in Boston’s favor just before the game’s first goal, which was scored by Chris Kelly. Boston had a 1-0 lead after a dominant first period of play.

But things went downward from there.

After an arguably bad call on Tyler Seguin for an offensive zone hand pass, the Blackhawks outmuscled the Bruins after a neutral zone faceoff, and Chicago captain Jonathan Toews scored a huge shorthanded goal on a 2-on-1 rush with Patrick Kane.

The goal seemed to suck the life out of the Bruins, who from that point forward struggled to move the puck up the ice or generate anything offensively.

In the third period, it was Boston’s first line who resembled their early playoff form, scoring a huge goal when the Bruins needed it the most to give them a 2-1 lead with just over seven minutes left in regulation.

But a collapse similar to the one the Bruins had in the regular season took place on the TD Garden ice.

Seventy-six seconds away from defeat, Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland each scored for the Blackhawks, whose miraculous comeback gave Chicago their second Cup in four years.

“I don’t know what happened,” said David Krejci postgame. “But it is what it is. You never want to lose a game like this. You never want to lose a season like this. But we did. It’s not even a point to say that it’s going to make us stronger in the future. It sucks that we lost. It’s going to hurt for a while. That’s about it.”

Krejci nailed it, as collapses like this have become a little too familiar for the Bruins. And if it weren’t for Patrice Bergeron’s heroics in Game 7 of the Toronto series, we would be talking about another collapse of epic proportions — one that might have resulted in the breakup of the “core” of this team.

Moving forward, one of the major question marks for the Bruins will be what to do with Horton, who is due for a big pay day on the free agent market.

While many will point to his dwindling play as the playoffs went on, Horton was dealing with an injury, and replacing his production will be easier said that done.

Could that first line right wing spot be opening up for Tyler Seguin? It’s possible. Either way, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has some tough decisions to make moving forward, and whether to keep Horton or not is at the top of that list.

 

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