Kalman: Bruins must get over Game 2 hangover or their season’s over

Matt Kalman
April 20, 2019 - 6:04 pm

David Backes gave the Bruins the lift their need to get out of their Game 1 doldrums and earn an enthusiastic, physical victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first round against Toronto.

Now when the Bruins desperately need to produce something at least close to their effort from the second game of this series in order to stave off elimination in Game 6 on the road Sunday, Backes is in the doghouse.

The 34-year-old didn’t get off the bench in the third period of Boston’s 2-1 Game 5 loss on Friday, and all indications at practice Saturday were that Backes and Noel Acciari would be scratched for Game 6. Karson Kuhlman and Joakim Nordstrom could be in.

The Bruins have looked like a shell of their Game 2 selves since they doled out 44 hits and received 39 on their way to evening the series 1-1. Jake DeBrusk took a cross check to the face from Nazem Kadri and has looked like a ghost, on and off the ice, ever since. Torey Krug was blasted by Jake Muzzin and hasn’t been pushing the puck up ice nearly the same since he came back for Game 3.

At the time, the ends justified the means because the Bruins won a crucial game. In retrospect they may have paid too steep a price for victory. They may have overindulged in rough stuff and energy, and that might explain why they’ve played every game since like they have a Game 2 hangover.

Nonetheless, the Bruins are gearing up for a Game 2-style performance in Game 6

“I think that’s a style that you kind of need going forward, so it’s got to get closer to that than the other games that have been played, and I’m talking about us, that’s all I’m worried about right now. So that’s it,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said.

But without Backes, who’s going to administer Boston’s hangover remedy?

The best Bruins teams of the past decade were built with several players with Backes’ grit and determination filling multiple positions. Whether it was Shawn Thornton delivering a jolt to Vancouver in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final in 2011 or the countless times Milan Lucic got the Bruins rolling with a series of hits, Boston could always count on someone making sure the desperation level was raised.

The game has changed and the Bruins’ makeup has been altered with it. They still have physical players in Backes, Acciari, Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly, but nowadays the game is more about speed and skill and it can be difficult to hit what you can’t catch.

That’s why the Bruins may not need to rack up a dozen hits in the first five minutes of Game 6 to bring their game up a level. A spark could be lit just by Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak winning a faceoff, dumping the puck in the Toronto end and going to work on the forecheck before they score. Krug or Matt Grzelcyk could win a battle along the boards and then lead an odd-man rush. Danton Heinen, Charlie Coyle and Kuhlman could put in a 40-second shift that hems the Maple Leafs in their own end, and even if it doesn’t result in a goal it could at least wear down Toronto and affect the line matchups.

We’ve seen too few instances of any of the above scenarios through five games of this series. Even in a Game 4 win, the Bruins barely hung on and did not play well most of the night. We don’t know if any of Boston’s top players have enough left in the tank to even come close to effectively turning the momentum of this series in Boston’s favor.

The Maple Leafs are now as confident as they are talented because they know they can match the Bruins in every aspect of the game – a belief they lacked coming into this series based on last year’s seven-game Boston win and the 3-1 regular season the Bruins had against them. They’re standing in the Bruins’ way and don’t seem close to relenting, especially on home ice, especially with a chance to be the first Toronto team to win a playoff series in 15 years.

On the other hand, the Bruins seem spent. There’s no telling how many guys are injured or just out of gas. They know what they’re supposed to do and they can’t seem to execute even when the Maple Leafs hit a lull. In Game 4 the Bruins used a basic game plan to generate offense and score five goals plus an empty-netter. For reasons that can only be tied to the Maple Leafs’ exceptionalism and Boston’s withering will, Boston diverged from that game plan in Game 5.

Who will be the hero, the shock to the system, the instigator the Bruins need to save the season? If that player doesn’t exist, the Bruins might have the Game 2 hangover to blame for sending them to an early offseason.

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