What the Bruins’ loss at Columbus told us about their toughness

Matt Kalman
January 14, 2020 - 10:37 pm

It doesn’t matter if Emil Bemstrom’s blow to Tuukka Rask’s head Tuesday was intentional.

It doesn’t matter if it was a fist, a forearm or an elbow.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the Bruins’ response to losing their No. 1 goaltender 1:12 into their 3-0 loss at the Columbus Blue Jackets took more than a period and an intermission to come. And then it was as half-hearted as when those inebriated fans challenge players through the glass.

You know the “hold me back, hold me back” sort of challenge.

That’s what mattered.

Once 60 minutes of hockey were through, one goalie was out for the night, and who knows how long it’ll be until we see Rask in action again (Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy revealed after the game Rask was concussed). Another goalie, Elvis Merzlikins of the Blue Jackets, had his second straight shutout. And a third goalie, Jaroslav Halak, looked like he’d even miss an elbow to the head at this point the way the puck has been eluding him.

Halak has now allowed 15 goals in his last four outings. There are no excuses for him not getting the start and having to play both ends of a back-to-back. That’s what veteran backup goalies are supposed to do, not give up two very stoppable goals, one from outside the dots on a Columbus power play.

Luckily for Halak, his poor relief performance gets overshadowed by the Bruins’ lack of a physical response to Bemstrom’s misdeed. The Blue Jackets forward played 4:50 of even-strength ice time in the first period and not a single Bruins paw landed upon him. These days it’s easy enough to watch a replay of anything. There are tablets on the bench for crying out loud. If no one on the ice saw what happened (understandable), and no one on the bench saw the play (less likely), wasn’t anyone curious to see what happened?

The Bruins finally figured it out during the break, but Columbus started the second period on a power play. When the sides were even again and Bemstrom got on the ice, Jake DeBrusk got in his ear with some trash talk during a scrum. Then Brandon Carlo hit him hard twice, once in each team’s zone. When it became apparent Bemstrom wouldn’t drop his gloves, the Bruins went on playing. Joakim Nordstrom gave Bemstrom another call prior to a television timeout, but the younger Swede wouldn’t oblige his countryman. And that was that.

The Bruins can’t be blamed if Bemstrom wouldn’t fight. They had to know the 190-pound rookie wasn’t going to answer for his action. However, that didn’t mean the Blue Jackets shouldn’t have had to take some heat, actions that should’ve began as soon as it was obvious something nefarious had happened to Rask.

How about getting in Merzlikins’ grill? How about finishing some checks on the likes of Gustav Nyquist, Sonny Milano, Zach Werenski and of Columbus’ other skill players? Maybe it’d be worth it for the Bruins to take a penalty if it would at least show they’re ready to truly push back, that they’re fed up with getting tossed around.

For too long this season opponents have been taking liberties with the Bruins. Since Day One of this season they’ve talked about having enough toughness, and the lineup card looks like they should, in this day and age, with Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, Brett Ritchie and Zdeno Chara on the Bruins’ side of the ledger. But tough talk hasn’t turned to tough action. Chara stood up for Charlie McAvoy in Nashville, but the fact that it’s so easy to remember that scenario tells you there haven’t been enough instances of the Bruins defending their teammates, or better yet, being the aggressors.

It’s the same old story from the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins didn’t lose to St. Louis just because of a toughness deficit. But it was a factor that played out over seven games, with Matt Grzelcyk bearing the brunt of the Blues’ rugged approach.

Sure, the Bruins miss Kevan Miller. He’s been out of the lineup for nine months, though. It’s time to turn the page and not wait for him to come back. If the supposedly tough players aren’t going to answer the bell, general manager Don Sweeney is going to have to look for a forward or right-shot D to add some sandpaper. It could be as easy as just adding Anton Blidh from Providence.

One has to figure Halak will work his way out of his slump and perform the way the Bruins expect him to play. They’re not going to run into a hot goalie like Merzlikins every night, and 31 shot attempts will usually provide you a goal or two.

But after months of saying they have enough team toughness but playing pacifist hockey, will the Bruins’ attack instinct kick in before they suffer more injuries or get ground down in a playoff series?

How the Bruins answer this question or how Sweeney acts to address this issue is what matters.

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