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Bye, Bye Bruins

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The Carolina loss sealed their fate ... When you lose nine of your last twelve you get what you deserve.

Clark
Booth

What we have here to offer, Dear Hockey Fans, is the Anatomy of a Meltdown. Warning to the squeamish, it ain't pretty!

On the afternoon of 12 March, 2016, having routed the tough and skilled Islanders 3-1 in their best home-ice performance of the season, the Bruins skated off in first place in their Division solidly positioned for the playoffs with a month to go. They would go back to work three nights later -- their longest break in two months -- in San Jose. The grueling annual West Coast swing coming so late in the season is anathema to eastern teams. But in the giddiness of the moment, concern was minimal. Bathing in rave reviews, the Bruins were full of themselves and deservedly so.

Obviously too thin on defense, no one was exactly conceding first place to them let alone much beyond. But there was widespread agreement in the ample ranks of NHL cognoscenti that these new Bruins, having been smartly designed for playoff hockey, were the team nobody was anxious to meet in postseason. If not quite again "Big and Bad," they were looking true and revived -- gritty, smart and fundamentally sound -- in the season everybody had been too eager to write them off.

Coach Claude Julien was being touted "Coach of the Year" for the brilliance with which he'd fashioned a contender from what was supposed to be a messy "reboot." Patrice Bergeron, already conceded another Selke citation as best defensive forward, was commanding serious support as well for the revered Hart Trophy, annually awarded the player who, if not necessarily the best, is regarded "most respected." GM Don Sweeney's trade deadline deals landing Brothers Stempniak and Liles were being lauded as was, even more, the gutsy decision to hang on to the estimable Loui Eriksson in his walk-year, when cashing him out would have been easy to justify.

All such moves were seen as bold. None of the accolades seemed unreasonable. The Bruins, everybody agreed, were 'going for it'. Bravo!

Four Saturdays later -- precisely to the hour -- this same gang, now having been thoroughly mortified by a lackluster Ottawa team in arguably the most appalling clutch performance in the Black and Gold's long and colorful history, limped from the Garden under a shower of boos having achieved only a certain infamy to go with the sure realization that when this team re-emerges from hibernation half of them will be elsewhere. How in the name of Eddie Shore could this have happened?

Excuses in retrospect are always flimsy, nor given the ugliness of their collapse -- is anyone willing to entertain them this time? But there are "reasons," which are different from "excuses," and fixing the precise twists and turns on their road to perdition may be informative.

Clearly the great unravelling began on the West Coast. No surprise there. In hockey terms it's no longer La-La Land out there, a winter's escape. In a remarkable turn of events the three California franchises now feature the biggest and bulliest squads in the League; three rugged outfits that could have held their own with the Original Six back when men were men and hockey players didn't wear helmets. Moreover with all three in a cat-fight for first place in the Pacific Division, the Bruins caught them in their nastiest of moods.

You can get beat up playing the Sharks, Ducks, and Kings in five nights and the Bruins did, although -- contradictory as it may seem -- they actually played, for the most part, well and tough, if lucklessly, which made the end result having nothing to show for it particularly painful. They departed the Coast a very different team.

And it was at this point that a perfectly reasonable dip in fortunes -- given the intensity of what they'd been through all season -- became a bloody crisis. The first of the three key games that killed them -- any one of which could have saved them -- was the Madison Square Garden pit stop where the slumping Rangers, under the direction of the supercilious Alain Vigneault who loathes them, are becoming their bitterest opponent. It was a notably sour New York moment, raspy throughout and sullied with lousy officiating compounded by ridiculous call reversals ordered by the TV replay police up in Toronto. If they were becoming paranoid, it was faintly understandable.

The next night back in Boston came that agonizing loss to Florida featuring the apparent game-tying goal the Toronto replay-gendarmes refused to call a goal. For some dumb reason, too much is being made of that fiasco which on the scale of the atrocities spicing this misadventure was relatively minor. Annoying it surely was, but overlooked is the fact that after getting royally rooked they surrendered two more goals to the more enterprising Panthers, losing 4-1. And now the losing streak was at five and panic was setting in, big-time.

Two nights later, the bleeding was momentarily staunched in Toronto where the once august Leafs were busy protecting their top-draft pick aspirations by maintaining the League's worst record. How the mighty have fallen! But the clean win there promptly proved illusory as they advanced to New Jersey for the second of their "killer losses." The Devils were whipped, brinking on formal elimination, lacking prominent injured players, and offering a kid in net who'd been in the league three weeks. Yet looking oddly lethargic and distracted, the Bruins got beat, 2-1.

How? Why? Well, here's a simple theory. All season the Bruins were essentially dependent on the exceptional efforts of four players -- Bergeron and Eriksson oft brilliant and highly consistent, Marchand who had sensational streaks but disappeared at key intervals including most of vital March, and Krejci who's always fine when healthy which is not enough of the time. All four are not only expected to carry the offense, but sustain both the power play and penalty kill while taking all the key minutes at the end of close games and in over-time, while drawing the toughest defensive assignments. The burden, over the brutally long and grinding NHL schedule, is too much. When the Big Four are but ordinary, there's no one to fill the gap.

The crazy 6-5 win in St. Louis that left Tuukka Rask spinning like the proverbial dervish followed. However goofy, it briefly inspired renewed revival dreams promptly to be crushed two days later in Chicago when they handed the Hawks six unanswered goals in a performance ex-coach Mike Milbury furiously denounced on national TV as "disgraceful." Yet all this sheer travesty notwithstanding, the prize was still fairly easily within their grasp with three games left.

It was the first and easiest that finished them. Carolina, an amiable and long-gone also-ran with 12 more losses than wins, was the third and ultimate "killer." Rarely even threatening Goalie Rask all evening they got the difference-making goal in a period's waning seconds with Rask seemingly dreamlike watching a soft slap from the point float beyond him. If not the cheesiest goal he surrendered all season it was surely the most devastating. Appropriately, it ended in a loathsome shootout; the point lost proving fatal.

No, I'm not arguing Rask needs to backstop a shutout every night to maintain a claim to greatness. I'm not that stupid. But I am vigorously arguing that since his tailspin two years ago in the playoff against the Canadiens, the Finnish goalie has relentlessly drifted from the level of the NHL's elite to the plateau of the average, the ordinary. He has media admirers who refuse to accept this, but this argument is about to intensify.

The Carolina loss sealed their fate, with the mind-boggling contrast of the last two enigmatic tilts -- the gallant win over Detroit and the pathetic loss to Ottawa -- finalizing the inevitable, about which you have doubtless heard as much as you need or care to. Exeunt! When you lose nine of your last twelve you get what you deserve.

The odd mood of it all however raises what becomes the salient question. How was it that the admirable Claude Julien, for all of his unquestionable teaching and leadership skills, was unable to rescue them when they crumbled, hold them together? Did he lose his voice? Did they tune him out? It's happened to some of this game's greatest mentors.

Is it inspiration that they lacked in the end or merely the wherewithal? The answer decides this good man's fate. One hopes they get it right.

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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