We have reached the mid-point of the National Hockey League's grueling and remorseless regular season, a bitter forced-march crisscrossing some of North America's most thankless winter pit-stops while giving new meaning to the term "redundant."
An assessment of where the local pets, the ever-dogged Bruins, stand in the midst of this rumble is thereby obliged. But fair warning; it's not pretty.
Another caveat! One admits a certain partiality to this team. I saw my first Bruins game in the company of Ace Booth in the memorably harsh winter of 1948-49. We had to trudge down from Arlington Heights, which seemed almost alpine to an undersized ten-year old, to catch the trolley and then the subway out of Harvard Square; high adventure for the times. Forget who they played but seem to recall a couple of kids, Paul Ronty and Johnny Pierson, catching my fancy. Ronty scored the winning goal and when they later dumped him on the Rangers, I was briefly unforgiving.
But it's never been possible to stay mad at the Bruins long. While far from the region's loudest, richest, most dramatic, or compelling act they have always seemed the most earnest and amiable. Subsequent winters following them on the radio in concert with the courtly Freddie Cusick remain unforgettable. Hard to explain to those who were never there how rich was the experience of following great events on the radio; raspy sounds mixing with high-pitched din stammering from a little box in a darkened room and yet you were conveyed wondrously to another world and your imagination did the rest.
In the fifties, the Bruins were plucky but luckless. The Wilderness Years followed but we knew the wait would be worth it. The Era of the Big Bad Bruins crested early then lingered 30 years and if they didn't always win they were never boring. The recent restoration culminating in a spectacular Cup four years ago charmed the region near as much as Bobby Orr and his merry band of brigands did four decades earlier. Once again we thought it would never end. But here we are at another crossroads, yet again.
At this season's halfway mark the Bruins have a losing record. They have played (as of the writing) 40 games and lost 21. Sure, six of said losses have been in overtime, each earning at least a bogus point. But only in the NHL is a loss not a loss because it happens late. Said gimmickry keeps the standings tight promoting the illusion of playoff hopes and greater parity. But it fools few.
This is not a playoff team. Nineteen have better records. If the draft were held tomorrow, they'd have the 11th pick. They have no ranking scorers. The defense is skittish, the goaltending little more than ordinary, the power-play (when they get one) awful, and the overall offense, puny. They've surrendered four more goals than they've scored, mighty rare for this ever defense-first team.
Based on all this obvious dysfunction so suddenly so clear one learned media observer has characterized this team as "moribund." I wouldn't go that far. But the current drift is decidedly in that direction.
It's still early. You write off teams early in January at your peril. Injuries are always a huge factor and they seem to be getting healthier, although you need always hold your breath on that issue. Hockey teams subconsciously "save it for the prom," meaning they are waiting to kick into high gear nearer playoff time when the games get truly meaningful. Some blunder by expending all their mightiest juices in the fairly pointless pursuit of regular-season excellence. That's a mistake the Bruins may have made last season when they ran roughshod into April then hit the wall, although there's the equally compelling argument that in this of all games you give it all you got every night and if you wait to turn on the switch you may find there's nothing there.
Moreover, there are 15 teams -- half the league -- clustered within a range of a mere 10 points in the standings which means there will be much shuffling between now and Easter and a fairly short burst of excellence -- just a five-game winning streak -- can vault a team from out of the picture onto a solid playoff track in two weeks. It's a comforting notion. But based on what the Bruins have shown so far, such thinking is wishful bordering on the foolish.
It's one thing to get cuffed around by the elite. They've now lost three straight to the Canadiens who rang their bell last spring, and three straight to the much-improved Maple Leafs who have much to avenge and it was only about a month ago that they gave us that gruesome road-trip producing humiliations at the hands of the West's three big boys and they have no wins in meetings with the likes of the Hawks, Penguins, Caps, Isles, etc. But it's rare when a Bruins team rolls over for the weaklings.
Approaching the halfway mark, they had a couple of classic gimmies in the form of Ottawa and Carolina, back-to-back. In the good-old days, such cookies would have been devoured by the marauding Black and Gold's in their first half-dozen shifts of heavy thumping. Fully healthy for a change and well-rested, the need to ravage this pair of inoffensive doormats was almost desperate. That they came away with two points thanks to a couple of dreadful overtime losses was almost embarrassing.
In the true tradition of my dodge, I have no answers only questions and complaints. But I can list issues that clearly need to be addressed, remedied, recognized, whatever, together with a recommendation or two:
Where has the "snarl" gone? We understand you can't pound teams into submission anymore. Never again will Broad Street Bullies be allowed to rampage. The days of wine, roses and Slapshot are over; more's the pity. But it is not patty-cake that we're left with. No team has adjusted more poorly to the new order than the Bruins. It's left them confused. Teams no longer fear the Bruins. They know their fabled edge has abandoned them. It's evident, night after night, from the puck's first drop. What was left of the snarl went south with Sean Thornton.
You can't go a whole season without a first line. This is axiomatic. First lines can carry teams. At a minimum you need some consistency and stability. They've had NONE! The failure to replace Jarome Iginla now looks a fatal mistake. Salary cap woes are blamed. But if this increasingly mediocre collection is capped-out, it's the GM's fault.
They have no set lines, anymore. None that truly hew together consistently. In his desperation, the beleaguered Claude Julien shuffles them near madly, as was the case against Carolina. The problem derives totally from the mess on the first line. There seems no solution, given available wherewithal.
Will we ever again see the Zdeno Chara of fond memory? It's painful to deal with this question. This is a great player and a wonderful warrior and an admirable fellow and it's doubtless something of a wonder that he's back at all and perhaps only a chap of his considerable character would be. But I fear the answer is "No."
In the name of the hockey gods do something about your shoot-out, Coach. The dumb device for ending tie-games is loathsome, we agree. But it's the law of the land and you gotta live with it. Your shoot-out performances lately have been appalling.
And while you're at it tell your troops to SHOOT THE BLOODY PUCK! On this team, the motto is clearly, ''When in doubt, pass!'' Getting outshot two-to-one by the likes of Carolina is insulting. Somebody has to step up.
Beware! The desperate urge to do "something"; "anything" can get dangerous. One squirms over the mounting speculation centering on Milan Lucic, although his miserable play this season has inspired legitimate debate about the wisdom of moving him should the price get right, and it well could. He's always been aggravatingly erratic. But he remains a "core" player who, in terms of style and swagger, comes closest of this gang to defining the "traditional Bruin."
Don't do anything rash, Boys. This season may already be lost.
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.