The Bruins have officially lost their identity.
And if they didn’t learn that lesson in 2019 against St. Louis in the Stanley Cup Final or last season against Tampa Bay in the second round of the NHL’s bubble tournament, the New York Islanders were in their faces to rub in that fact over the past week in the second round of this year’s postseason.
Now the Bruins have all summer to contemplate what they learned because their 6-2 loss to the Islanders on Wednesday wrapped up the series for New York in six games.
If you’re looking for in-your-face, heavy-forechecking, net-protecting play, dial up an Islanders game. If you’re looking for a team that’s willing to be pushed around, get overmatched in front of its own net and lacking in any type of consistent forecheck from multiple lines each night, well then you’re describing the Bruins.
Sure, the Bruins sometimes show flashes of what used to make them successful — when they’re playing against teams that don’t strike first or push back. The Washington Capitals in the first round this year were supposed to be a team that could beat the Bruins with physicality, but they had too many other things going on — a goalie revolving door, character issues — to take it to the Bruins.
We saw the Carolina Hurricanes get run over by the Bruins the past two postseasons. The same thing happened to the Hurricanes against Tampa Bay this season, so obviously Carolina has some identity issues of its own.
But when the Bruins have run into the Blues, Lightning (especially the Blake Coleman-Barclay Goodrow version) or, as we now know, the Islanders, they’ve turned into the punching bags.
The Bruins have enough skill and speed to take down any team. Except in the playoffs you need more than that. You need gumption and determination. You need to find ways to dictate the game, even when you’re hitting posts or getting shots blocked or getting clocked after the whistle and sent to the dressing room for six minutes.
Kyle Palmieri catches Charlie McAvoy up high:
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) June 10, 2021
When Jeremy Lauzon took a big hit from Leo Komarov in the third period Wednesday and then pushed Komarov to the ice, it was the first sign of pushback from Lauzon, who was basically a crash test dummy the whole game against New York’s forecheck. His teammates were hardly models in matching the Islanders blow for blow.
The Islanders’ physical play took its toll on the Bruins. Brandon Carlo was knocked out of the series. Lauzon was a deer in the headlights for most of the games. Matt Grzelcyk made two giveaways that directly led to New York goals in Game 6 not because he’s not skilled, but because he was so clearly bracing to get pummeled every time the puck was in his vicinity.
What’s scary is that even without Carlo and Kevan Miller, the Bruins should have the personnel to at least match the Islanders physically and to forecheck them to the point that their game is neutralized. Instead the Bruins got Charlie Coyle auditioning for a ghost story and Jake DeBrusk proving once again he’s limited to being a streak scorer that doesn’t add much to the cause when he’s in a cold stretch. Taylor Hall was a non-factor once the Islanders figured out they could whack him a couple times and convince him to stay on the perimeter.
The Bruins could’ve overcome the two — that’s right, just two — injuries on defense with some smarter puck management and stronger forechecking. Instead, they let the Islanders exit the zone with ease and control the game for long enough stretches that once a couple of goals went in, the Bruins ran out of time for a comeback (in both Game 5 and 6, especially).
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The NHL in 2021 is a speed and skill league but it still requires that even the most talented teams play with a checker’s mentality. Just ask Sidney Crosby and the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh clubs, the 2018 Capitals, and the 2020 Lightning.
It’s hard to believe that general manager Don Sweeney, under president Cam Neely’s watch, has let the Bruins get faster and more talented while ignoring the parts of the game that make for playoff success. Both were around 10 years ago when a certain team put together all the elements and raised the Cup.
Asked about the differences between the Bruins and Islanders in this series, coach Bruce Cassidy summed up it up thusly: “It doesn’t have to be pretty.”
If only his team had taken that to heart before losing three straight games to the Islanders. Now it’s up to Neely, Sweeney and Cassidy to get the Bruins to regain the identity they used to subscribe to on a yearly basis, the one that leads teams to their ultimate goal.