“We didn’t play consistent hockey, even within the games,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask. “We barely put a 60-minute game together, so that won’t take you too far, obviously. But we battled, and we were really close, but when you can’t find that consistency over the course of 82 games, you have failed as a team. That’s why we’re not in the playoffs.”
The Bruins’ Opening Day win back on Oct. 8, it seems, would epitomize what was to come for this club throughout the 2014-15 season. They scored the opening goal against the Flyers, but despite outshooting Philadelphia 33-20, they couldn’t put another puck in the back of the net — that is, until Chris Kelly got the job done with less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
The Bruins eked out a victory, and for most of the season, those same themes plagued them: too many close calls, too many missed opportunities and an inability to score when they needed it most.
“I don’t know for what reason, [but] the consistency was probably the main thing that was difficult for us this year,” said defenseman Adam McQuaid. “Not only within games, but from game to game. We would have a good period, and maybe a not so good period, and then we would go on a stretch of winning games and a stretch of losing games.
“That kind of seems to be the pattern; you just want to focus on playing and not analyzing. It was a focus of ours to try to bring that consistency, and we weren’t able to find it.”
From the beginning, the Bruins targeted inconsistency as their main cause for concern, particularly after they lost Zdeno Chara and David Krejci to injuries that would keep them out of the lineup for a substantial chunk of the first half of the season. They needed to score consistently, and execute consistently on the back end, in order to keep themselves in the top eight in the conference standings, and they continuously struggled to do so.
“If we knew the answer, we wouldn’t be answering these questions right now,” said defenseman Torey Krug. “We’d still be playing. So it’s tough. For whatever reason, it wasn’t there, and I think it’s obviously a mental thing — showing up to work every day ready to do the job and have that edge and that compete level.
“Like I said, I don’t know the answer to that, and I know that the coaches and the management are searching for that answer.”
Those injuries — including, but not limited to, key players like Chara and Krejci, captains who played critical roles in bringing the Stanley Cup to Boston four years ago — played a large part in the way things unfolded this season. That’s a fact. Boston was without one of its most talented and skilled playmakers and its six-time Norris Trophy nominee for almost half the season.
And while those players were watching from press level, the B’s struggled to compensate, both mentally and physically. It was not ideal — ideally, the Bruins would have found a way to persevere — but it was, to an extent, understandable.
“It’s tough, and it was definitely tough when Krech went down,” said winger Brad Marchand. “Our best player wasn’t in the lineup; that definitely takes a lot out of you. It breaks up that first line, especially when other guys went down. It was an up and down year with that. We’ve had more injuries this year than I think we might have ever had.
“It was tough for us, but we definitely still had a talented group. Definitely had enough to get in the playoffs, but obviously we didn’t play to expectations.”
Expectations, of course, were lofty for this group, many of whom helped to claim the Presidents’ Trophy 12 months ago. Expectations were that the playoffs were a given. How far the Bruins could go may have been a question, but making the playoffs was not.
That is why the end results of this season are so hard for so many players to grapple with.
“I think from Day 1, we’ve lacked consistency all year, and we’ve let huge points slip by late in games to obviously shootouts,” said forward Patrice Bergeron. “We’ve had some stretches of good hockey followed with another same kind of stretch of not-so-good hockey, and it definitely hurt us right now to [not] get into the playoffs.”
And the thing that hurts the most, perhaps, is that the Bruins truly believe they had what it takes to make it into the playoffs. It just came down to those missed opportunities, those squandered chances of which there were far too many.
“I think it’s really about us not playing to our potential,” Bergeron said. “I think no one’s going to stand here and say that they’ve had a good year, or that they’ve overachieved, obviously. It’s a definite down year for us, and we didn’t get the results because of it.”
Added Rask, “You look at video and you talk; we’re all smart guys here, so you do understand what you need to do. But then it falls on the players — mental sharpness and willingness to execute the game plan. For the most part, we didn’t really do that.”
Boston’s success has historically revolved around being an air-tight, sound defensive team with excellent goaltending. They execute a system that players have sometimes described as challenging to master and challenging to execute, but in the last seven years — all of which have seen the Bruins advance to the playoffs — they were able to execute that system with proficiency.
This season, the Bruins had the same system in place. They had the capabilities to execute, they said, and the will — they just couldn’t consistently do it, night after night.
“I don’t think the message was stale because you saw when we played the system the way that we could, we had success,” said forward Milan Lucic. “We had some winning streaks, and we had an 8-1-2 [stretch] in March. I just think that there was too much inconsistency throughout individuals and players on the team, and we didn’t bring our best game, night in, night out.
“I think that’s what hurt us, because personally I still believe in the gameplan, and I think the gameplan works, and will continue to work. It’s just about being more consistent in our game as players.”
One of the Bruins’ toughest stretches of the season came amidst the most inopportune time: the home stretch. Beginning in mid-March, they lost a series of six straight games — half in regulation, half in the shootout — that essentially canceled out the five-game winning streak they had just ended. They righted the ship for a five-game period to close out March and begin April, earning 10 of a possible 10 points, but those pesky problems resurfaced again to close out the season.
In three straight games to finish the season against Washington, Florida and Tampa Bay, the Bruins generated plenty of chances but could only capitalize on four of them in those three games combined. They often out-chanced their opponents but came out on the short end on the scoresheet. They got off to better starts than the team on the other bench but were unable to sustain that pace for a full 60 minutes.
And on the final day of the season, it cost them.
“Even though there have been up and downs this season, you’re going to have some stretches of going through games that are going to be rough,” Chara said. “But again, we never hit that time of the year that we would go on a roll and then could afford to have those kind of games or spans where we knew that, OK, now we’re in a little bit of a slump. But you can afford those when you get on a roll — you win seven, eight, nine games out of 10 or 11, and you can build a little cushion. But we never had that.”
In the end, the Bruins ran out of solutions. They ran out of answers. Now, they will head into a very long summer knowing that they didn’t do the job they set out to do, and that is not lost on any of them.
“What [letter grade] is failed, F? Because if you don’t make the playoffs, you’ve failed,” Rask said. “It doesn’t matter what happened: If you [don’t] make the playoffs you’ve failed. If we were to make the playoffs, who knows what could have happened? So the line there is very thin, and we really felt like we had a group of guys to make a good run in the playoffs. But we failed because we didn’t make the playoffs, and we’ll never find out.”
This group of Bruins will never know what could have been had they earned the chance to play for the ultimate prize, but as they proceed into the offseason and begin preparing for the next training camp, they have no choice but to try and find a positive in this season. They have no choice but to try to find something — anything — that they can build off.
And if nothing else, they said, they can bottle up the emotions they dealt with on Monday — as they cleaned out their lockers while 16 other teams continued on with the second season — and use them as motivation to make sure they never feel like this again.
“It’s not fun to be a part of this group that has failed at our jobs, and we’ve just got to use it as a learning tool,” Krug said. “As much as it stings, and it sucks, and everybody’s all upset, we have to make sure that we can find some sort of positive out of this and learn.
“[We have to] use it as a slap in the face and come back next year playing the way that we should.”