What do you get when you match the worst finishing team in the league against the odds-on favorite for the Vezina Trophy? Yet another loss for the Bruins in a game they could’ve won with just an ounce more of scoring touch to their game despite the presence of Ryan Miller in the Buffalo net.
There were plenty of glimpses at promise during the Bruins’ 2-1 road loss to the Sabres in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at HSBC Arena. Boston outshot the Sabres, 24-8, in the second period and 39-32 over the full 60 minutes. The Bruins finally scored a meaningful power play goal, their first since March 27, when Mark Recchi banged home a rebound to tie the game 9:30 into the middle stanza. And during that second period, which was lopsided everywhere but the scoreboard, Boston even hit the post twice (great chances by Michael Ryder and Johnny Boychuk).
The positives far outweighed the negatives in the Bruins’ loss. And there’s definitely a foundation the club can build on heading into Saturday’s Game 2, when the Bruins will look to earn a road split before coming home. However, there have been so many times this season that the Bruins thought they were about to break through offensively because of a barrage of shots and chances, you have to wonder if they’re really just slamming away at the rocks with a pick-axe in a spent mine.
Even though they followed up their late-season 50- and 36-shot losses to Tampa Bay and Florida, respectively, with victories, by the two games later the Bruins’ offense went right back into hibernation. More often than not, the Bruins’ offense looks like it’s conserving goals as though it’s part of some Andrew Ference-sponsored “green” initiative to conserve energy by keeping the red light from going on.
That campaign has to end now, or the Bruins are going to have only golf scores to worry about rather than goals scored. None of their forwards are suddenly going to morph into Cam Neely, Rick Middleton or even Ilya Kovalchuk overnight. And Miller isn’t suddenly going to turn into Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa (.850 save percentage in nine games with Buffalo in 2001-02). There’s only one way for the Bruins to get to Miller and that’s by getting up in his grill.
The Bruins’ net-front presence in Game 1 was average at best. There were black-and-gold wearing bodies in front, but mostly they skated around the blue paint as though they were going to get an electric shock if they touched the crease area. The best screeners and puck-tippers sometimes have to cross over and carve out a little bit of blue as their own territory. Sometimes they force the goaltender to push them out and sometimes they initiate some “incidental contact” with the goaltender.
While the Bruins did a great job most of the night breaking into the attack zone and passing the puck around the perimeter, they treated Miller like some sort of religious idol to be observed but not touched or bothered. Just one drive into the crease or “accidental” collision with Miller – even if it results in a penalty – would do wonders for Boston’s chances of scoring. Even if such a maneuver didn’t result in a goal right away, don’t think for a second that Miller wouldn’t be thinking about potential contact the rest of the night if there was a crash just once.
Sure, Miller’s a veteran, a superstar and a player that’s shown he can block out distractions and carry a team to a division title. But remember, this is a guy that was injured in a collision behind the net last season. He’s human, even if he plays super-human sometimes, and while beating him physically with a puck and a stick can sometimes seem impossible, that edge in skill can be chipped away at with a little mind game. Take a run at Miller and the play might be running through his head the rest of the night.
I’m in no way advocating injuring Miller or doing anything that wouldn’t be within the rules. Over the course of Game 1, the Sabres had bodies flying to and around the Boston net and even knocked the goal off its pegs a couple times in the heat of battle. That didn’t happen nearly enough at the Buffalo end for the Bruins to increase their odds at actually scoring, and in turn winning.
For 83 games, the Bruins have tried to solve their offensive struggles through convention shoot-and-pass means. Now it’s time to toughen up and make physical play into part of their offensive game plan. Ryan Miller has to feel threatened by more than just pucks for the Bruins to have a chance to win this series.