Column: Bruins’ flawed first line outclassed by Lightning’s top trio

The Bruins needed more from Horton/By S. Bradley

Maybe with the news that Marc Savard could be cleared for contact as soon as Tuesday in the next step toward his return from post-concussion syndrome sent the message to the rest of the Bruins that they could just wait around for their playmaking star to return.

At least, that’s what it looked like for the first two periods of Boston’s 3-1 loss at Tampa Bay tonight.

Luckily for the Bruins, these partial-night efforts have been few and far between. And when they have occurred, Boston has managed to pull out a standings point here and there so they weren’t a total drag on the season.

However, that doesn’t excuse certain players from tonight’s mess. You can start with the first line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton pulling a near no-show in a match that it could’ve proven to be the premier top line in the East against the trio of Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie.

Instead of meeting the challenge, the Bruins’ best offensive line mustered just one shot on net – a third-period slapper by Krejci. The Lightning’s best trio finished with 12 shots and three points.

Lucic was somewhat active on the forecheck with six hits (the Tampa Bay stats crew is obviously one of the most generous around), but there was nothing else in terms of positive production to be found from those three. If the Florida air does something to Horton to make him revert to his old passion-less ways, it might be best for the Bruins to blast the AC blowers at him for the next 44 hours or so until the puck drops back in his old Sunrise stomping ground Wednesday.

Truly, no one up front or on the blue line played the type of game you’d except from a Bruins player against one of the better teams in the conference. And any time you talk about Savard on the comeback trail, you have to look at the competition to keep a job once the Bruins need cap space for their All-Star.

If power-play time is a sign of confidence from the coach, then right now Matt Hunwick and Michael Ryder are in Claude Julien’s good graces. Of course, neither player has done anything to deserve that extra-man time. To his credit, Ryder went to the net at even strength in the third period and cashed in on a tip of a Blake Wheeler shot. But that was just about the only time any Bruins player got near the blue paint around Mike Smith.

If Johnny Boychuk’s still shaking off the rust after his 10-game injury absence, and his slap shot isn’t revved up enough to contribute on the power play, I guess the Bruins can handle a little extra Hunwick time. That said, he decision-making continues to look worse and worse, while Boychuk and even Andrew Ference are waiting in the wings to contribute some shots from the point.

With Krejci back, we knew one forward would see his power-play time cut. Tonight it was Mark Recchi reduced to just 39 seconds of man-advantage time. That’s inexcusable on a night that Boston was dying for someone to park in front of the Lightning goal and muck it up. Recchi and Wheeler should always be in the pecking order ahead of Ryder.

But in this Ryder situation, Julien keeps sending out mixed signals. In public he verbally defends the player against inquiries about Ryder’s potential exit due to the cap problems. However, then he trims Ryder’s 5-on-5 minutes, all the while keeping him on the power play. The coach is obviously just trying to roll the dice with Ryder when possible and hope they come up Yahtzee. While that worked on one shift tonight, it might’ve cost Boston for much of the rest of the game.

The Bruins have done well to raise themselves into the top half of the East playoff picture 20 games in despite playing without Savard, Marco Sturm, Boychuk and Krejci for all of or large chunks of time. That being said, a healthy Savard can’t come back soon enough in order to shift some players back down in the lineup and one or two guys out of the picture. The deeper the lineup, the less likely we are to see many more of the type of partial efforts we witnessed against the Lightning.

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