BOSTON – If Bruins head coach Claude Julien could solve his first line’s inconsistency problem, he surely would have fixed it long ago.
So we observers, along with the bench boss, are left to ponder the different reasons why one night Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and David Krejci can look as dominant as they did in the four-game sweep of Philadelphia, and then can struggle to muster shots on net, let alone score goals, like they did in Tampa this week.
The Bruins are going to have to come up with some answers starting in tomorrow night’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. They’ve gotten this far on the strength of some solid performances by their top unit and great contributions from other lines when the Krejci Line has been off. They can’t rely on the supporting cast to always bail out that No. 1 trio and finish this season as the last team standing. In fact, they’re probably going to need prime production from Krejci’s line and other trios on the same night a few times to capture that long-awaited Stanley Cup.
While Krejci scored one of Boston’s two goals, with an assist by Lucic, in Game 3, the center didn’t test either of Tampa Bay’s two goaltenders in Game 4. In fact, that line combined for just two shots on goal. This on the heels of a shot-less Game 3 by Horton.
Perhaps part of the line’s problem is that it relies on Krejci to set the tone, but the pivot is a tad delusional about his and his linemates’ play regardless of how poor they are.
“It’s the story all season. Obviously it wasn’t our best game, but we still had some chances. … We had some chances; if they go in we’re talking a different game,” said Krejci while today at the TD Garden while taking liberties with the facts of Game 4. “Obviously we made some mistakes, but we can talk and talk. This is playoff hockey. It’s going to be a new game tomorrow.”
Krejci loves to always look forward, especially after a poor performance. He was one of the main culprits – along with his linemates, Tomas Kaberle and Tim Thomas – in the Bruins’ collapse after being up 3-0 on Tampa Bay. Solving the problems of the past, however, has to be the first step toward correcting them.
To the best of anyone’s recollection, there were two scoring chances by the Bruins’ top line. Horton was robbed on a tip attempt by a great blocker-and-pad save at the near post by Mike Smith. Lucic made a steal on the forecheck and shot a wrister into Smith’s midsection.
If that’s Krejci’s definition of “some chances,” and he’s not delusion, maybe we’re all the ones with the false beliefs. There are obvious physical issues the line is dealing with. Lucic injured his foot last week in practice and Krejci was rocked by a high hit from Marc-Andre Bergeron in Game 3 (Krejci says he’s fine). When you play with the reckless abandon of Horton, you’re sure to pick up some nicks and bruises along the way.
Figuring that other team’s top forwards and defensemen are also dealing with aches and pains, you can consider an equal playing field. So could it just be that expecting the Bruins’ No. 1 line to perform as such every night, or at least in the majority of games played, is unfair? Head coach Claude Julien, at least, doesn’t believe so.
“No I don’t think we hold them to too high of a standard to be honest with you. I’m sure those three guys want to be held at that standard that they’re a great line and that they can be difference-makers every night,” said the coach. “And I thought they played a great game in Game 3, gave us the early lead and they were solid throughout it all. They’ve been a great line for us all year and there’s no doubt that in the playoffs sometimes there’s a little more at stake so you’re looking at that line a little closer than you normally would and those fine details and the expectations are looked upon a little closer.
“But we expect them to be a great line for us every night, so do they. Now whether that happens or not is another thing. But what we want to see from them is them trying to be the best they can every night, and that’s what we’re hoping they’re going to be tomorrow.”
The assertion is that Krejci can’t just pass off “some chances” as a hard-luck day at the office. Lucic can’t compound his lack of production with a giveaway and a couple defensive breakdowns – as he admitted he did on what turned into the game-winning play for the Lightning in Game 4. And Horton can’t keep channeling his frustrations into roughhousing, as he did again with his high hit into the glass of Tampa Bay pest Steve Downie.
Fair or not, the Krejci Line is the Bruins’ best collection of offensive players. Hodge, Esposito and Cashman they are not, but in a mostly balanced Boston offense they’re the ones that have to push that scoring balance in their direction to really punish the opponent’s defense and goaltending. The scoring chances shouldn’t be counted on one hand. They have to produce goals, and produce them big time.
Lucic isn’t shy about admitting his and his mates must be better.
“We’ve had some great games and we’ve had some not-so-great games,” said Lucic. “Right now, it’s not a time to start asking questions. It just matters what we do tomorrow. If we can get things going good tomorrow we’ve got to do whatever we can to build off of that.”
The Krejci Line can look at the Game 4 debacle as the end of another phase of its postseason roller coaster. The ride back up can start tomorrow night at the TD Garden. Consider Game 5 a chance to turn delusions into reality.