Boston Bruins: Boston No Longer A Tough Place To Play

The Boston Bruins sit at just .500 at home following Sunday’s win over Los Angeles. The team finished below .500 at home last season. Let’s take a look at the factors contributing to why Boston has struggled to own their home ice.

For nearly 70 years the old Boston Garden sat at 150 Causeway Street. Originally built with boxing in mind, the vast majority of Boston’s opponents over the years would leave the building feeling as though they’d gone twelve rounds themselves. With the ice surface nine feet shorter and two feet narrower than standard NHL rinks, the Big Bad Bruins of yore used the smaller dimensions to punish the opposition at every turn of the bend.

Furthermore, the raucous home crowd was practically directly on top of the ice. Those of us fortunate (and old) enough to have seen a game at the Garden can attest to just how loud that building could get. The Boston Bruins (and their fans) OWNED that building.

As if this weren’t enough of an advantage, the visiting teams’ dressing room was notoriously cramped. And sweltering. And frequently flooded.

Fast forward to the recent past. “The Gahhden” was replaced by “The TD Garden,” just as the duplexes of Southie are being replaced by shiny new condominiums. While the city changed around them, the Bruins made sure that their home rink remained a difficult place to play. For the past year-and-a-half that has ceased to be the case.

Why the Bruins continue to struggle to pick up points at home has been one of the teams’ great mysteries. Half of the team’s sixteen home games have been against teams outside the current playoff picture, so it’s not as though the strength of schedule has been terribly difficult. Last season, the team finished 17-18-6 in their home building, including the season-ending blowout loss to Ottawa. Currently, Boston sits at 8-8 at home on the season. Their matinee win versus Los Angeles snapped a three-game home losing streak.

Without further ado, let’s examine why  the B’s are failing to own their home ice.

A Case of The Backups

For starters….we have the backups (see what I did there?). Of Boston’s sixteen home contests to date, six have been started by someone not named Tuukka. As we’ve seen all season long, Rask has been Boston’s great equalizer. He’s bailed out his teammates time and again, playing like a legitimate Vezina Candidate. And while it’s natural for there to be a drop-off when turning to the backup, it cannot be quite this precipitous.

At home, Anton Khudobin has won just one of five contests on the season. He played well in

Paul Byron (41) scores a shorthanded goal past Boston Bruins goalie Anton Khudobin (35) during the third period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

consecutive starts versus Calgary and Carolina, stopping 56 of 59 shots. He’s been downright dreadful otherwise, allowing 12 goals on 78 shots (.846 Sv %). He’s given up four goals in each of his last two starts, despite seeing less than 30 shots in each contest. For context, Rask is currently 7-3 at home. He has a 1.90 GAA to go along with a .921 Sv %.

In addition to Anton’s sub-par play, there was also the home contest versus Minnesota, wherein Malcolm Subban showed (perhaps for the last time) that he isn’t ready for the NHL. Subban surrendered three goals on sixteen shots, including a couple softies. He gave way to Zane McIntyre, who conceded two goals on seventeen shots in relief.

Last season it was Jonas Gustavsson who struggled at home, picking up just three wins through ten home contests. His GAA was north of 3.00, his Sv% was south of .900, and the coaching staff lost all faith in his game as the season progressed. His rocky tenure in Boston was punctuated by letting in four goals in Boston’s must-win season finale.

Should Boston continue to receive such lackluster backup play at home they can expect valuable points to continue to slip through their fingers. That, or risk burning out the team’s MVP long before the playoff push as they did last season.

(Note: McIntyre has been on fire of late in Providence. He’s 6-0, with a 1.36 GAA to go along with a .952 Sv%. Should he and Khudobin continue their current respective play, a swap of the two goaltenders is likely.)

Condensed Schedule

The World Cup (in conjunction with the upcoming week-long bye in February) has wreaked havoc on the NHL’s schedule. Boston has certainly not been impervious to its effects. To date, Boston has played three home games immediately following a road contest. That constitutes roughly 20 percent of their home games.

The Bruins have lost all three.

While Khudobin has been the starter all three times, it should be noted that he has also had tired teammates in front of him all three times. Though one would like to see the affable Kazakh make more big saves, he has frequently been lacking the defensive focus and attention to detail necessary from his teammates. This has been terribly evident in his past two starts. Boston (to a man) looked disinterested for the majority of their contest versus Colorado. Most recently versus Anaheim, the blue line was overwhelmed with alarming regularity. Numerous pucks were turned over by the Boston defense, and Anaheim’s attackers were given free reign throughout the night. From zone entries to an unimpeded path to the net, Boston did not make life difficult enough for Anaheim.

The condensed schedule has not only forced Khudobin into action, but it has thrust him into unfavorable situations. Frequently, his teammates have exhibited a dangerous combination of physical and mental fatigue in front of him. Furthermore, it has prohibited Boston from being able to hold many full practices. When things aren’t going swimmingly, it’s imperative to iron out any wrinkles with a good practice. As any player (current or former) can attest, there’s a big difference between bullet points on a dry-erase board and muscle memory. With time off being so limited, Boston must find that extra gear when their legs and minds are worn down.

FNG’s

Blake Wheeler (26) battle for the puck during the first period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, I’ll say this: Boston has had a lot of f**king new guys recently. Eight players have made their NHL debuts this season. Six players made their NHL debut last season. For those still entrenched in the “Claude Hates Young Players” camp….silencio, por favor.

The infusion of youth with entry-level contracts is a necessity to compete in the modern NHL. With youth comes inexperience. More often than not, a youngster unfamiliar with the rigors of the NHL feels the pressure to perform more strongly in front of the hometown faithful. Game plans are frequently simplified on the road, and distractions are minimal. At home, a young player can feel the need to do too much, which can lead to sloppy play and costly turnovers.

Though this is probably less of a factor than the other variables mentioned, I believe it has at least partially contributed to Boston’s home woes, and as such bears mentioning.

A “Tough” Place To Play?

I get it: The game has changed. Gone are the days of staged fights and designated enforcers. Shawn Thornton, Lyndon Byers, and Stan Jonathan aren’t “walking through the door,” to borrow from Rick Pitino. Moreover, I’m not suggesting that the B’s should start brawling their way out of mediocrity. But in examining why Boston is no longer a tough place to play, the fact that it’s no longer a “tough” place to play bears mentioning.

I was fortunate to grow up next door to a veteran of 250 NHL games. In addition to being a great guy, my neighbor always had the best stories of his time in the league (especially after a few Molson tall boys). The one that stands out the most to me goes as follows:

“Even if you came out of Boston with a win, you lost the next game because you were just SO beat up from playing the Bruins.”

This is certainly no longer the case.

If I were to ask you which two players lead the Bruins in fighting majors, would you know the answer?

Torey Krug and Jimmy Hayes. With two fights each.

Heading into action Sunday, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller had combined to play 39 games this season, and had combined for just one fight. While their recent contract extensions did not come about exclusively due to their pugilism, it’s safe to say they weren’t re-signed for their transition or scoring abilities either.

Kyle Clifford (13) fight during the first period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The context leading up to Miller’s bout versus Kyle Clifford Sunday was even more important than the fight itself. Miller was the recipient of Clifford’s borderline hit-from-behind moments before the bout. On a personal level, Miller showed Clifford he wasn’t about to take any crap. More importantly, Boston was clinging to a one-goal lead toward the end of the first period. Miller’s response sent a message to Los Angeles that the Bruins weren’t about to let them climb back into the game by dictating the tone with physical play.

Again, I’m not saying that Boston’s home woes are due to a lack of fisticuffs. There is a time and place for everything, fighting included. It’s one thing to take a dumb instigator penalty trying to goad an opponent into a fight. It’s another thing altogether to seize an opportunity to stick up for yourself, your teammate, or just to establish tone. The fact that Miller did just that on Sunday is far more important than making his debut on the yearly fight log.

While some of my colleagues might disagree, I’m of the belief that fighting will always have a place in the game. It enables a team’s smaller skill players to play with confidence. They are given extra time and space because the opposition knows they will have to answer for any liberties that are taken.

Furthermore, a fight energizes the home crowd. Greatly. Home ice/field advantage exists because the crowd itself functions as an extra player. When they’re engaged and loud, the home team receives a boost. They find that extra gear. And there isn’t a city in America that enjoys a fistfight more than Boston.

Beyond actual pugilism, Boston’s overall style of play has been a little soft at home of late. As I mentioned earlier, Anaheim’s forwards crashed Boston’s net virtually unimpeded for 60 minutes. Where was the snarl, the nasty, the ownership of one’s own crease from Boston? A team doesn’t have to drop the mitts every game to assert itself. Sometimes a little “badassery” in front of your goaltender alters an opponent’s game plan and can swing the balance of the contest. This was sorely lacking versus an Anaheim team not afraid to get dirty (they lead the league in fighting majors). Boston matched Montreal’s physicality on the road Monday night. The result was arguably their best game of the season, and a rare win in Montreal.

Until the Bruins are once again good enough to compete skill-wise versus the league’s best, an infusion of toughness, attitude, and the swagger that comes along with it would likely go a long way to making the TD Garden a more formidable locale.

Summary

The condensed schedule and its repercussions have largely contributed to Boston’s home woes this season. Icing a struggling backup goaltender behind a tired team has lead to valuable points being left on the table. Furthermore, the changing NHL in conjunction with mediocre Bruins teams have turned Boston’s home ice into a shadow of its former self. Gone are the days of the Big Bad Bruins playing in front of a raucous home crowd.

Fortunately, the schedule eases up a bit for the foreseeable future. Boston plays just one back-to-back in the coming six weeks, though seven remain on the season. Should Anton Khudobin (or Zane McIntyre) be able to provide better goaltending moving forward, it’s likely that Boston sees greater success at home. If the team can also regain some of the swagger from recent seasons-past, they (and their fans) will likely once again make TD Garden “The Gahhden.”

Bring the ice packs.