Monday March 23rd, 2015

A trio of quick hits:

• If any team in the Eastern Conference is perfectly built to handle the pressures of a tight playoff race, it’s the Bruins. This is a veteran group, loaded with players who earned the Stanley Cup in 2011, backstopped by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask and coached by a Jack Adams honoree, Claude Julien. They’re battle-tested. Proven.

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So how is it that this team, which just eight days ago held the first wild-card berth in the East, has dropped five straight and is on the verge of falling into ninth place tonight if the Senators beat the Sharks?

On the surface, there’s been a shocking lack of desperation shown by Boston, an absence of an emotional response to the dire situation. That’s inexcusable. This is a team that was handed a chance last week to crush the dreams of its two closest pursuers, Ottawa and the Panthers, and somehow failed to match the intensity of its opponents on either night. Outside of a revitalized Brad Marchand and the always excellent Patrice Bergeron, not a single Bruins player can argue that he’s been up to the challenge.

Fingers are already being pointed at Julien, whose decision making can be inscrutable at times. His recent over-reliance on defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, for instance, is hard to comprehend beyond a blind allegiance to a veteran who’s gotten the job done in the past. The problem here is that Seidenberg has never quite recovered from the knee surgery that cut his 2013–14 season short, and he’s struggled mightily to handle the heavier workload that is being demanded of him as a result of injuries to Zdeno Chara and Dougie Hamilton. Case in point: Seidenberg was a disaster in Sunday's 5–3 loss to the Lightning, caught on the ice for four of Tampa Bay’s five goals.

But it all circles back to GM Peter Chiarelli’s mismanagement of the salary cap and his subsequent preseason short selling of Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders. Boychuk is the player who Boston has been missing all season long, a minute-munching physical presence who is a steadying voice both in the room and on the bench. Losing him tore the heart out of this team—the heart that should be carrying the Bruins through this treacherous stretch.

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When CEO Charlie Jacobs put the team on notice in January, saying that everyone’s performance was under review, it seemed unlikely that the man who built a champion just four years ago would be held accountable for this season’s disaster. Now? If Boston falls short, it’s a good bet that Chiarelli will pay the price.

• What’s the top individual story of the NHL’s second-half? Is it Carey Price’s Hart Trophy bid? How about Devan Dubnyk’s one-man resurrection of the Wild? Or maybe the record-setting debut of Senators rookie Andrew Hammond?

Each is compelling in its own way. There’s a problem for the league, though: Every one of them revolves around goal prevention rather than goal scoring.

Nothing against those puckstoppers. Defense, after all, wins championships. But scoring sells the game, which is why we all need a little more Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

With his sensational end-to-end effort in last night’s 3–1 loss to the Canucks, the Coyotes star quietly became the first defenseman to score 20 goals this season. He also became the first ever Arizona defenseman to score 20 in a season, and the first in franchise history since Phil Housley and Frederik Olausson both hit the milestone back in 1991–92.

If you missed Ekman-Larsson’s goal, it’s well worth a watch. It was a pull-you-out-of-your-seat display of speed, stick-handling, shooting and determination that saw him dance through five Vancouver skaters and put two shots on goalie Jacob Markstrom before finally beating him up high on his third attempt. Just a remarkable play.

Ekman-Larsson came into this season with only 31 goals in 257 NHL games, and while he’s shown flashes of excellence, there has always been an expectation that there was more to his game. He’s starting to show it this season, handling a heavier load mentally as well as physically on a team that’s still in the punching bag-phase of its rebuild. He’s becoming a dominant possession player and he’s creating more shots on his own—already a career-high 236, a big reason why he’s finishing more often.

It’s tough for a guy on a team that’s this bad to get any notice, especially when he’s based out west, but Ekman-Larsson is playing at a level that deserves some Norris Trophy consideration.

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Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen is in the midst of a solid run. After an impressive 33-save shutout of the Blackhawks on Saturday night, he is 5-1-0 in his last six appearances, with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. The veteran is also keeping things interesting for a team that, mathematically at least, still has a shot at a playoff spot in the West. But this taste of success has to be maddening for Dallas, an organization has gotten used to seeing Lehtonen turn up his game when the pressure is off and crumble when there’s something on the line. Remember when the Stars still had life in mid-February and Lehtonen responded by allowing 14 goals in a three-game span, including a converted touchdown to the Red Wings when his teammates had given him six goals to work with? That’s the game that ripped their hearts out. When this season wraps up, Lehtonen’s instability will be viewed as the No. 1 reason why a team with the league’s second-ranked offense was a playoff DNQ. And figuring out how to proceed will pose the biggest challenge of Jim Nill’s tenure as Dallas’s general manager.

At least Nill can move forward knowing that his young defense is on the verge of proving itself to be every bit as good as hoped. The early return of 23-year-old Patrik Nemeth from what was thought to be a season-ending wrist injury has added some much-needed physicality and positional awareness to a group that was already getting excellent puck movement from 22-year-old John Klingberg and solid two-way play from 23-year-old Jyrki Jokipakka. Whoever mans the pipes for this team moving forward will benefit from some excellent support.

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