The Bruins finished the NHL's regular season fourth in penalty killing -- a robust 87.1 percent.
By all accounts, this is a strength of the team that begins the playoffs Wednesday night at home against Toronto.
The Maple Leafs ended the year 14th in the NHL on the power play at 18.7 percent. Early returns suggest the Bruins have a clear advantage on this side of the special teams battle -- let's not get started on the Bruins' power play.
That assertion, though, is difficult to support based on the final 24 games of the regular season.
In the first half of this lockout-shortened campaign, the Bruins faced 95 opposition power plays. For about two months, the Bruins flourished down a man. Led by Patrice Bergeron, of course, they dispatched 88 of the 95 power plays they faced. This made for a gaudy 92.6 percent penalty kill.
During this same 24-game run, the Bruins' record was 17-4-3. After a tough, 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh on March 12 -- the midway point of this abridged year -- the Bruins were one point back of the Penguins in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins led, 2-0, as the third period began, but it was the third game in four nights. The Bruins were plainly exhausted, and the talented Penguins took advantage with three goals in 4:15. None of those things are excuses Claude Julien cared to hear, but it was understandable.
Since leaving Pittsburgh that night, the Bruins haven't found the offense their world-beating penalty kill worked like hell to cover up for 24 games. At the same time, that shorthanded brilliance has disappeared. Despite being forced to kill 37 fewer penalties in the second half of the season, the Bruins allowed nine more power-play goals than they did in the entire first half. Their penalty kill checks in at 79.1 percent in the last 24 games, turning a 17-4-3 start into an 11-10-3 finish.
In the final few weeks of the season, penalty killing was especially ineffective. The first time the Bruins allowed more than one power-play goal in a game was April 13 -- a 4-2 loss to Carolina. This was the Bruins' 41st game of the season. Since that night, it's happened twice more, including the disgraceful effort in Washington last Saturday night that turned a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 overtime loss.
The 2.88 goals per game the Bruins averaged in the first 24 games of the season hardly made them a dangerous offensive club, but it was more than enough to win when there was virtually no chance an opponent would score on the power play. In the last 24 games, the Bruins' already-sparse scoring has dropped to 2.46 goals per game right along with their success on the penalty kill.
Throughout the year, the Bruins have waited for Tyler Seguin or Milan Lucic or Nathan Horton or anyone to find the offense this team has so desperately lacked. Their relatively quiet seasons didn't pose quite the problem when they were holding opponents to 2.13 goals per game and preventing them from doing anything up a man. Defensively, the Bruins are still one of the league's best, but their offensive woes only worsened as the season progressed -- and they're getting harder to hide.
For Toronto, the opposite is true.
The Maple Leafs' power play is fine. It's not quite as devastating as the units Washington and Pittsburgh offer, but there's Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri and Dion Phaneuf and, yea, they're all really good. Moreover, the club finished the regular season sixth in the league in scoring (3.02 goals per game). In four games this season, the Leafs scored one power-play goal in 10 tries against Boston.
Despite everything everyone can say about effort and improvement and chances, the Bruins haven't shown that they can score with anyone. If Toronto's offense -- especially its power play -- produces in this series, the Leafs will advance to the second round.
Expectations for Seguin, Lucic or any of the Bruins other most talented players persist -- as they should. The reality, however, is that none of them have shown the ability to do this since Peter Chiarelli made them all rich last summer. The four players standing in a box in the Bruins' zone during the Leafs' power plays will decide if Boston's season lasts -- at least -- one round longer than it did last season.
There's no question that more offense would solve most of the Bruins' problems. At no point has this edition of the club shown it's capable of that. Until it does, its defensive performance will decide its fate. It's not fair to ask any group of penalty killers to negate more than 90 percent of an opponent's power plays. The Bruins want to win a championship, though, and that's the only way they've won games all season.