The Boston Bruins just arrived home from their longest (distance wise) road trip of the season thus far.
Though it was only three games – they traveled for four games against mostly Metropolitan Division opponents in late October and early November – it was their first time outside the Eastern time zone all season.
They faced strong competition (in two of their three games) with mostly positive results.
With the road trip over, let’s dissect it to try to separate the good from the bad.
Good: What home ice advantage?
On paper, this road trip was a tough one. The Bruins played three games in five days, in the Pacific and Mountain time zones against two Western Conference contenders in the Vegas Golden Knights and (shorthanded) Colorado Avalanche. They also faced a struggling but feisty team in the Arizona Coyotes.
Between Vegas’ distractions and Denver’s elevation, both teams have decent built-in home-ice advantages. The Bruins were coming off a shootout loss to former coach Bruce Cassidy and the Golden Knights just before they left.
The injured list on both squads could be the starting lineup of an all-star team, but if that made both teams inferior opponents, the Bruins needed to beat them to continue to look like one of the top teams contending for the Stanley Cup.
And beat them they did, outscoring the Golden Knights and Avalanche 7-1 to grab four points.
Bad: Coyotes hiccup
The loss to the Coyotes was embarrassing. Point all you want to the missed icing call in the waning seconds of the game, but as the adage goes, if you’re that much better than your opponent, you should never be in a spot where a bad call can cost you the game.
Yes, Karel Vejmelka played outside his mind. Yes, the Bruins outshot the Coyotes 46-16. Yes, they had a Corsi-for percentage of over 67%, their second-highest mark of the year, after the Chicago Blackhawks game. Yes, they had their second-highest expected-goals percentage of over 72% (also their second-highest behind the Chicago game).
But the numbers conceal some of the Bruins’ deficiencies against the Coyotes. Though the Bruins only allowed 16 shots, more than half of them were high-quality. The team allowed nine high-danger chances at 5-on-5 (the type with the highest probability of resulting in goals). The Bruins averaged 7.64 through their previous games.
The Bruins’ inability to limit the Coyotes’ quality chances is the main reason the score remained tied until the Coyotes scored the game-winning goal, on the missed icing call, with 13.5 seconds left.
The Coyotes game also featured another disturbing trend of recent Bruins games. In three of the last four games, going back to their home shootout loss against the Golden Knights, the Bruins surrendered the opening goal less than five minutes into the game. Vegas scored at 1:36 into the game in Boston and 4:03 into the game in Vegas. The Coyotes scored just 23 seconds into the game Friday night.
The Bruins were so good at taking and maintaining leads early this season that they trailed fr only 13 minutes from the start of the season until Thanksgiving. The Bruins trailed for more than that in the third period against the Coyotes.
The fact that the Bruins are allowing goals early is a bit alarming. It shows a lack of concentration at the start of games that is more than just a slight blip on the radar. If it occurred once against a good team like Vegas, that’s understandable. Mistakes happen. But twice against Vegas and again against a terrible team like Arizona and you have a problem. Whether it’s fatigue or distraction, it is something that needs to be addressed.
Good: Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall has continued his streak of dominant play that began a month ago. He’s notched a point-per-game over the past month, giving the Bruins something they didn’t have last season: a third line that can score.
Hall was a driving force during the road trip, specifically against Colorado and Vegas.
Against Vegas, he won a puck battle along the boards before sliding the puck to Pavel Zacha, who passed it to Jake DeBrusk for the go-ahead goal.
Against Colorado, Hall led his line with Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic to two points (he scored his second goal of the game on a pass from DeBrusk). Hall appears to be enjoying his time with Coyle and Frederic, showing he’s happy being something different than a top-6 forward and the star of the team he’s on.
Bad: Hampus Lindholm
A couple of weeks ago, I called Hampus Lindholm the Bruins’ most valuable player. He has not lived up to that moniker of late. In his last ten games, Lindholm has been nearly invisible. Against the Coyotes, he was downright terrible, even with an assist on the scoresheet.
In Lindholm’s last 10 games, he’s managed only two points, compared to 11 in the 10 games before that. The return of Charlie McAvoy has contributed to Lindholm taking a step back on the score sheet, but it doesn’t account for his struggles in his own zone. It came to a head in Arizona.
Lindholm was on the ice for every goal except for the Coyotes’ game winner. He was partially responsible for two of them. On the first, a goal by Josh Brown, Lindholm failed to win a puck battle against Lawson Crouse, allowing Crouse a one-handed pass to Matias Maccelli, who set up a Josh Brown shot. Moments later, with the puck still in the zone, Brown got another opportunity and scored.
Lindholm also bore some responsibility for the Coyotes’ game-tying goal mid-way through the second period. This time, Crouse, who had Lindholm’s number all game, stood uncontested in front of Jeremy Swayman (with Lindholm standing inches away) before tipping a Shayne Gostisbehere shot past Swayman.
The third and most egregious came on the Coyotes’ third goal of the game near the start of the first period. Lindholm, who had a good gap between him and Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz, lost track of Schmaltz crossing into the Bruins’ zone. Schmaltz beat Lindholm to the front of the net and potted the game-tying goal.
All players go through difficult patches during the season, and Lindholm didn’t play as poorly as he did in Arizona against the other opponents on the road trip. But the Bruins were dominant when Lindholm was dominant. Lindholm’s struggles are mirroring the Bruins defensive struggles.
Good: Linus Ullmark
That is, unless Linus Ullmark has something to say about it. In that same post where I called Lindholm the Bruins’ most valuable player, I poured some cold water on Ullmark’s performance this season.
But, as the Bruins’ defensive game has lagged a little, Ullmark’s has elevated. He pitched a shutout against the Avalanche, including this partial breakaway.
He also made a pad save that helped spring Hall on his second goal of the night.
Against the Golden Knights, Ullmark allowed a single goal in spite of the Bruins playing some porous defense that resulted in 11 high-danger chances against (according to Natural Stat Trick).
Ullmark’s save of the night came on this breakaway by Ben Hutton that kept the game tied in the second period.
Ullmark made incredible saves in crucial moments of the game on the way to a victory and a 16-1 record.
On any ordinary western(ish) road trip, earning four of six points against two preseason Stanley Cup contenders would be incredible.
(It’s important to acknowledge that Colorado isn’t what they would be at full strength, but still...)
The most impressive part may be that the Bruins have set the standard so high this season that it somehow doesn’t feel quite impressive.
Part of that feeling stems from the loss to the Coyotes, even if it came on a bad call. The Bruins’ struggles on defense against Arizona and Vegas are also minor calls for concern, especially Lindholm’s.
Ullmark’s continued dominance is more than encouraging.
If I had to give it a letter grade, I’d give the road trip a B+ overall. It might be a step back when the rest of the season has been an A+, but it’s not too shabby.