The Bruins postseason in the Toronto bubble was fun while it lasted, but it's over.
The Black and Gold plummeted to a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday afternoon, and now have no room for error.
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This series has been eerily similar to the second round playoff series two years ago, when the Bruins won the first game and then couldn't muster anything against a Lightning club that blew them off the ice with four straight wins.
It feels like we're all going to see the same movie again on Monday night in an elimination Game 5.
Obviously, the setting is different, with all the Eastern Conference players quarantined in Toronto due to COVID-19. And the Lightning are playing seriously shorthanded with Steve Stamkos and Ryan McDonagh as significant missing presences that have both been injured for the bulk of the series. But so much remains the same, including Tampa's strengths of depth and skill, and Boston's sheer inability to score even strength which has been their downfall in each of the last three postseasons, including this one.
After Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were the driving forces behind the offense in the Game 1 win, they have been effectively contained during even strength play just as they were two years ago vs. Tampa Bay's big defenders. Bergeron has zero points in each of the last three games and just five shots on net, Marchand has just one even strength point and four shots on net in each of the last three games and Pastrnak has just one even strength assist in the last three games, despite 13 shots on net.
Pastrnak missed a wide-open net in the third period after a sweet Bergeron dish that could have eventually made it a one-goal game late in the third period. Those kinds of missed opportunities are killers against Tampa Bay and make it feel like it's just not going to happen for Boston.
Overall, the Bruins have just two 5-on-5 goals over their last three games, and that's not going to cut it against Tampa Bay. That was going to be part of the message to the B's players headed into Game 5, but it sure feels like it's a little too late at this point.
In a must-win Game 4, Bergeron, Marchand and David Krejci combined for two shots on net and Jake DeBrusk's power play goal in the third was Boston's only source of offense.
That's just not going to cut it regardless of what's going on with the defense and the goaltending.
"We had an opportunity to even the series. The other day I do feel those games happen from time-to-time where the other team is better and they take advantage of opportunities, and they keep getting opportunities and taking advantage of them. I don't think we had our legs in Game 3. This one I thought we did, we had our energy level and we were competing hard, winning our share of races, winning pucks," said Bruce Cassidy. "To score goals we have to hit the net more often and force him to make saves and control rebounds. We're just off net with too many good chances today.
"They got another opportunity to build on their lead with what we feel is a questionable call [on Nick Ritchie], they did it. They took advantage of it and that's what good teams do. It put us in a bigger hole and we started working our way out of it, but if you're going to put yourself in a hole you got to score goals to win games. We weren't able to do that."
But it goes beyond the offense for the sagging Black and Gold.
The killer in the Game 4 loss was Jaroslav Halak whiffing on an Ondrej Palat one-timer under the bar in the second period. Palat got a good piece of the saucer pass from Nikita Kucherov, but Halak saw the shot and was able to lift his glove hand to make a futile save attempt. The puck glanced off Halak's glove and into the net, and the Bruins were down 2-0 in the second period after playing pretty well in the middle 20 minutes.
In the series, Halak now has an .899 save percentage and has given up close to a handful of goals on shots that need to be stopped. It's pointless to ask what would have happened if Tuukka Rask was in net for the Bruins because that's not going to happen in this series. But one of the few areas where the Bruins might have had an advantage -- goaltending -- is now another department where they are now inferior to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Cassidy was asked postgame what his message would be for Game 5, and it was mostly about fixing the many problems that he sees right now.
"We had some breakdowns in front of our net early on, and we have to correct those and need to be harder. We need to be more assertive in those areas. Guys that we rely on to be hard defensively, good awareness, checking players get scored on the first goal. We didn't manage the puck again. It usually starts there," said Cassidy, of the fourth line getting scored on by Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point yet again. "You turn pucks over against Tampa, it starts there. You have to be more assertive with your feet before you move a puck and take some ice. That one came back at us.
"After that I thought we were better at that. We'll always talk about the things we do well and correct the things we don't. I thought the penalty kill is a good example, we did a good job. This is two games in a row we've blocked a shot that [ends up] in our net. [That] just doesn't happen over a long period of time. So some puck luck is not going our way, but having said that, they are a shot-mentality team, and if we had that mentality too maybe we'd get some of these breaks where pucks go in off people. That will be a bit of the message, as well."
None of this even gets into the fact that teams aren't coming back from big deficits like this in the bubble because thoughts of home begin to creep into players' heads at this point. The Bruins have been away from their families for six weeks and many of Boston's key players have young families that they're understandably missing right now.
That kind of situation is going to chip some of the resolve away from a hockey club that's down big in a playoff series.
That's just human nature and the Bruins players most definitely fit into that category.
"It's all a mentality. We have to regroup and focus on one game at a time. People have been in worse situations and come out on top," said Charlie Coyle. "We just have to take it this one, one game at a time. Focus on that next game. That is all we can control right now."
It's a nice sentiment from Coyle, but it's not about mentality when it comes to the Bruins and Lightning. Tampa Bay has clearly shown in the last two postseason meetings they are a better hockey club than the Bruins, and they are doing it again this series.
The only question now is how many games it will take and what the Bruins are going to do about a better team in their division blocking their way these days.
It's clear after four games that something needs to change with the Black and Gold, because it's not good enough right now. And they may have a long upcoming offseason to think about it.