Bruins on Boylston: Measuring losing streak concern levels with the Yikes-o-Meter

By Leo Kagan, Assistant Sports Editor

Encircling the faceoff dot in the middle of the ice at PNC Arena in Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes lifted their arms and clapped together with a crowd of 16,680 in celebration of a rugged win against the Boston Bruins on Sunday. Concluding their post-game ritual, the players turned and rushed Hurricanes defenseman Brent Burns, jumping with glee as they pinned the wild-bearded veteran to the glass, where a raucous crowd cheered them on. 

Where were the Bruins? Long gone, heads hanging low in a rare sight after their loss confirmed an unseen event in Boston’s 2022-23 NHL season: a losing streak of three games. 

The Bruins, now 39-7-5, are still the NHL’s best team. The Hurricanes are second-best league-wide, trailing the B’s by seven points. Seven points back from the Hurricanes is a spot just ahead of the fourth-place New Jersey Devils`. 

A three-game losing streak toward the end of January won’t loosen Boston’s chokehold on the No. 1 spot, but it bears (pun intended) asking what exactly went wrong and how the team must bounce back in order to continue the success of a potentially record-breaking season

What follows are five reasons why the Bruins dropped three in a row this week, and how concerning each development feels on my patent-pending Yikes-o-Meter. 

  1. A tough schedule

Yikes-o-Meter says: 1/5 😬

The B’s started their losing streak against the Tampa Bay Lightning—back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 2020 and 2021, and Stanley Cup finalists in 2022. Their next two losses came from the Florida Panthers—last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winner as the league’s best regular season team—and the Carolina Hurricanes—a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the last three years. 

Admittedly, the Panthers have struggled to match last season’s success—currently occupying 11th place in the Eastern Conference—but they’re not a bottom-feeder either, and the Hurricanes and Lightning both represent realistic playoff opponents, particularly if the Bruins are to win a Stanley Cup. 

The B’s lost a tight match-up to the Lightning, made costly errors in their final moments against the Panthers, and were purely out-played by the Hurricanes. Isolate any individual game, and one could make a case that the Bruins are either capable of winning a series against any one of these teams or a regular-season juggernaut on the way to a rapid playoff elimination. But in summation, these three games represent what they are: three tough opponents in a short stretch of time wherein players are feeling fatigued. The Bruins will be more prepared come playoff time, and will likely fare better against the quality opponents they slipped against this week. 

  1. Injuries

Yikes-o-Meter says: 3/5 😬😬😬

Winger Jake DeBrusk and center Tomas Nosek both missed all three Bruins’ losses this week due to a leg and foot injury, respectively. DeBrusk—whose 16 goals and 30 points rank fourth and ninth in team scoring respectively—is not expected to return to action until Feb. 11. 

DeBrusk’s absence has been felt most acutely on the Bruins’ top unit, which has cycled through various right wingers in search of an adequate substitute to no avail. With right wing Craig Smith on center Patrice Bergeron’s flank, the line hasn’t quite clicked to Head Coach Jim Montgomery’s satisfaction—the three have played 62 minutes together this season. But with All-Star right winger David Pastrňák on the top line, the roster becomes too top-heavy, leaving the other three offensive units without enough firepower. In short, DeBrusk is an ideal top-line candidate, and without him, the Bruins lose a great deal of their balance. 

Nosek, on the other hand, is an under-the-radar loss, but a significant one. He’s only played the role of fourth-line center—averaging just 12:29 per game and tallying 8 points this season—but he’s more impactful than his role suggests: Nosek is one of the most defensively-relied upon players on the Bruins and in the league. He and center Charlie Coyle lead Bruins forwards in short-handed ice time, averaging 2:39 per game. Nosek shoulders an even heavier load at 5-on-5, starting 23.9 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, the 12th highest rate in the league. 

The Bruins struggling so mightily in DeBrusk and Nosek’s absences speaks to their value as individuals, but also to the Bruins’ insufficient depth. Against most teams, the B’s can manage, but against contender-caliber teams like the Hurricanes or Lightning, the team’s depth is exposed. This suggests General Manager Don Sweeney should be identifying depth players to acquire ahead of the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline, lest the Bruins fail due to lack of depth in the postseason. 

  1. A flickering power-play

Yikes-o-meter: 4/5 😬😬😬😬

Between each of the Bruins’ three losses this week, the team drew 10 penalties—and capitalized on none of the ensuing power play opportunities. For the sixth-best power play in the league, this might seem like a blip on an otherwise solid track record, but the lackluster man-advantage efforts are representative of the Bruins’ faltering power play of late. 

Before Wednesday’s win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins’ power play has cashed in just seven times on 37 opportunities since the Bruins bested the Penguins at the Winter Classic on Jan 2. That measly 18.9 percent efficiency rate would fall in the bottom 10 league-wide if counted today. 

It’s not totally clear why the B’s have struggled to convert man-advantage opportunities—could it be the team’s inability to consistently enter the offensive zone with possession, its insistence on feeding Pastrňák the puck in spite of rapidly-adjusting opposition penalty killers, or its failure to properly utilize defenseman Charlie McAvoy’s offensive abilities at the blue line? 

Regardless of the source of the Bruins’ power play woes, the fact remains that—unlike the other items on this list—a sputtering man-advantage unit is a long-standing problem: one that the team needs to solve sooner rather than later. 

Photo: Illustration by Rachel Choi
  1. Failed offensive execution

Yikes-o-meter: 2/5 😬😬

The Bruins outshot the Lightning 39-35 and the Panthers 40-37. Usually, more shots translate to success, which was definitely the case when the Hurricanes trampled over the B’s on Sunday, outshooting the Bruins 36-25. But as the advanced statistics suggest, it’s not just shot quantity that matters, it’s cashing in on those shots too—an area in which the Bruins struggled through all three contests. 

According to Money Puck, the Bruins scored fewer actual goals than expected against the Lightning and Hurricanes, and slightly over-performed against the Panthers. Money Puck tracks expected goals, a statistic which measures shot quantity and quality to determine how many goals a team should score, compared to how many goals a team does score.

The expected goals indicate that the Bruins had a bit of bad luck against the Lightning and Hurricanes, and a bit of good luck against the Panthers. Ultimately, this isn’t a tremendously worrying occurrence: the Bruins have produced 113.7 expected goals for this season and yet they’ve lit the lamp 120 times in that span. 

The only caveat is that top-end teams, like those the Bruins fell to this week, tend to be good at limiting a team’s actual goals even if they give up more expected goals—typically via an elite goaltender. If the Bruins run up against Lightning superstar goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in the playoffs, capitalizing on their chances will become all the more important.  

  1. Less than spectacular goaltending

Yikes-o-meter: 1/5 😬

Goaltender Linus Ullmark has been fantastic this season, arguably the best at his position in the NHL. Backup netminder Jeremy Swayman, though not quite on par with Ullmark, has been solid as well, but in each of these three games, the usually elite Boston goaltending tandem fell short. 

In both of his starts—against Tampa Bay and Carolina—Ullmark posted a respectable .914 save percentage, but dig a little deeper, and the statistics suggest he was not as crisp as his more easily calculable numbers suggest. Against Carolina, Ullmark saved -0.35 goals above expected, meaning he allowed more goals than he should have, given the shot quality he faced. Against Tampa he was better, saving 0.13 goals above expected, but still, the Swedish goaltender’s past performances demonstrate he is better than this. 

Swayman fared far worse than his goaltending partner, posting a mediocre .892 save percentage against the Panthers while surrendering -0.71 goals above expected. But while neither goalie provided next-level play this week, it’s not much to worry about. As mentioned, the Bruins’ goaltending tandem is elite, and one below-average week in January is nothing to panic about. 

Yikes-o-meter’s conclusion…

2.2/5 😬😬

Overall, this week is far from a harbinger of playoff doom. The Bruins didn’t play very well against contender-caliber opponents, but they didn’t get tossed out of the building either. Given the team’s record busting quality of play, it’s fair to assume the Bruins won’t extend their losing streak much longer. Our worries from a tired week in January will soon fade away. 

For now, I’ll stash away the Yikes-o-Meter and allow us all to take a deep breath and remember the playoffs don’t start until May.