BRIGHTON, Mass. — On Wednesday at Warrior Ice Arena, three-quarters of the way into practice, Boston Bruins coach Jim Montgomery paused a rush drill momentarily.
“If your partner goes to the outside,” Montgomery told the defensemen, using his stick to emphasize his point, “you’ve got to go the weak-side post. Minimum.”
Montgomery issued his correction matter-of-factly. It was by design. Montgomery’s only audible displeasure occurred after the first rep of a three-on-two drill, when he reminded his forwards they had just watched the bleeping video of what they were supposed to do before practice.
Wednesday was all about business.
“They practiced well,” Montgomery said after the 45-minute session. “I wouldn’t say they practiced great. But the effort was there.”
Because of the game schedule, travel, the pre-Thanksgiving fathers’ trip and need for recovery, Wednesday was the Bruins’ first practice since Nov. 19. Their lack of work has shown in their play.
They have dropped three in a row for the first time since Montgomery took over, and they have allowed 17 goals while doing so. Their last loss was to a Columbus Blue Jackets team is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Something will have gone horribly wrong if the losing streak stretches to four. On Thursday, the Bruins host the San Jose Sharks, the worst team in the NHL.
So following a Tuesday rest day, Montgomery designed a practice to emphasize two things: tighter defending and higher pace.
“It gets back to checking,” Montgomery said. “I just think we’ve been an easy team to play against here. It’s not just the last three games. It’s probably the last six to seven.”
Early in one three-on-two drill, Montgomery blew the whistle tucked into his right glove. At the whistle, the puck-carrying forward dropped a pass to a trailing defenseman. It was designed for the defending blueliners to gap up. The Bruins have been too loose in the neutral zone. It has led to easy entries and dangerous rush chances.
In a three-on-three in-zone sequence, the defending defensemen turned their sticks upside down. The drill was meant to emphasize quick feet and sound positioning.
Naturally, given the degree of the three-game downturn, the down-low drill got feisty. Charlie Coyle dropped Brandon Carlo with a reverse hit.
“We expect everyone to be hard to play against,” said Montgomery. “That’s either being physical, being ornery. Or taking away time and space with your feet, which matters most — which creates offense the other way. Good defense creates offense.”
Every team goes on a losing streak. But the manner in which the Bruins plunged off a cliff is what worries Montgomery. It was a free-for-all of things gone wrong: breakaways, seam passes, loose gaps, minimal offensive-zone time, leaky goaltending.
As for the latter, Jeremy Swayman did not have his best stuff against the Blue Jackets. When Swayman is right, he does not allow short-side goals like the one Dmitry Voronkov slipped past him for Columbus’ first strike. He fights through screens to stop shots like the Ivan Provorov second-period wrister.
But even if Swayman was not his sharpest, poor goaltending was not the reason Montgomery gave him the hook Monday. He wanted his team to wake up. Switching goalies was the best method of caffeination Montgomery could think of at the time. He did not regret the decision.
Montgomery, however, had to deal with the fallout. Swayman was not happy with being pulled.
So on Wednesday, he met with Swayman before practice. Both coach and goalie said it was a good meeting. Swayman will make his second straight start against the Sharks.
“Sway’s a competitor,” Montgomery said. “Our goaltenders have been the No. 1 reason we’re 14-4. And the No. 2 reason is distant to those two.”
Changing goalies was the latest lever that Montgomery pulled during the November downturn. On Nov. 26 against the New York Rangers, he called a first-period timeout and let his players have it after the Bruins fell behind 2-0. During the Nov. 28 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Matt Poitras (9:58) and Mason Lohrei (12:46) logged career lows in ice time. On Nov. 13, the first practice after a so-so 3-2 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Montgomery pushed his players through a no-pucks skate.
If the skid continues, Montgomery will not have many buttons left to push.
“You look overall, I think we’re pretty happy with our group,” said Montgomery when asked if AHL call-ups could be in order. “Just like you continue to give them the opportunity to do well when things are going well, you’ve got to give them the opportunity to respond. I’m sure if this continues, changes will be made.”
Montgomery did introduce several lineup alterations in practice Wednesday. Jake DeBrusk, formerly on the No. 3 line with Poitras and Danton Heinen, moved up to the first line with Pavel Zacha and David Pastrnak. Brad Marchand went to Line 2 with Poitras and Heinen.
James van Riemsdyk
On defense, Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Carlo’s usual partner, practiced with Charlie McAvoy. Matt Grzelcyk moved down with Carlo.
“Adversity’s good,” McAvoy said. “It’s something we really didn’t have last year. This is a bit of a change of pace in here. You get used to winning so much that the losses, they hurt. They feel a lot different than maybe how they used to feel when they’re so few and far in between.”
(Photo of Jim Montgomery: John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)