A 3-0 whitewashing at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday left the Bruins empty-handed on several fronts. Visiting here for the first time since winning a berth in last season’s Eastern Conference final, the Bruins suffered their first shutout since Dec. 4, 2018, at Florida, a span of 127 games.
This was not that miserable night in Sunrise, when they were flat. This was a good effort that added up to nothing. The Bruins (27-9-12), playing their third road game in four nights, on a back-to-back with travel, landed 34 of their 64 shot attempts on Merzlikins, and were credited with 28 hits. But Merzlikins, the Latvian rookie backup-turned-starter, posted his second shutout in two games and handed the Bruins their second loss in a row.
The big story here was Rask, the 32-year-old All-Star, leaving after just 1:12 with a concussion. The culprit was Bemstrom, who skated through the crease and dropped the goalie with an unpenalized, blindside blow that rattled Rask’s mask.
Rask, prone for several long moments and slow to get up, left for the locker room under his own power. Clearly addled as he left the ice, Rask squinted and cocked his head as he stopped at the bench door and let loose a few angry words, seemingly toward an official.
Different replay angles made it seem like an elbow, a forearm shiver, or a punch. Cassidy knew what to call it, even if officials didn’t.
“It’s a penalty, is what it is,” said Cassidy, who believed it was an elbow. “But they missed it, so you move on. It’s just unfortunate it happens to your No. 1. It was pretty clear to me.”
Bemstrom said afterward he didn’t mean to do it.
“It’s awful,” said Bemstrom, a 6-foot, 190-pound winger who has two penalty minutes in 33 games. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. That’s not my kind of play. It’s just unlucky.”
Cassidy said Rask is bound for concussion protocol, which could mean his January break will start early unless his condition improves. Needing rest and relaxation, Rask announced Monday he will skip the Jan. 24-25 All-Star Weekend, which runs up against the Bruins’ bye week. The team is off from Jan. 22-30, during which time Rask planned to visit a tropical island with his family.
Bemstrom’s punch-or-whatever arrived nearly a year after Rask’s last known concussion. Last Jan. 19, in his final start before the All-Star break, Rask was bowled over by crease-crashing Rangers forward Filip Chytil. Rask recovered during the nine-day layoff, and did not miss a start.
Defenseman Brandon Carlo, who pushed Bemstrom from behind before he made contact, said he “barely even shoved him at all” and took objection to Bemstrom’s lack of effort to avoid Rask. The three Bruins who spoke to reporters after the game — Carlo, Danton Heinen, and Charlie Coyle — said they didn’t see Bemstrom’s elbow hit Rask until a replay was shown at first intermission.
“Should there have been a better response? I think there could have been,” Cassidy said. “But I don’t know if they saw it in real time. It’s a little bit late then. You can’t take the law into your own hands then. You can certainly address it with the player on the ice . . . We’re not going to go elbow their goalie in the head.”
In the second period, Carlo and several Bruins went after Bemstrom with cross-checks and stickwork. Among them: Torey Krug, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, and Joakim Nordstrom, the latter taking an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“In a 1-0 game, it’s not really the time to jump him and take a penalty,” said Carlo, who said Bemstrom told him, “I’m not doing that,” when he asked him to go.
“You try to antagonize him as much as you can, until he makes his decision on whether he wants to fight or not,” said Carlo.
Bemstrom said he had never been targeted like that. Columbus coach John Tortorella was proud of him for not responding.
“I think it’s good for him to go through that a little bit,” Tortorella said. “The league isn’t what it used to be. He stood in there. He didn’t bow his head. He looked at people.”
Tortorella trimmed Bemstrom’s ice time, benching him the final 3:34 of the game: “We didn’t need anything going on there.”
It was not an ideal spot for Jaroslav Halak, who gave up five goals on 39 shots the previous night in Philadelphia and did extra work at the morning skate, expecting it to be his off day.
On the rush at 13:27 of the first period, Alexander Wennberg snuck a slot shot through Halak’s five-hole, after the Bruins turned a 1-on-1 against into a 3-on-1. Halak, who stopped 24 shots and gave up a pair of third-period goals (Kevin Stenlund, on the power play at 5:46, and ex-Bruin Riley Nash at 13:05).
Halak declined to speak to reporters afterward.
“I didn’t like the first goal, but I didn’t like the way we defended. Two defensemen got beat 1-on-1,” Cassidy said. “After that I thought he kept us in it . . . Jaro did his job, we just didn’t get any offense.”
After turning eyes away from Bemstrom, the Bruins outshot the Blue Jackets, 25-7, in the final 31 minutes. But they went 0 for 4 on the power play, snapping their club-record 14-game streak with a man-advantage goal.
Three more games before the break. And quite possibly, rest for Rask will arrive sooner than anyone in Black and Gold hoped.