Rask rolls as B’s whitewash moribund Penguins

Spooner3

Ryan Spooner is coming into his own as a solid middle-tier contributor in Boston with room for growth into more.  (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins got to .500 at home with a 3-0 victory over the sinking Pittsburgh Penguins at the TD Garden Wednesday in the first of a home-and-home series with the Steel City’s team.

The match featured several interesting subplots: new Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was behind the bench against the B’s for the first time since former Portland Winterhawks bench boss Mike Johnston was fired last week. Starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury is out of the lineup for a week or more with an upper body (concussion) injury, and the team is also without Kris Letang for a couple of weeks as well, prompting them to trade with Chicago for Trevor Daley, who was in the lineup last night. And of course, with Phil Kessel making his first return to Boston of the season after his offseason change of address, ‘the Thrill’ is always a topic of conversation, especially given that he’s not given his new team much bang for the buck as anticipated.

In short, even with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, this is simply not a very good Penguins team right now, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that they were blanked and never really mounted much of a serious challenge with Tuukka Rask dialed in and continuing his best stretch of the season.

The B’s got goals from Max Talbot (his first as a Bruin dating back to last season when he was acquired from Colorado at the deadline), Jimmy Hayes (his fifth of the season) and a late empty-netter from Ryan Spooner to seal it (his pass to Hayes gave him another multi-point effort).

Sullivan is an interesting hire for Pittsburgh. A Marshfield guy and BU star, he played one year for the Bruins in the late Pat Burns’ first (and Jack Adams Trophy-winning) season before finishing his playing career with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. Sullivan jumped straight to an AHL head coaching gig, landing the Providence Bruins job in 2002-03, and when the B’s fired Robbie Ftorek during the same season, Sullivan moved up to be an assistant under Mike O’Connell who then made him Boston’s head coach for the 2003-04 campaign.

Sullivan is most known for giving a relatively unknown 18-year-old kid a shot at the NHL right out of his first training camp. That kid’s name? Patrice Bergeron. Sullivan first year behind his home team’s bench was a Cinderella story, as the B’s compiled a 42-19-15 record, and was primed to do damage in the postseason after trading for a pair of skilled veterans in Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander to bolster a core group that included Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Sergei Samsonov and rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft. Alas, the B’s crashed and burned in the first round, losing in seven games to the hated Montreal Canadiens (including a 2-0 home loss to close it out after the B’s blew a 3-1 series lead). The Habs just so happened to be coached that year by some guy named Claude Julien. Go figure.

A disastrous post-lockout 2005-06 season saw Sullivan scapegoated for a putrid (and that’s being charitable) lineup and 29-37-16 record. He was out and although spent time as an NHL assistant with the Lightning, Rangers and Canucks between 2007 and 2014, he did not darken the doorstep to an NHL bench until Pens GM Jim Rutherford (himself on the hotseat for the hot mess of a Pittsburgh lineup) brought him in to try and reverse the team’s skid. Sully’s a good guy- at one time believed to be one of the NHL’s young up-and-comers as a coach, much like Peter Laviolette was when Boston and O’Connell made a fatal mistake of choosing Ftorek over Laviolette and letting him take the NY Islanders head job in 2001. It hasn’t worked out for Sully the way it did with Lavy, but it’s nice to see him get another shot as a big league coach.

***

Ryan Spooner has been playing pretty well of late. He’s got as many points right now as Kessel does at the 30-game mark. That probably speaks more to the lousy year Kessel is having given expectations than it does Spooner’s success, but he’s on the same pace he had a year ago when he posted 8 goals and 18 points in 29 games. That’s a little skewed because those 29 goals included an early five-game stretch where he didn’t put up points and hardly played. Even so- Spooner has been criticized for his 5-on-5 play this year, but while there’s some validity to that, it glosses over the fact that he’s continuing to find ways to produce offense and make plays, which is what the Bruins have him on the roster for. Sometimes, there is a “death by overanalysis” where observers make the mistake of trying to force players to be like Bergeron, Jonathan Toews or insert any top two-way recognizable star here. Spooner isn’t Bergeron or Toews for that matter, but what he brings is valuable to the team. He’s a good kid- often misunderstood as someone who doesn’t try. Not true, but let’s face it- he’s not going to be a defensive stalwart or top minute-munching forward who is out in all key situations because there are better options. However, he has proven he belongs in the NHL, and for a team like Boston, a roster that doesn’t have an abundance of breakaway speed at the center position, he’s doing just fine on the third line, thank you.

Kessel continues to be an enigma. Five 30+ goal seasons (one of those in Boston) with the Maple Leafs seemed to be fait accompli that he would tear it up with the likes of Crosby and Malkin. Hasn’t happened. May not happen. But the Bruins did the right thing in trading Kessel, even if after the fact they don’t have a lot to show for it. That’s a legitimate gripe.

Tuukka Rask is on a roll, and it could not have come at a better time. For the Bruins to have a shot at the playoffs, he’s got to be in Vezina-caliber form, and since late November, he’s been right there. What’s impressive to me is the economy of motion in Rask’s game right now. He’s tracking pucks and not overexerting himself, but keeping his movements crisp and composed. What’s more- he’s back to having fun out there. Whatever seemed to be bothering him earlier in the season seems to have dissipated for now. I chalk it up to what Zac Rinaldo alluded to in the first episode of the Road to the Winter Classic last night when he said that players are just now “showing their true colors” and comfortable with each other. That chemistry that Rinaldo was talking about isn’t something that just happens, and when you take several significant players away from the mix and add new faces, especially younger ones who won’t be as confident or gregarious as veterans like Mark Recchi or Nathan Horton were when they arrived to the room, it takes longer. I’d like to think that Rask has gotten to know his new teammates and realizes that these guys are willing to work and scrap and play hard in front of him. I’d like to think that even though he knows deep down that this defense isn’t good enough to put the Bruins in real contention for the big prize, they’re a plucky bunch that won’t mail it in and will do their level best.

It might not be enough, but Rask is the big-ticket contract and player who is probably the biggest cog in a machine that can and should at least make the playoffs. As he goes, so go Boston’s postseason hopes. That might not be welcome news for some fans out there, but nobody plays in the NHL to lose, and as we saw in 2008, that bunch was the start of something special that culminated with a Stanley Cup three years later. With Rask getting his swagger back, his team will work their tails off in front of him and pay the price to set him up for success. That’s how this stuff works- everyone rowing hard in the same direction. The NHL is still about who has more talent and can put it together the most consistently, but Rask being in top form is a very good start. On the flip side, his excellence disguises flaws elsewhere on the roster, but GM Don Sweeney’s job is to assess and manage that. He’s going to have some tough decisions with asset management that he would not have faced if the B’s just imploded as they did at the beginning of the season. To Rask’s credit, he’s picked it up and is playing like an All-Star.

That’s all the Bruins can ask for right now.

***

Hey, hey, hey- how about that Jimmy Hayes? It’s just one game and one goal, but Hayes went hard to the net with his stick on the ice and was able to deflect an on-target Spooner pass in behind Jeff Zatkoff. That’s exactly what he needs to do, and it was nice to see him make that play as the scrutiny he’s faced of late ratcheted up.

Give credit to Max Talbot, too. That was a beauty of a short side snipe to get his first goal as a Bruin. I’ve always admired him from afar as I covered him with the Penguins and Flyers in the past and enjoyed his easy manner and clear leadership qualities. He would have been a fan favorite in Boston five years ago, so he came to the team too late, but he’s an underrated presence in the room.

Alex Khokhlachev played last night after being recalled and while it wasn’t a poor performance, it’s more of the same from him. Sure- he wasn’t playing with top liners, but he doesn’t have Landon Ferraro or Frank Vatrano’s speed to grab your eye, so given that he was drafted to provide much more in the way of offense, it’s hard to see where he fits in Boston right now. The team would have to sit someone else who has earned their spot on the top lines just to get Koko in there. That’s not how it looks, so giving a shake of the ol’ Magic 8-Ball, it looks like we’ll have to ask again later.

That’s about it- we’ll see how the Pens perform in front of their home crowd tomorrow night, but for now- the B’s are in a good spot and you can see the confidence growing with the younger guys with each shift.

 

 

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