The Boston Bruins got a late power play goal from (who else?) Patrice Bergeron to break a 1-1 deadlock and held on for a 2-1 victory at the TD Garden in a game that featured three new faces in the B’s lineup.
Veterans John-Michael Liles (wearing No. 26) and Lee Stempniak (No. 20) got plenty of time on the ice last night after the team acquired them at Monday’s trade deadline. Former Providence College captain Noel Acciari (No. 55) made his NHL debut last night less than a year after the B’s signed him as an undrafted free agent on the heels of the Friars’ first national championship.
All three earned favorable grades, even if neither team was able to generate much in the way of sustained offensive pressure throughout the night. Tuukka Rask earned his 25th victory of the season, stopping 26 of 27 Flames shots while allowing just one tally to rookie defenseman Jakub Nakladal, his first NHL goal, on a point shot after a sequence where Rask lost his stick and play broke down in front of the Boston net.
The B’s opened scoring in the first period when fourth-line winger Landon Ferraro charged through the middle of the ice and took a brilliant pass from Torey Krug, who slid the puck through a defender’s legs right to Ferraro, who snapped a laser into the top of the net past Flames netminder Joni Ortio for his fifth goal of the season. It was the second goal in the last four games for the waiver claim and former second-round pick of the Red Wings in 2009 after a long scoring drought. Acciari did not register a point on the play, but got his first NHL-plus rating by going to the net and attempting to set up a screen in front of Ortio. The Calgary defender boxed him out and kept him away from Ortio’s sightlines, but it was a good indicator of the rookie forward’s sharp instincts.
With time clicking down in a 1-1 game, the Flames got nailed for a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the final five minutes. That allowed the Bruins power play, which had performed pretty well during the game with nothing to show for it on the scoreboard, one last opportunity to get to work. Bergeron, who was set up in his customary “bumper” position high in the slot in the center of the offensive zone, took a pass from Ryan Spooner and drilled it through a screen for his 24th goal of the season (second to Brad Marchand’s 32 markers on the team).
This was an important two points for the B’s, as their March schedule is the toughest month by far in the regular season with nine games on the docket against playoff teams. The real test for the Boston roster is coming in the next 30 days, but even with the modest upgrades this week, they are at least better prepared to weather the storm and hold up agains the collapse that happened a year ago this month. The team is in a good spot- currently third in the Atlantic Division just four points out of first behind Sunshine State rivals Florida and Tampa Bay. However, with Detroit just one point behind Boston (with a game in hand) and the race for the two wildcard spots as tight as any since the league went to the new playoff seeding format, the team and its fans can take nothing for granted.
This where we will learn about the team’s true mettle and character.
With NHL Alpha Dogs Chicago and Washington (we saw perhaps a harbinger of the Stanley Cup final over the weekend in the Blackhawks win over the Capitals- a vigorously paced affair that served notice to the rest of the NHL’s also-rans) up in consecutive matches, followed by critical Atlantic Division games against Florida and Tampa on the road next week, the B’s might want to crank some Ozzy Osbourne (No Rest for the Wicked).
Random notes and observations
Claude Julien posted his 386th career victory behind the Boston bench last night- he’s just one win behind Hall of Famer (as a player) Art Ross, who is tops on the B’s list and has been for more than six decades. A lot of good coaches have come and gone in this organization, but Julien has been a model of consistency whose hallmark is his ability to keep his players motivated and willing to play hard for him. In pro hockey, that’s often the most important ingredient to any successful team.
We can criticize his personnel decisions and bemoan the fact that certain veterans get opportunities that some of the younger players don’t, but in the end- especially this season- when you look at the job Julien has done during his time in Boston, he’s built a remarkable record of success. He’s the best Bruins coach of my lifetime at least, and I consider it a privilege to have gotten to know him a bit off the ice as well.
All of the players I know speak in near-reverent tones about the respect they have. On the record, you would expect that, but off the record, players aren’t shy about sharing their true feelings if they trust you. I have yet to encounter a Bruins player either on the current roster or no longer that doesn’t respect Julien and what he stands for. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his critics- by virtue of his job alone- deciding who plays more and who doesn’t get as much of an opportunity, there will be players who are more partial to other coaches they’ve played under. But not a one has ever blasted him. I can’t say the same for other Boston coaches who preceded him.
To those who would want Julien out- I keep going back to one simple question- who is out there and available as a coach who you would replace Julien with? I keep asking, I rarely get much of an answer. I’ll chalk that up to the irrationality that sometimes comes with being a sports fan.
The B’s are all set with Julien, thank you.
Welcome to the new blood
Okay, I’ll say it- I didn’t have high hopes for John-Michael Liles last night, but he was a breath of fresh air on the Boston blue line. Even at 35, he’s still a fine skater who moves the puck with confidence and authority. He reads and reacts to the play well, activating at the right times and supporting the play offensively and defensively as well. He’s not the higher-end two-way threat he was in his prime, but he’s still a serviceable player and has brought a better balance (with Krug) to Boston’s top six.
Lee Stempniak showed some flashes of his veteran experience and savvy skating on the B’s top line with Bergeron and Marchand. He didn’t make much pay off in a 2-1 game, but he’s the kind of player that should stabilize that unit and contribute. He goes to the net and knows how to make plays in traffic. The B’s are going to need him to keep the mojo he had in New Jersey going, especially as they hit the heart of their schedule this month.
I have to admit- I was a little surprised that the B’s brought Noel Acciari up this season. Not just because he’s a rookie pro and undrafted free agent (the second such NCAA signing to make his NHL debut with Boston this season with Frank Vatrano being the 1st) but because by sending Zac Rinaldo down, Sweeney and his staff are admitting failure sooner than I would guess most out there thought they would. Surrendering a third-round pick was bad enough, but it usually takes a season for a club to tacitly admit that. Acciai’s recall is proof that the B’s braintrust realizes that Rinaldo is what we thought he was, and that ultimately- they can get better bang for their buck with someone like Acciari. Now, that doesn’t mean the Johnston, R.I. native is here to stay- he could go back to Providence. But this is Boston’s way of reinforcing the job he has done and letting him know that his opportunity to possibly become a regular in Boston and fourth-line fixture is coming sooner rather than later. My friend and colleague, Mark Divver, who does a tremendous job covering hockey and sports for the Providence Journal, said that if not for getting hit with a shot and fracturing his jaw, Acciai’s summons to Boston would have come sooner. I wouldn’t doubt that for a second.
Acciari is a good skater and heavy player who finishes his checks, plays a throwback north-south game, but doesn’t hurt his team with undisciplined penalties and cheap antics. He’s never going to be a high-end player or scorer at the NHL level, but with his hustle, smarts and leadership, he’s proof that you can play the game of hockey hard and with physicality, but do it cleanly.
Nobody should be expecting big point totals from Acciari, but he’s been one of those players at every level who manages to save his best for crunch time, so don’t be surprised if he pops in some big goals or makes some key passes for scores when the game is on the line. He’s exactly the right kind of the player the Bruins should have on the bottom line and here’s hoping he can parlay his first big league game into a solid career for the team he grew up cheering for. Like Vatrano, Acciari is living the dream and we should not discount what that kind of motivation does for people.
Fans just need to understand what Acciari is and isn’t going to do for the Bruins- so long as expectations are kept in line with who he is, people should embrace his crash-bang, but respectful game. He’s not going to run around like an idiot and take head shots at people. In short- Acciari is the kind of player who will quickly earn the trust and respect of his teammates and coaches, even if his NHL time is not quite now.