Final Buzzer: Bruins edge Devils in goalie duel

Jonas Gustavsson and Cory Schneider came to play yesterday, which isn’t to say that their teams didn’t, but the men between the pipes shined in a 2-1 shootout contest that went the Boston Bruins’ way.

Ryan Spooner tallied the lone goal out of six attempts Sunday between the Bruins and New Jersey Devils to secure the extra point for the home team, putting them just one point behind idle Atlantic Division leader Montreal with two games in hand.

Goals from Loui Eriksson and defenseman Andy Greene were the only pucks that got past the masked men, who were more like thieving bandits all game long, stealing quality scoring chances away in a game that had at times some impressive tempo and pace despite the low score. The tension came to a head in overtime, when Boston and New Jersey traded glittering opportunities during the B’s 4-on-3 power play and in the 3-on-3 setting, with neither goaltender yielding an inch.

Boston overcame at times ragged play in the first 40 minutes, getting the first goal of the game quickly from Eriksson, then going stretches of not being able to get much going in the way of sustained offensive pressure. Gustavsson was there to bail them out when they faltered however, giving up the one Devils goal on a deflected shot when exciting rookie Frank Vatrano lost his check in the defensive zone and Greene was able to exploit the extra time and space.

Eriksson continued his outstanding play, netting his 13th goal and 28th point of the season (he had 22 markers a year ago and just 10 goals in 61 games his first full campaign in Boston 2013-14) in 32 games. The 30-year-old is on pace for the best offensive season of his career and has been a consistent presence alongside David Krejci all year.

But the story of the game for Boston was Gustavsson, who made 29 saves to earn his first win of December and post his best game since signing with the Bruins in early October. The veteran Swede has six wins in 10 games, to go with a 2.42 goals against average and .912 save percentage. No save was better than the one he made on Travis Zajac in OT while the Devils were killing a John Moore penalty. Captain Zdeno Chara’s attempted pass near the point was intercepted by superb two-way forward Adam Henrique, and as was the case against Calgary, the former Norris Trophy winner got caught flat-footed as the Devils broke out and took a 2-on-1 rush the other way with Colin Miller back to defend. Henrique sent a perfect saucer pass to Zajac who did not miss, but Gustavsson got an excellent push and extension of his left pad to deny the low shot. ‘Gus’ would later be tested again during 3-on-3 play, and made a late routine-looking stop (that was anything but) to prevent the Devils from stealing one in Boston. Gustavsson’s heroics (Schneider faced a higher volume of chances, especially in OT) set the stage for Spooner to win the game.

As Boston’s first shooter, Spooner attacked the New Jersey net with speed, did a quick hesitation fake to freeze Schneider before beating the Marblehead native with a bullet shot to the blocker side. Max Talbot, whose usage as second shooter was heavily criticized more for the way his attempt looked than anything else, was denied after he came in slowly and then managed a weak shot from outside the hashmarks that Schneider stopped easily. Patrice Bergeron beat a sprawling Schneider, but hit the post, forcing Gustavsson to deny all three Devils shooters to seal the win, Boston’s 20th of the season.

UP

Jonas Gustavsson- The game’s 1st star played an ideal game for a backup, giving his team confidence during a run in which Tuukka Rask has looked like the all-world goalie he has the talent to be. Being a backup goalie is tough at any level- you have to work just as hard in practice, but you aren’t afforded the benefit of knowing you’ll play most of the games. When your number is called, you must be ready to go, and a poor performance could mean an even longer break in between starts. What’s bigger is the way a team will play in front of the backup. If you do well, the club’s trust translates into a more effective, aggressive mindset. If the team lacks confidence in the backup, it’s human nature to be more conservative, playing a tighter, more defensive game that often just leads to more goals and losses. Contrast the way the B’s played in front of Niklas Svedberg last year compared to Gustavsson this time around, and you start to catch the drift.

Ryan Spooner- The soon-to-be 24-year-old is playing the best hockey of his career. Coming off a four-assist night against Pittsburgh, he has 10 points in his last seven games. Although yesterday’s contest goes down in the ledger as no points for the third-liner, his nifty little move in the shootout stood up as the decisive tally to secure the extra point for Boston. In typical New England fashion, too many fans focus on Spooner’s shortcomings defensively to see the forest for the trees. He’s currently fifth on the team in scoring with 22 points in 32 games, and has really come on over the last month. It would be one thing if he wasn’t producing, but he’s pulling his weight in that regard and is only getting better and more confident as the season goes on. There is always room for improvement for any player, and he could stand to improve on his draws and overall consistency in all three zones, but for the most part, he puts in the effort. If you focus on one player enough, you’ll see them make mistakes, and there are plays Spooner makes where a lack of effort hurts the team, but those are fewer and far between and not because he doesn’t care, but because he’s human. For years, Bostonians have wanted skill and excitement at the center position, and Spooner brings that. A year ago, he looked d-o-n-e in the organization, but to his credit, he was ready to do something with that last chance they gave him in late February and he’s still finding ways to contribute.

Loui Eriksson- He so smooth and effective. Sure, he doesn’t have the blazing wheels, but you can appreciate how he’s managed to be such a consistent 20+ goal scorer over the course of his entire NHL career. It’s hard to praise Eriksson and recognize his contributions to Boston’s success this season on the one hand, and then talk about trading him because of his impending unrestricted free agency on the other. However, that’s part of the business of hockey, and Don Sweeney will have to weigh the pros and cons of either signing him to what will likely be a higher cap hit and AAV than the public will be happy with given he’s on the wrong side of 30, or moving a key piece out of town for future assets. We’ll just have to see where the Bruins are in late February as we hit the trade deadline, but if they’re still sitting near the top of the division, it’s hard to square with sending him away from the team. It’s easy to sit at home when you don’t have a job on the line and talk about how it’s better to get a return rather than risk losing a player in free agency, but the teams themselves have a different outlook given their skin in the game and the fact that they’re trying to win hockey games. Only a select few clubs can be considered “legitimate contenders” every year, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else in the mix is just going to give up and pack it in. That’s what trading Eriksson would signal, and right, wrong or indifferent- dealing him just to get something is more akin to what you do in EA Sports NHL 2016 video game than what happens in real life.

Cory Schneider- The former Phillips Andover and Boston College star (he was the best prep goalie I have ever seen in 2003-04- better even than Jonathan Quick and that’s saying a hell of a lot) kept the Devils in it and by most accounts, they should have won. He’s been everything Lou Lamoniello traded for at the 2013 NHL draft (in Newark, btw) and more, and as long as he’s healthy and between the pipes for New Jersey, they’re in every game. He should enjoy a better fate on most nights, but as long as Ray Shero can build around him, this team is headed upwards under new coach John Hynes. Schneider was like an Octopus in the OT, especially when the B’s were on the power play and getting pucks to the net, but they could not solve him.

Final Buzzer: Vatrano’s 1st NHL hat trick caps wild night of scoring

The Boston Bruins cruised into the Consol Energy Arena in Pittsburgh after winning the first of the home-and-home twofer against the Penguins on Wednesday and hung six goals on beleaguered goalie Jeff Zatkoff and company in a 6-2 victory.

It was a memorable night for a pair of former UMass Minutemen, however, as Bruin Frank Vatrano (first NHL hat trick) and Penguins forward Conor Sheary (first NHL goal plus an assist) shined for the Amherst faithful.

Patrice Bergeron also tallied a pair of goals including one shorthanded marker early in the second frame. Loui Eriksson’s power play goal (12th goal of the season) to make it 3-2  after Pittsburgh tied it on Trevor Daley’s first goal with his new team after the Pens’ power play expired stood up as the game-winner. Vatrano, who scored the first goal of the game for Boston on a nice pass from Ryan Spooner (four assists- a career best for him), scored Boston’s last two markers. Landon Ferraro continues to play well for the B’s and had a third period goal erased on a questionable goalie interference on Max Talbot.

Once again, Tuukka Rask was very good in net for Boston. He was beaten on two excellent shots, but settled in and denied Pittsburgh in the last 38 minutes or so. In his last 10 appearances, he’s posted a .959 save percentage (8-0-2)- (h/t DJ Bean), so it’s pretty safe to say that the B’s are getting their money’s worth from him after a brutal start. I broke it down on Wednesday night’s post, so I won’t give Rask too much more attention in this one other than to say that on his talent alone, he gives his team a chance to win each and every game. When he’s on top of his game, they’ll win more than they lose, and since mid-November, Rask has righted the ship and is playing some of the most consistently good hockey of his career.

What more can you say about Vatrano, who now has five goals in his young career since the Bruins brought him up to Boston after a scintillating start in Providence? His potent shot is well documented, but it’s the aggressiveness and his willing to shoot from anywhere that is so impressive.

The first goal he tallied tonight happened when he quickly wired Spooner’s pass over Zatkoff’s glove hand. It was a laser, and it hit a very small space in the net while using a defender as a screen that caused the goaltender to be a little late in picking it up. His second goal was pure hustle and refusal to quit- Zatkoff made an initial save, but flopped down on his back and was hoping the puck was underneath him. It somehow squirted out and Vatrano was able to locate it down around his feet, with a defender also battling for it, and then fire it into the net before either Pittsburgh player could locate it. The one-time Minuteman was able to complete the trick when he broke in on an odd-man rush with Spooner (who earned his fourth helper on the night), showed no shyness in shooting on Zatkoff on the break, then gathered his own rebound and put it in.

In so doing, Vatrano became the first Boston rookie since Blake Wheeler in 2008-09 to post a three-goal game. He’s feeling it, and even though there will be ups and downs, I’m revising my earlier statement that said we might see him returned to Providence when David Pastrnak returns to the lineup. Now, it looks like Vatrano may be here to stay. A lot can still happen over the course of the season, but with the speed, energy, and…oh yeah…the natural scoring abilities he brings, the Bruins should keep him in the NHL until further notice.

Dennis Seidenberg played a pretty good defensive game in shutting down Evgeni Malkin tonight. The Pittsburgh star didn’t have much room to operate, and Seidenberg gave him little time and space to create. He’s not been the defenseman he was before the grotesque knee injury in early 2014, but Seidenberg is playing some capable hockey right now. It’s probably not up to snuff with what a contending team would need from a guy with his minutes, but you never have to worry about the effort with him. He’s helping to stabilize the blue line group, which was the team’s Achilles heel in the first month and into mid-November.

The Boston defense on the whole has been better in the two wins against Pittsburgh and last weekend’s matinee over Florida. Torey Krug isn’t getting the goals but its not for a lack of trying and he’s using his mobility to good effect. We’re still seeing turnovers from Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller, but they haven’t been killing the team of late with those. Colin Miller has a wealth of talent and promise, so long as you resign yourself to being okay with some bad reads, pinches and risky plays that will culminate with the puck in his own net or at the very least- a quality scoring chance against. He more than makes up for it with his skating and pure ability to generate something at the other end. Adam McQuaid is what he is. Trying to justify his cap hit won’t get much traction with those who are opposed to the contract extension he got in June, but I’m more than happy with him in the lineup because of the sheer effort and toughness he brings. McQuaid is one of those guys where, if you lose him and you start to see things going south here and there, you might not realize it at first, but eventually it hits you that he means more to the team than most want to give him credit for. Super guy and tough as nails- let’s hope he can stay healthy.

Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand continue to make magic together. They’ve tallied 26 goals between the two of them, which is pretty darn impressive in a 31-game stretch. Both plays started with Marchand, using his quickness and evolving high-end hockey sense to beat Pittsburgh defenders individually to open up space for his linemate. The second goal was especially a thing of beauty, as Marchand beat his man off the wall to find Chara in the high slot. Chara’s shot went high and wide, but it bounced back down in front of the net, and Bergeron was able to bunt it back into the open net before Zatkoff could locate it.

And speaking of magic, it is all coming together for Spooner who had his first career four-point night and has seen his hard work pay dividends of late. There will be peaks and valleys with him because of the style of hockey he plays, but Claude Julien’s postgame remarks on Spooner were telling. Four helpers aside, Spooner went after Patric Hornqvist when he decked Seidenberg with a hard (but clean) hit and Spooner got the lone two minute foul, but Julien said that he didn’t mind seeing his young forward take that kind of penalty because it showed his mates he’s there for them. Claude translation: We’ve been trying to instill character, grit and all-for-one/one-for-all in Spooner’s play and tonight he showed it, even if his timing might have been a little off. Spooner gets an ‘A’ for effort- guys like McQuaid saw that and will have his back the next time he finds himself in a situation he’s not ideally suited for.

For the Penguins, it was more frustration, as not one of Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Chris Kunitz or Malkin was able to get much of anything going. With all the money the team has invested in those guys alone, this is a complete disaster for the fans in the Steel City, and Mike Sullivan has the same look he wore behind the Boston bench in 2005-06 when he had a pretty talented group of players on paper, but didn’t seem to get much in the way of consistent and even passionate performances from them aside from a couple of guys. It’s an easy joke to make right now, but this team is the total pits.

And that’s all for this recap. The Bruins are back in action at home this Sunday agains the New Jersey Devils.

***

The Bruins had a wild night of scoring outside of the NHL team.

Vatrano’s linemate and AHL roommate, Austin Czarnik, tallied a hat trick tonight, as did Soo Greyhounds right wing Zach Senyshyn, his third hat trick over a two-week period (one of those was a four-goal game).

To have three players in the same organization tally three-goal games on the same night is pretty rare and gave Boston fans something to get excited about.

Czarnik is like Vatrano- an undrafted free agent who came into Boston during the rookie camp and opened a lot of eyes, making an extended run at making the team during training camp. Watch for the former Miami University standout and former Hobey Baker finalist to get his turn in Boston soon…it’s coming earlier than a lot of people think. With his speed, craftiness and energy/pace- I’m betting he’ll get a reward recall at some point this season.

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.

 

 

Brief thoughts on OT loss to Edmonton

I was in and out for this one, so not going to publish a complete game recap (and sorry for missing the win over Florida, so maybe I’ll do a twofer of limited observations in this post) of Edmonton’s 3-2 overtime victory in Peter Chiarelli’s return to the TD Garden (his club is 2-0 against Boston, taking the season sweep).

The Boston Bruins played well enough to win this one, battling back from an 0-2 deficit on goals from Matt Beleskey (a flukey play that happened because of his sheer work and hustle) and Brad Marchand, who wired a snipe top cheddar to tie it late in regulation for his team-leading 15th goal.

First period breakdowns led to goals by Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (that one happening when Zdeno Chara lost an edge in the corner by Boston’s net and gave the puck up to Eberle.) The Bruins actually caught a break when Eberle scored what should have been his second goal of the game but the refs had blown the whistle and assessed Marchand with a hooking call. It didn’t make sense, and should have given the Oil a 3-1 lead, but instead, gave Boston a chance to salvage a point. See? The officiating isn’t always out to get the Bruins…they lucked out on this one.

So, without further ado, here are some observations. I’ll post a prospects update in the morning. Sorry for the lack of posts, but my other life has intervened of late, so given that I’m not getting paid to do this blog, you can appreciate where the priorities lie.

Beleskey is a true Bruin. Yes, he only has 4 goals as the B’s approach the 30-game mark, but man- the guy is a gamer. Tonight, his goal was vintage  Beleskey as he took the puck to the net and from beside the left post chipped it in at  Cam Talbot, who had completely stymied the Bruins on some great scoring chances. The puck seemed to skip over Talbot’s left pad, then dropped in behind him and when he tried to close his right leg, he pushed the puck over the goal line. Ugly? You betcha. Will Boston take it? Absolutely! Sometimes, you just need to make your own luck and after a season in which Beleskey hasn’t had a whole lot of bounces go his way, that one was a gift from some sympathetic Hockey Gods, perhaps.

Curious decision by Claude Julien to go with the combo of Landon Ferraro-Ryan Spooner- Torey Krug in the 3-on-3 overtime. Edmonton won the faceoff and possessed the puck the entire time, as none of Boston’s players could make a play in the defensive zone. Andrej Sekera’s winning goal happened because Ferraro got stationary and when an initial shot from the veteran defenseman hit Krug, Sekera motored around Ferraro, who was puck watching (as NESN’s Andy Brickley  correctly observed) and fired it into the net behind Jonas Gustavsson.

Boston fans immediately took to Twitter to lambaste Julien for not having at least one (if not more) of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand or David Krejci out there to start the OT. They’re right. But, I can also live with the decision, as costly as it was and here’s why. Some of the same fans lighting the coach up are probably the same folks who have jumped on the coach in the past for playing favorites or sticking with veterans over some of the younger, more exciting players like Spooner. If he wins the draw and the Bruins take it the other way and score, Julien looks like a genius. It didn’t work out, and so we’re left with a good teaching point here- the next time Julien is rolling out some of the savvier veterans in OT and they are perhaps getting beaten by the other guys, you’ll remember that he wasn’t averse to giving the kiddos a shot in the past. Hey- the other guys wearing blue and orange get a vote, too- they made the plays and won the game. There’s no guarantee that Bergeron and/or Marchand, Krejci would have played it any differently. But of course- when you’re on the couch or sitting in front of the computer- it’s pretty easy to wag the finger and talk about what Julien should have done. I’m not saying you’re wrong for thinking that, but I guess I don’t have as big an issue with the roll of the dice he made as others do. Spooner and Ferraro have the speed/quickness and skill to excel in the extra space afforded them by the 3-on-3 format. Unfortunately, they got outplayed by Edmonton’s starting trio. It happens.

Speaking of Marchand…wow! That was just a wicked, wicked shot and goal on a guy in Cam Talbot who was having a career night. He almost stole the game in regulation, so B’s fans should be happy their team got a point out of it, and great setup pass by Ferraro to give Marchand the time and space to rip that one into the upper corner. He’s a snipah!

Frank Vatrano is finding ways to contribute, even if the pucks aren’t going in for him of late. He negated an icing call with a Charlie Hustle play in the first period and you can see the way he recognizes instant openings in the unfolding play and takes off up the ice. That’s a good sign, even if he might not quite be ready for primetime and could be sent back down to Providence at some point. So far, though, I have to think the coaches are fine with the lack of production because he’s doing the little things that are usually out of place for a rookie. Now, that’s not to say he’s got it figured out, but the kid from Western Mass. has been good. Better than good. Everything he does this season in the NHL should be gravy, but when David Pastrnak returns to action, I’m thinking that Vatrano might be headed back down I-95. We’ll see.

And on that note about the little things- Jimmy Hayes continues to struggle. He’s a lumbering skater who like most big men tends to glide and it often looks like he’s not trying even if not necessarily the case. Unfortunately for the Dorchester native, he’s also not getting many pucks to the net, so his issues are magnified. I think Hayes needs to simplify his approach…stop gripping the stick so tight. Just go to the net, get the stick down look for a simple play and not try to make it all back up on one single shift. Hayes is too talented not to be doing more for this club, but it looks like the pressure is getting to him.

Not a great night for Jonas Gustavsson…he wasn’t terrible, but when the other guy stands on his head, the guy seeing less action’s mistakes are magnified. He was giving up fat rebounds all night and the one to Nugent-Hopkins was particularly egregious. With Tuukka Rask playing his best hockey of the season, Gus might be taking a seat for a while. Cam Talbot was outstanding- if not for him, the B’s could have run the Oilers out of the building because they played well enough to do that if some of those quality shots he nullified had gone in. Sometimes, it’s okay to give the other goalie credit and admit that this just wasn’t your night.

The Oilers are for real. This was their sixth win in a row, the second over Boston this season and first in TD Garden since Mariusz Czerkawski scored a hat trick against his old club and Curtis Joseph blanked the B’s in a 6-0 shellacking on November 7, 1996. B’s were bound to lose one to the Oil on home ice eventually.

I’ve killed Kevan Miller on this blog quite a bit this season, but I’ve also tried to be fair. Sometimes, it’s easy to pile on him, because he’s getting more ice time than a player of his caliber should receive. I don’t say this to be condescending to Miller, but back in the day, the B’s were forced to play Hal Gill in a bigger (no pun intended) role than he was suited for and it put the spotlight on him for negativity. Miller had one particular memorable play tonight when Krug made a bad pinch up into the offensive zone with the game tied, allowing what looked like a potential odd-man rush for the Oilers the other way. Miller shut it down by taking a good angle on the Edmonton puck carrier and snuffing out the rush. It was one play, and I’m sure there were some mistakes out there too (and there will be many more of them over the course of the season, thank you) but in a game I didn’t admittedly see all of, the B’s had bigger issues than Miller tonight. Chara’s mistakes are proving pretty costly in their own right, for example. But that’s a story for another time- even with some of the gaffes from the captain, the B’s are screwed without him- warts and all.

And on that note, I’m signing off. Thanks for reading.

 

Final Buzzer: B’s break skid with comeback in Montreal

If you watched the first 47 minutes of the Boston Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre Wednesday night, then an eighth consecutive loss to the Habs probably appeared to be fait accompli.

Montreal’s Paul Byron had scored a fluky goal on a shot that deflected into the Boston net off of defenseman Zach Trotman in the first period that had given the home team a 1-0 lead and Canadiens netminder Mike Condon (he of nearby Needham Center) had frustrated Bruins shooters for two full periods and much of the third.

But a funny thing happened on the way to another loss to Boston’s hated rival to the north: goaltender Tuukka Rask turned in what was arguably his best game against Montreal, Loui Eriksson scored a pure hustle goal while killing a penalty, and then Landon Ferraro struck quickly to give the B’s a lead they would not relinquish in an eventual 3-1 victory.

It isn’t that the Bruins played poorly in the first two periods and change, but the Canadiens were the better team not only on paper, but on the ice, where they used their speed and skill to pressure the Boston defense and generate higher danger scoring chances than the B’s as the game went on.

However, Rask was up to the task. He settled in nicely after the Byron goal lent the impression that this might be another one of those games for him…one of the 14 he had lost in his career  (until last night, he had just three wins against that franchise) to a team that seemed to be renting space inside the Boston goalie’s head. If Montreal thought they were bound to add to the lead with the pressure they were putting on the Bruins last night, Rask clearly had other ideas.

With the team down 1-0 and Boston on defense killing a Dennis Seidenberg penalty after taking down B’s nemesis Dale Weise on a partial breakaway, the special teams came through.

Zdeno Chara batted an attempted Montreal pass from the point out of mid-air where it cleared the zone near center ice where Eriksson was. He gathered the puck and tried to separate from Canadiens defender Jeff Petry, but was near the end of the shift and was unable to do so. Although being hounded by his opponent, Eriksson used his experience and patience to maintain control of the puck as he skated in on Condon and then put a perfect shot through the former Princeton goalie’s wickets to tie the score at 7:53 of the final frame.

Ferraro struck just 42 seconds later, skating on a newly adjusted line with Ryan Spooner and Brett Connolly. Spooner got to a loose puck near the left side half-wall, but with his back to the slot, knew Ferraro was in prime scoring position and backhanded a perfect pass to his linemate. Ferraro did not miss, driving a hard snapshot into the upper portion of the net to give the B’s their first lead.

Patrice Bergeron closed out the scoring when he converted a Brad Marchand pass as he cut to the net, taking the puck wide and sliding into the net past a sprawling Condon, who was unable to seal the right post with his pad. Matt Beleskey made a fine play to set the goal up by forcing a turnover behind the Montreal net and getting the puck to Marchand.

The win was Boston’s first regular season victory at the Bell Centre since March 12, 2014 and was only the team’s second in the last 13 games. It also raised the team’s road record to 10-2-2, the top mark  in the Eastern Conference.

It sets up the two teams’ New Years Day matchup in Gillette Stadium for the 2016 Winter Classic nicely.

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

UP

Tuukka Rask- Immense game from the guy who is on top of his game after a brutal start to the season. In 20 games, he is 10-7-2, with a 2.63 GAA and .910 save percentage- hardly Vezina Trophy-like numbers, but given where he started from, a drastic improvement. Rask had no chance on the Byron goal, but he was terrific when he needed to be, particularly on a Tomas Plekanec deflected shot early in the third period that would have put Montreal up 2-0.

Loui Eriksson- The veteran impending unrestricted free agent continues to have a fine year, netting his 11th goal of the season- good for second place on the team behind Marchand’s 13 markers. He was near the end of his shift on the penalty kill, but instead of playing it safe and dumping the puck, he recognized the opening and did a great job of protecting it from the harassing Petry, then being patient enough to let Condon open up his pads before putting the shot past him. It was an example of a player not having the breakaway speed to separate, but using guile and a strong hockey IQ to make the play.

Landon Ferraro- With three goals and five points in eight games since Boston plucked him from waivers, he’s provided needed speed and an offensive dimension that the Red Wings were hoping for back in 2009 when they made him their top pick (early second round). That Ferraro-Spooner-Connolly combo on the third line might be worth keeping together for a bit to see if they can keep going to the well.

Patrice Bergeron- He continues to be the heart and soul of this Boston team. It was white knuckle time as the Bruins desperately tried to cling to a one-goal lead with Montreal mounting the pressure to tie the game, and Bergeron snuffed it with one of his signature blue collar quick strikes to give the B’s insurance. It was also his 576th career point, moving him past Milt Schmidt into sole possession of 11th place on the team.

DOWN

The Boston defense- With Colin Miller and Joe Morrow scratched for this one, there is not enough speed and agility on the back line with a core veteran group. Kevan Miller is good (maybe ‘good’ isn’t the word to use) for at least one glaringly bad turnover per game, and Chara, although he made the play on Eriksson’s equalizer, is laboring to stay with quicker, more nimble forwards. Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid work hard, but are limited and don’t bring much of an offensive dimension, though the collective experience does make up a little for what other players can bring in the way of mobility. Bottom line- the Bruins can’t count on lights-out games from Rask every night, so if Claude Julien stays with this group, we’re going to experience our share of peaks and valleys during the course of the remaining schedule.

 

Final Buzzer: Bruins, Gustavsson can’t overcome Predators

A Monday night matchup at home with the Nashville Predators ended in a 3-2 regulation loss for the Boston Bruins, who continue to play sub-.500 hockey at TD Garden this season.The play of Jonas Gustavsson, back in net two games after being yanked from action after surrendering three goals against the Calgary Flames, gave the team a chance but it wasn’t enough, as a Viktor Arvidsson goal in the final five minutes of the third period broke a 2-2 deadlock.

Defenseman Roman Josi near singlehandedly took out Boston with a two-goal performance one game after D partner Shea Weber tallied the first hat trick by a blue liner in franchise history. The B’s energy levels were up and down, but as the game went on, the visitors wrested control of the tempo and outshot the Bruins by a wide margin, 33-17.

Kevan Miller gave the B’s an early lead when his shot deflected off of Nashville defender Colton Sissons‘ skate and up under the crossbar behind backup goalie Carter Hutton. David Krejci and Matt Beleskey assisted on the defenseman’s second goal of the season, coming in his first game back after being on the shelf with an injury.

Josi tied the game with a power play marker in the final 25 seconds of the opening frame, getting some open space outside the left faceoff circle and placing the puck in a perfect shot over Gustavsson’s shoulder. The man advantage tally ended Boston’s string of 13 consecutive penalties killed.

Boston re-took the lead at 10:53 of the second period when Preds forward James Neal was  given a minor for embellishment and Loui Eriksson jammed a Ryan Spooner pass home for his 10th goal of the season.

The garden party was short-lived, however, as a poor Zdeno Chara clearing attempt was intercepted by Josi while the B’s were killing a Patrice Bergeron hooking penalty taken at 11:08.  It appeared that Chara was yelling at the referee for something that happened while he made the pass, and he compounded the situation by turning the wrong way and allowing Josi to skate by him with a direct path to the net. Cutting in from the right side, Josi not only evaded a weak stick check attempt by Chara, but then beat Gustavsson across the goalmouth to put the puck in on the far side, giving him his seventh goal of the season and second of the night.

That set the stage for a see-saw affair in the final frame, which saw Nashville enjoy the advantage in puck possession and scoring chances. Arvidsson took a Cody Hodgson pass, evaded Miller in the Boston zone, then deftly closed on Gustavsson, getting the goalie to bite on a failed poke check before putting the winning shot past him after skating around his prone form.

UP

Jonas Gustavsson- His 30 saves gave the Bruins a chance to win a game they could have been blown out in. The winning goal was scored on an aggressive but ultimately ill-advised play, but the rest of Gus’s mates weren’t there last night to give him better support. If he wanted to send a message after being off his game against Calgary, mission accomplished even if he didn’t achieve the desired outcome.

Patrice Bergeron- The assist on Ericsson’s second period PPG was the 575th point of his fine career. It tied him for 11th place on the team’s all-time list. 13 more points will move him past Peter McNab for 10th place and 591 points will jump ahead of Cam Neely. Bergeron is on pace to occupy eighth place, currently held by Terry O’Reilly with 606 points. On the down side, his hooking penalty in the second period allowed the Predators to tie the score on Josi’s second power play goal of the game.

Tyler Randell- Showed Eric Nystrom why he has a reputation for being one of the nastiest fighters during his tenure with Providence. One he got his right hand free during their second period bout, Randell began pistoning his fist into Nystrom’s head, at first making contact with his helmet, but then dropping him with two consecutive shots to the face. With four goals and the toughness needed for the bottom line, Randell is doing the tough work that the B’s need for balance in their lineup.

Ryan Spooner- His pass to Eriksson was vintage Spooner, and although he was denied on what should have been a layup goal after deking Hutton out of his jock in the second period, he impressed on a couple of hard-working defensive plays. For a player who receives significant criticism for his 5-on-5 play, Spooner skated hard and made one memorable back check deep in his own zone to separate the puck from Filip Forsberg and deny a quality scoring chance.

Roman Josi- His two goals made a big difference in this one, but he also engaged Brad Marchand in his first career NHL fight. It wasn’t much of a bout, but the Swiss defender killed the Bruins last night.

DOWN

Joonas Kemppainen- Suffered some kind of injury that kept him out of the lineup. Will be interesting to see how the lines look if he is unable to suit up Wednesday against Montreal.

James Neal- Called for a dive, which he may not have been guilty of, but this is what happens when you build a reputation for gamesmanship and embarrass on-ice officials. Tim Peel’s profanity-laced call was picked up by the microphones, which made it even more interesting. Neal is one of those players who generates a lot of schadenfreude, especially since it took the B’s just nine seconds to make him pay for it. When you talk  about players who don’t get the benefit of the doubt in those kinds of situations, Neal is exhibit A. But, he’s not the only one…ahem…Mr. Marchand.

 

Thoughts on the Bruins and 4-0 win over Canucks

Brad_Marchand

Brad Marchand is on a career-best goal scoring pace and is none the worse for wear after a Brandon Prust spearing incident (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins closed out their three-game Western Canada road swing with a decisive win over the fallen-on-hard-times Vancouver Canucks with a 4-0 win at the Rogers Arena Saturday night.

Brad Marchand continued his blistering scoring pace (8 goals in his last 9 games) by potting the game-winner just 2:54 into his 400th career NHL game. His 13th goal of the season has him on a 40+ goal pace, which would easily eclipse his personal best of 28 (in 76 games) which came during the 2011-12 season. To put it in perspective, Marchand’s best goals-per-game ratio happened during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season when he tallied 18 markers in 45 regular season games. With 13 in 23, he is en fuego, and it could not have come at a more important time for the team as the defense collectively continues to be an adventure from night to night.

Torey Krug ripped a one-timer slap shot past Canucks starter Jacob Markstrom and high into the net to make it 2-0, and for Krug, you had to figure that some of the many pucks (74 shots in 25 games) he’s been getting on opposing goaltenders would start to go through. It was Krug’s second goal in three games after going the first 15 contests of 2015-16 before finding the back of the net against Detroit on Nov. 14. Krug got off to a very good start as one of the most effective defenders in Boston, but hit a rough patch last month, when it appeared he was trying to do a little too much and started coughing up pucks and making ill-advised decisions with his passes. Of late, he’s settling back in (though his ice time has gone down on average from the highs of 24-26 minutes a game in late October to hovering around 20-22), and has focused more on the defensive side of his game. He had a season-high five shot blocks in the loss to Calgary Friday and has registered a total of 13 in his last four games. As an undersized player, Krug is never going to have it in him to take on the majority of the NHL forwards he goes up against in a sheer physical contest, but he can play it smart positionally and by giving up the body to deny scoring chances on his net minders, he’s doing the little things.

Landon Ferraro has been a revelation. He wired a shot past Markstrom in the second period after taking a long lead pass from Zdeno Chara and using his speed to create a shooting lane. His drive from the right side was  may have been deflected by a Canucks player on the way in, but his family including father Ray, and stepmother Cammi Granato (yes, that Cammi Granato and check out Landon’s younger stepbrothers all decked out in Bruins gear) were in the building to see him score his second goal as a member of the Bruins (he added an assist on Tyler Randell’s third period goal for his first career multi-point game in the NHL). Ferraro was an early second-round pick in 2009 who came out of the WHL with the reputation for speed and scoring, but not seen as all that accomplished in terms of playing a complete, 200-foot game. Well, the 24-year-old has addressed that, as he’s brought an energy, tenacity and diligence that Claude Julien and the coaches demand from the players. Ferraro was unable to carve out a niche for himself in the Motor City, but he looks like a real find for the Bruins to stabilize the bottom line for now, with a chance to develop and expand his role on the team going forward (two goals, four points in his six games with the B’s to date). When you consider that the team failed with their first rounder  Jordan Caron, the fact that Ferraro and Randell are giving them life from the 2009 draft, it takes some (but nowhere near all) of the sour taste away from Boston’s failures in that arena from 2007-09. The name of the game in the modern NHL is to have the complementary, lower-cost but effective and productive pieces in place to offset higher veteran salaries to manage the available cap space. With a cap hit of about $452k this season, Ferraro is doing precisely that for his new team. Having looked at film of him with Red Deer and Everett of the WHL and Grand Rapids (AHL) and Detroit, I have little doubt that Ferraro has a chance to develop into a high-end third line forward and special teams ace. He’s not likely to be a legitimate top-six forward option, but getting those types off the waiver wire is hard to do. On a team that needed an infusion of speed and puck skills, he’s brought that. But Ferraro has also played with more jam than I thought he would. Give Don Sweeney and his pro scouts (Adam Creighton chief among them) credit here- they may have found themselves a keeper.

Zach Trotman is playing on the top line and doing well given the circumstances. He’s got the natural size you want from a defender and as a right shot, he’s the best one suited to play on the other side with Chara. I said before the season that Trotman is a solid, if unspectacular option who isn’t likely to ever develop into a true No. 1 or 2 at the NHL level. Pointing to his mere presence on the top pairing and calling him a No. 2 is not how it works, guys. Having said that, I believe he is a serviceable player who just needs to keep playing in order to get the best out of him, and Julien has done that after benching him early in the year. Trotman is at an interesting nexus between statistical performance and trends and the long accepted “eye test” with his play. He’s more Allen Pedersen or Hal Gill (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that when employed properly) than he is a top two-way defender, but with his cannon and ability to make an effective first pass, he’s getting the job done with Chara. Trotman will still make poor decisions and giveaways in high danger areas in his own end- he’s got to cut down on that. But while I don’t agree with at least one supporter who sees him as a legitimate top defender at this level, I do not see him as a liability the way other critics do. He’s not as snarly as Kevan Miller is, but he’s a far more effective player in terms of his skating and the way he handles the puck and sees the ice. At the end of the day, both can play at this level, but if you’re counting on both of them in the top-six rotation at the same time, then the B’s are probably going to have issues being a real team in contention over the long haul.

Of course, with Adam McQuaid’s status up in the air after leaving last night’s game with what appeared to be a wrist injury, the team might end up doing just that. Here’s hoping we’ll see more of Dennis Seidenberg and Colin Miller, but you never quite know how the Boston coaches see things versus the rest of us.

Patrice Bergeron and Marchand are the best, most recognized center-wing combo in Boston since Adam Oates and Cam Neely– such a shame they only truly had just two seasons (one of them being the lockout year of 1994-95 at that) to make their magic together. I guess one could make the case for  Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov or Glen Murray and that’s a fair assertion to make. Either way, when it comes to what the fans crave and respect, it does not get much better than what Bergeron and Marchand are doing right now, and have done in the past. Bergeron is at just below a point-per-game pace with 24 in 25- but his previous season best for points was 73 in 81 games way back when he was 20 years old in the 2005-06 season. Not sure if his current production rate is sustainable, but given he led the club with 55 points a year ago, we’ll certainly take it. Bergeron does the little things that often go unnoticed and the fact that Marchand is finishing off the chances he’s getting from his center feeds into that production. As long as these two stay hot, the B’s have a chance at staying firmly in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of sustainable paces vs. unsustainable…Tyler Randell’s shooting percentage of 34 won’t stay up there, but there is a lot to be said for a guy who gets as little ice time as he does having four goals in just 14 of his team’s 25 games. His skating is better…the hands/shot were always there…he’s got to keep working hard and moving his feet. If you had told me before the season to guess a player with no previous NHL experience who would have the same or more goals than either of Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey but in fewer games, Randell’s name would not have been on the tip of my tongue. He’s a tough bastard, too…he’s earned his limited ice time and should have an opportunity to get some more as the season goes on. His effort level is what will determine to a large degree how much of a role he can establish for himself, so that’s on Randell. He’s just got to keep grinding away, but so far, so good. And as for Hayes, he was a healthy scratch for the second time already this season- he’s on notice that when he doesn’t move his feet, he’s not accomplishing much. The team expects and ought to get more from him.

Speaking of the fourth line, even Zac Rinaldo got into the act of helping last night, coming up short in a quest for the Gordie Howe Hat Trick with an assist and his first fight as a Bruin against Derek Dorsett in one of the more spirited bouts I’ve seen this season. See for yourself if you like that sort of thing.

Tuukka Rask came in and gave his club a chance to win the Calgary game. Last night, en route to earning his third shutout of the season and 29th of his career (just two away from tying Timmy Thomas for third in franchise history) he wasn’t tested all that much (17 saves) by what is a pretty moribund Canucks team. Still, he’s trending upwards and has played much more of late like the former Vezina Trophy winner. I have always respected Rask’s talent, but his body language and attitude at times has been an area of contention for me. He’s certainly not alone in that regard when it comes to goalies over the years. Patrick Roy was infamous for this kind of thing when it wasn’t going his way, but he’s also a Hall of Fame player and four-time Stanley Cup champ. I was raised in a culture that the goalie is the last line of defense and even when the team in front of you screws up, you don’t show them up and jump on their case after a goal is scored against. Besides, most everyone watching who understands the game knew where the breakdown occurred, anyway. Rask has always been one of those guys where when he’s playing well, you hear him say “I…I…I…” a lot and “We…we…we…” when the club is losing or not playing well. Even the most ardent Rask supporters know that in their hearts he’s moody and tends to get surly when the good times aren’t rolling. On a team like Boston as currently constructed, where we all knew coming in that we were going to see peaks and valleys, that’s not necessarily a positive fit. So, I’ll just say that as long as he keeps playing like this, the Bruins have a chance. Good on him for shutting the Canucks down last night and allowing the B’s to maintain control throughout. That’s the type of play the Bruins need from their top goalie and proof that he doesn’t have to stand on his head every night to be effective.

Finally, Brandon Prust and his spear on Marchand’s “fun spot” (his words not mine) in the game’s final moments (he got a match penalty but the Bruins didn’t get a power play out of it) is a fitting coda last night and spotlight to the mess the Canucks are right now.

Their goaltending isn’t very good…their core players are aging…the young players, while skilled and impressive options for the future aren’t ready for primetime. Prust’s actions, while meet with jeers from Boston fans and cheers from everyone else who despises Marchand, demonstrate the hypocrisy that has become so ugly and prevalent in the modern age of the Internet. There is simply no excuse for that kind of lousy sportsmanship and blatant disrespect. As someone who did not ever once defend Milan Lucic when he did it himself while wearing a Boston uniform and has at times been critical of Marchand’s on- and off-ice antics that have distracted away from the professional pursuit of winning, I don’t want to ever see or hear any righteous finger wagging coming from Vancouver and their fans/analysts again. At some point, we have to get past the intellectually dishonest partisanship of justifying bad behavior and call things for what they are.

What happens to Prust is up to the NHL and its player safety department, but I’m disappointed in those who seem to think that spear was in any way justified or acceptable. You instantly lose any moral high ground you think you own when you resort to that kind of moral equivalence in your reasoning, and to be frank- it’s beneath contempt and shameful. Prust embarrassed himself, his team, the league and the sport. This from a guy who ranted at an opponent recently on Twitter for fighting one of his young teammates, too. The hypocrisy from Prust and his enablers over the entire course of his checkered hockey career going back to the cheapshot he delivered to former Bruin Matt Lashoff when the two were in the OHL, reeks.

I expect a lot more from a Willie Desjardins-coached team, and being around him during his time with the Texas Stars, I bet he wasn’t at all amused with Prust’s actions last night and the stain (however small) that put on Vancouver in what was a pretty putrid game for them overall. Enough with the moral outrage out of that lovely city (man, they’re such a riot sometimes)- that team and their fans have just given up the right to complain about anything for a while and maybe they should just shut up and worry about winning hockey games from now on? Just a thought. No Cups in 45 years. No Cups for that franchise, period. Let that sink in for a bit and one more thing: scoreboard, Vancouver- better luck next time.

Okay- off the soapbox. Bruins got four out of six points on the roadie. Maybe not enough to inspire another Meatloaf song, but good enough to get them back into the tight jockeying for playoffs in the East.

 

 

Johnny Hockey hatty lifts Flames in OT

I’ll do more via Final Buzzer tomorrow, but the Boston Bruins overcame 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to take a 4-3 lead into the final seconds before coughing it up on a Jiri Hudler strike with 1.2 ticks left to send the game at the Scotia Bank Saddledome to overtime. Johnny Gaudreau completed his hat trick in memorable fashion after Zdeno Chara inexplicably tried a fancy, behind-the-back pass that was picked off and sent the Flames off on a jailbreak rush.

Game, set, match.

It was a rough night for Chara all around despite scoring his fifth goal of the season in a multi-point effort- his giveaway resulted in Gaudreau’s first goal of the night, just 33 seconds in. The captain was also on the ice and unable to get to a weak David Krejci clearing attempt that was slowed down by the end-of-game ice surface and held in, resulting in the tying goal. To top it off, he took a delay of game with 2:17 left in regulation for putting the puck out of play.

So, yes- you hate to pile on Chara because he’s been such a top performer over the years, but the team rightfully expects and should get better play from its most senior veteran and top d-man (though Chara’s place among the NHL’s other No. 1s is rapidly diminishing). Mistakes are understandable, but a giveaway like the one he made in OT is not.

He simply has to be better in that situation and others from here on out. This defense is simply not talented or balanced enough to survive nights when Chara’s head is writing checks his aging body can’t cash.

Yes, the Bruins got a point in the standings, but they’ve surrendered two points to teams below them in the standings now in the last two games. We saw this movie last year and it didn’t end well. You simply cannot give away opportunities.

The dedicated Chara fans out there will point to the offense or point out mistakes made by others in predictable fashion to justify his mediocrity in Calgary, and they aren’t completely incorrect. Sure- he had a couple of points tonight, but this is an important example of a player getting on the scoresheet but not having a strong performance in the final review. When the question is asked of whether Chara was there when the team needed him most tonight, the execution was lacking.

Claude Julien has no problem hammering and benching the Zach Trotmans and Joe Morrows of the world when they screw up on ice. Let’s see if he has the moral courage and intestinal fortitude to jerk a knot in the captain’s ass over this one.

Probably not, but the team can’t afford too many more of these nights, even as entertaining as the game certainly was.

Final Buzzer: B’s stumble in first game of road swing

The Boston Bruins came up short against the Edmonton Oilers in their final visit to Rexall Place, formerly known as the Northlands Coliseum, ending their five-game win streak. The chances were there but the B’s dropped a 3-2 shootout loss to the team that hired former GM Peter Chiarelli and has not enjoyed much success early in the 2015-16.

The B’s negated 1-0 and 2-1 deficits compliments of Mark Letestu and former Bruin Matt Hendricks with goals by Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara late in the second and third periods. Matt Beleskey played another solid game

The teams each posted eight shots apiece in a scoreless opening period that, but Edmonton broke through at 10:23 of the second frame while on the penalty kill when a poor line change by David Krejci left Krug alone to fend off a 2-on-1 break. With Krug backing in and Hendricks skating in on net, the Boston defender lost his edge and went down. Hendricks put the puck back against the grain to Letestu, who redirected it into the net with Tuukka Rask leaning over to his right and unable to get back over to prevent the puck from crossing the goal line.

Krug evened the game with 1:33 remaining in the period after he took the puck out near the left point and threw it on net. It hit Oilers defenseman Andrej Sekera and bounced into the cage on the short side past Edmonton goalie Anders Nilsson. It was only Krug’s second goal of the season and his first tally in seven games since lighting the lamp against his hometown Detroit Red Wings on November 14.

Letestu returned the favor to Hendricks in the third period to restore the Edmonton lead, getting the puck to his linemate as he drove to the Boston net for the deflection.

That set the stage for Chara to get the equalizer after an excellent shift by the Beleskey-Krejci-Loui Eriksson line to gain possession along the end boards. Krejci then came out from behind the right post and found the captain uncovered between the hashmarks for his fourth goal of the season to make it 2-2 with less than four minutes remaining in regulation.

The teams battled hard in overtime, which was made interesting in the final minute and change when the referees whistled Beleskey for an interesting (a mild way of putting it) interference call in the Boston crease when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had the puck. Beleskey buried him from behind and knocked the goal off the moorings, shaking Rask up in the process, but the B’s top goalie stayed in and made several crucial stops in the 4-on-3 power play to keep the score tied.

In the shootout, Rask denied Hendricks, not taking the bait on the head fake as the puck slid wide. Patrice Bergeron was unable to get the puck over a sprawling Nilsson. Jordan Eberle then beat Rask with a forehand shot in off the post. Nilsson then denied Brad Marchand and Krejci to get his sixth shootout win of his career to extend his record to 6-0.

Bruins take on Calgary next on Friday night.

No ups or downs tonight- early work call.

 

Matt Beleskey- not quite your MVP but a key contributor

If not for the numbers, it would not be a stretch to argue that left wing Matt Beleskey is one of the Boston Bruins’ most valuable players over the first quarter of the 2015-16 NHL season.

The two goals and 10 points in 20 games is disappointing given he scored a career-high of 22 a year ago with the Anaheim Ducks and was expected to reach the 20-goal plateau at least this season after the B’s made him their priority target in free agency last July. Signed to a five-year pact that carries an AAV/cap hit of $3.8 million per season, Beleskey is currently the eighth-highest paid Bruin on the roster. However, this blog post will argue that he’s closer the top-five in terms of impact and importance to the team’s fortunes. That may not translate when it comes to pure production, but in terms of other traditional and advanced metrics, Beleskey has been one of the more consistent forwards on a team that has had other players provide the needed scoring impetus early on. Based on his role in Anaheim a year go, Beleskey will eventually bring more in terms of production, and when he does, his overall physicality, energy and grit will be even more significant in proper context.

Background: Beleskey was the 116th overall selection (fourth round) by Anaheim in the 2006NHL Entry Draft, spending his entire OHL career with the Belleville Bulls (2004-08). His best season was a 41-goal, 90-point affair for the Bulls in his final junior campaign in 2007-08, signing with Anaheim and spending the 2008-09 season in the AHL (he did have a two-game scoreless NHL stint with the Ducks that year.) Beleskey scored 11 goals in 60 NHL games the following season and established himself as a full-time NHLer in 2011-12. The lockout and injuries have conspired to deny him more than 70 games in a single season, but he hit a career best for goals and points last season in only 65 games. The Ducks attempted to keep him out of free agency with a contract extension offer before the regular season ended, but Beleskey opted instead to go the free agency route.

Traditional statistics: With just a pair of goals in 20 games, there is no denying that Beleskey’s production is way down from a year ago. He’s scored in a loss against Montreal and an October 31 win over Tampa Bay, so both of his goals have come against division rivals. However, his assist totals put him on pace for about 40 helpers, which will far exceed his career-best 15 assists from 2013-14. His points/60 min average is a little off from what it was a year ago, but is comparable, and he is on pace to surpass his top output of 32 points.

Granted- you expect more from your $3.8M than 40-50 points, but that’s not terrible value offensively. At even strength, where the B’s have not been the greatest this season, Beleskey is among the team’s leaders in points with a 1.89 points/60 rating. Compare that to David Krejci– 2.41; Patrice Bergeron– 1.23; Loui Eriksson– 1.73 and Brad Marchand– 1.70. That Krejci leads Beleskey by .52 P/60 5v5 is not a surprise, but would you have put money on him beating everyone else- and Bergeron by .66? Beleskey’s even strength P/60 are No. 3 on the team overall- behind Krejci and Tyler Randell (2.30), who has played a paltry 78 minutes at even strength. Beleskey’s  even strength 1.89 P/60 would be only seventh-best on the Montreal Canadiens (just ahead of Tomas Plekanec), but he would lead the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose best 5v5 player, Jonathan Drouin, has just a 1.88 P/60 to boast of.

Beleskey has not had an opportunity of any significance with the man advantage or on the penalty kill, with just 6:39 of power play time (compared to his 285:38 and counting at even strength) and 49 seconds  on the ice while shorthanded. The lack of impact on special teams is both a ding on him in terms of how valuable he is and an example of how successful he’s been despite the opportunities that his higher-scoring teammates receive in the special teams game. When you factor in the Bruins P/60 rates in all situations- Beleskey (1.97) drops to 10th on the team, with every forward on the active roster save for Frank Vatrano, Landon Ferraro, Joonas Kemppainen and Zac Rinaldo ahead of him. Colin Miller’s (2.00) rating puts him ahead of Beleskey, the only defender in the top-nine. On the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, Beleskey’s 1.97 P/60 puts him fourth on that team.

Where Beleskey is shining is in the hits department, where he is currently in the top-10 with 82 hits, more than 4 per game on average. By comparison, Milan Lucic, the Boston forward Beleskey was widely considered to have been brought in to address the lost production from, has 78 hits in two more games. Beleskey doesn’t have Lucic’s natural size or ability to be as physically dominant, but he’s a scrappy, physical guy for his 6-foot-and change size. He’s always willing to finish his checks and make a big hit. Just ask Derek Stepan. Ouch…too soon? Que dites-vous, Alain Vigneault?

Beleskey is shooting the puck more than he did a year ago and right now, not a whole lot is going in for him, but when he starts finding the back of the net, watch for him to get on a streak. Beleskey fired five shots on Henrik Lundqvist Friday and if he continues to get pucks to the net, he’ll raise the scoring bar. A year ago, he scored 18 even strength goals on just 124 shots, a shooting percentage of 14.5 percent- well above his typical numbers (he tallied 10.3 percent in his 11-goal season during 2009-10, but typically scored at under a 10 percent clip in his other years), but most analysts predicted (correctly) a natural regression from that 14.5 percentage this season. Admittedly, the B’s need more than his current 6.67 shooting percentage, and he’s a good bet to get that number up closer to his career average of about 9-10 percent by season’s end.

Advanced statistics: Beleskey is on the positive side of the ledger in terms of goals scored for his team when he is on the ice versus goals against (per 60 minutes), with a GF60 of 2.941 and GA60 of 2.101. good for a GF percentage of 58.3. Bergeron’s even strength offensive numbers for example aren’t as good- the B’s have scored just 2.255 GF/60 but his GA/60 average is better with a 1.845.  That gives him a 55.0 GF%. Bergeron’s iCorsi (74) is higher than Beleskey’s (66) because he takes more shots, but his even strength shooting percentage is lower.

Beleskey’s PDO (shot percentage + save percentage while player is on the ice- I like this stat because it tends to be a little more predictive versus some of the others) is 101.7, which is lower than his 103.8 and 103.0 in each of the last two seasons. Bergeron’s even strength PDO is 98.8- up two percentage points from the less productive 2013-14 season, when he posted a 96.8. Even in his 30-goal campaign of two years ago, his PDO was 102.4- just .7 points higher than Beleskey’s number as of today.

Bergeron significantly overtakes Beleskey on the power play where his production is tops on the Bruins with 9.88 P/60 (he has 11 of his 21 points against Beleskey’s 0.00. Bergeron’s PDO on the power play is 120.6 (compared to his 5v5 of 98.8), which gives you an idea of just how much his production with the man advantage skews the scoring totals in his favor. The bottom line for me when I look at the two players- at even strength, where the two have similar minutes on the ice, Beleskey is the more productive (note- I said productive not better) player. I won’t peel the onion back too much more in terms of Beleskey’s zone starts or how he does when close or trailing, but he’s been one of the more consistent performers at even strength- admittedly and area that the Bruins need to improve on going forward if they want to remain in the playoff picture.

(Statistical source: Hockey Analysis.com- David Johnson)

Intangibles: Going back to July 1, when Beleskey chose the Bruins in free agency, he’s said and done all the right things. He and his wife were active on social media and quickly traveled to Boston after signing, showing their excitement to be joining the organization at a time when the team’s outlook was anything but rosy. The B’s and Don Sweeney had just traded Dougie Hamilton and more questions than answers swirled around the B’s, even though Beleskey and trade acquisition Jimmy Hayes pumped some excitement into fans who had seen their contributions while wearing other team jerseys and envisioned good things from the new additions. Thus far, the two have combined for just six goals, which is well off of expectations given that they posted a total of 41 between the two of them with the Ducks and Florida Panthers a year ago.

Beleskey is hard-nosed- he’s had a couple of fights with Minnesota’s Brett Bulmer and NY Ranger Dylan McIlrath in the past seven days, racking up an impressive 10 total hits in both contests. He’s a gritty, willing combatant, which should endear him to Bruins fans as they warm up to him in Boston and see where his consistency and ruggedness comes from.

Against McIlrath, Beleskey was out of his weight class and took some shots and jabs from the much larger former WHL pugilist and first-round pick before coming back with a right cross and then went to the ice.

Beleskey did a lot better in his scrap against Bulmer, however…

What’s more- Beleskey wants to be here. Sweeney did a good job of moving guys who didn’t feel the same way out. If you’re going to invest millions in a player- at least pay for the ones who want to be a part of the solution. These guys are only human and sometimes we forget that if someone doesn’t want it as badly, we can expect them to be professionals, but without being able to see inside a person’s heart, we don’t know if they are giving it their all. One need not do any more than simply watch the way Beleskey hurtles around the ice on every shift, looking to to make a hit or force a turnover if he’s anywhere near the puck when someone with another jersey has it, to know that the guy is giving it his maximum effort.

Beleskey was in the news this past week when he and his wife purchased $2,000 worth of pies and distributed them to homeless veteran charities in Boston for Thanksgiving. It’s a nice gesture from a player who has backed up his words of being proud to be a part of the Bruins organization with the kind of gritty play the team values, as well as taking the time to give back to the community.

Summary: The Bruins are getting the guy they coveted from the West Coast. The goals aren’t there, but he’s brought a needed effort each and every night and plays hard, providing the all-important leadership by example. His 10 points in 20 games has him on pace for his best offensive season, and he’s creating space for his line mates with his physical brand of hockey. Beleskey doesn’t have the natural size to be a classic and even feared power forward, but he’s not shy about sticking his nose in and taking one for the team.

There are some who will just point to the $3.8M cap hit and draw a direct correlation to the downturn in goals, but when you consider that some pundits were predicting him to sign for upwards of $4.5 or 5 million last July, the Bruins are getting solid value. At age 27 and with four more years on the books, he’ll probably live up to the contract and then some so long as he can stay healthy. Because of his kamikaze style of play, it takes a toll on his average frame. However, when all is said and done, no one will ever accuse Beleskey of being soft.

In short, you win with guys like that, and this is why- as we look at Boston’s record after 22 games- they sit at a solid 13-8-1 overall. There aren’t many who would have put money on them being 5 games over .500 at the quarter pole with the team they had on paper coming into the season. Beleskey’s contributions, especially at even strength when the power play has not been there to carry the club offensively, are a big reason you can make a case that he’s right up there with the big guns- Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Eriksson as one of the team’s most valuable players during this stretch of the season.