Bruins hold on to beat Flames as new faces debut at home

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

Congrats, Coach

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.

 

 

 

Summer coooler interview series 3: Jon Gillies

Gillies appears on the April cover of New England Hockey Journal after leading his team to the NCAA championship game for the first time since 1985. (Getty)

Gillies appears on the April cover of New England Hockey Journal after leading his team to the NCAA championship game for the first time since 1985. (Getty)

The Calgary Flames got potential greatness in net when they chose South Portland, Maine native Jon Gillies in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft after a couple of seasons with the USHL’s Indiana Ice (and a year at Salisbury School in Connecticut before that).

As impressive a physical specimen as you will find at 6-foot-5, he most recently backstopped the Providence College Friars to the 2015 NCAA championship in a memorable contest against Hockey East rival power Boston University, slamming the door in the final period after his club mounted a comeback. It’s not surprising, given that in each of his three NCAA seasons with the Friars, he stopped at least 93% of the shots he faced in at least 35 appearances every year, a tremendous testament to his focus and consistency at such a high level.

The 21-year-old turned pro and signed with Calgary this past spring, where he is expected to play for the club’s new AHL affiliate in California, the Stockton Heat.

He’s the modern pro goaltender with a huge frame and long limbs to take away the net from shooters. He has a winner’s mindset and is able to focus on making the critical save at crunch time, the hallmark of any championship puckstopper and player teams want to be a workhorse. Don’t be surprised if Gillies is skating into NHL creases before too long, but for now, he’ll take Calgary’s designed path for him a game at a time as he prepares to head West for his first pro training camp.

Gillies took time out from some family events in Minnesota to talk about Providence’s run to the Frozen Four, his own journey and experiences on several championship teams and how he is looking ahead to his pro hockey career.

Kirk Luedeke: Jon- take us back to April to 2015 and talk about what it was like to be in net for your school’s first ever NCAA championship and the epic game of contest and wills that came down between two Hockey East powers like that?

Jon Gillies: It’s hard to explain, really. I remember standing on the ice after we won and just kind of thinking of everything that happened over the past year dating to back when I decided to go back for my junior year and just thinking of all- the first thing that comes to mind is all of the sacrifices you’ve made with your teammates and just the work that gets put in there in the college season. There aren’t as many games as in pro, so there’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes, a lot more work and practices and things like that where you really have to be tuned into at all times. It was pretty special this year with all those guys- my roommates and I were very close with everyone on that team and it was one of the most tight-knit groups I’ve ever been a part of. So, it was pretty special and sharing that experience with everyone was cool- my mom got a little  emotional in the stands and I was so happy that she was able to be a part of it and to have both of my parents to be able to make it to pretty much every game living so close to PC, and several of my very best friends growing up were able to go to the game and see us win. The way it all came together to win the tournament is something I’ll never forget for sure.

KL: Your dad (Bruce) has a history of playing hockey at a high level (goaltender at UNH, played pro hockey in several leagues including the AHL and IHL)- can you talk about your father and your parents in general in terms of inspiring in your own career and helping you along the way?

JG: Yeah, my dad has been everything to me- at the rink, away from the rink…he’s been my best friend and a person I can bounce hockey questions off. We’re pretty much the same exact person when it comes to hobbies and interests away from the rink so, we can both get away from hockey in that aspect. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to have shared this ride with over the course of my whole career and to know what’s best for me, know what I need at certain times. I still think one of the biggest decisions he ever had to make as a hockey parent, especially when you played the position he did, it can be hard to step away from the technical aspects of something like that, but when I was 10 years old, he and my mother both agreed it was time for me to see a modern day goalie coach and get into that program from that age on. That’s something where you look back on it and it wasn’t that  big of a deal at the time but for them to make that sacrifice was important. From then on, and before that obviously, he and I just always have been able to talk about hockey when it’s time to talk about hockey or not even discuss it all all. It’s been pretty special and I wouldn’t be anywhere without him.

KL: Providence College- you got in on the ground floor with this championship group and you got to grow and mature for three years there. Can you talk about the transformation when Coach Nate Leaman came in and the team added pieces that ultimately led to your squad skating around with the championship trophy in 2015?

JG: I think that back when I was 18 years old just graduating from high school and I chose Providence College the reaction I got from a lot of people was confusion. They were kind of surprised because obviously there were some more established programs at that time but the foundation that tells you a lot about Coach Leaman about a coach and person was just the straightforwardness and honesty he has. He was straightforward by saying it was going to be a process and a lot of hard work. But, if you come here you have a chance to be a building block and start something special and help the program transition back to its period of glory. The selling point for any goalie is- I think you try to go where you’re wanted and to have a chance to be a part of something that special and part of a program that was ready to take off with a coach like that and the culture he instilled was something that cemented the decision.

KL: His old team Union College won it all in 2014…I’m sure that was something not lost on you, the players. Did you or some of the other veterans on PC get together this past spring and recognize the opportunity to win one for Coach Leaman  as things were shaping up for you to make a run to the championship? Did you talk about how special it would be to see a team he had a big hand in win the NCAA one year and then the club he currently coaches win it the next?

JG: I think after we lost to Union my sophomore year we felt for Coach Leaman a lot because we knew that although he would never make it about himself or anything like that, I think we knew as a group it was a very tough loss for him and it was a game he really, really, really wanted to win. At the same time I know the kind of person he is and he was so proud of Union College when they won the NCAA- he was so proud of all the players he had coached and was very happy for Coach (Rick) Bennett and the school overall. I think that says a lot about him as a person.

When I think back to the beginning of last year, there were a lot of high expectations on us as a team externally- there were a lot of people picking us to win the Hockey East and we kind of stumbled out of the gate. But I think that was more happening because we didn’t believe we were as good as others thought we were- it took us a little while to get that in our mindset. One of the things Coach Leaman did to help us get there was to make sure we were focusing on each other and focusing on the things that we could control and applying that every day at the rink. And he made sure we were coming in with the goal to just get better each day. So it was kind of that one step at a time approach that he instilled in us from day one. So when you talk about trying to win it all because of what happened with Union College, I don’t think he would ever want us to have that mindset or anything like that. It might have crossed the minds of some guys, but I know that for me I wanted to win it for Coach Leaman because of everything he had done for me and the team and I wanted to win it for the group of guys I had the pleasure of sitting in the locker room and looking at every day and battling with in games every night, so those were the motivating factors for us, I think.

KL: Having been a part of multiple championships- Team USA in 2013 and that world junior gold medal in your trophy case and now this- what in your mind do those championship teams have in common? What does it take to win at any level in terms of your hockey experiences- what are the uniting ties that bind on those winning teams you’ve been on?

JG: The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the belief we have in each other and having the willingness to do what it takes to win. If you look at what we did in the (NCAA) tournament, we had guys diving headfirst in front of pucks…that shows a lot about the culture that was instilled here, but also about the camaraderie of the team and the willingness to play for each other and have each other’s backs; to be willing to sacrifice everything for the betterment of the team.

The Team USA experience was a weird cohesion we had in terms of it being such a short tournament, but I think that’s where the (National Team Development Program) NTDP comes in where you have those guys that build the relationships over the course of two-plus years and then come together as a team like that so they’ve already hit the ground running. And then in terms of guys like myself and Johnny Gaudreau and Jimmy Vesey– all those guys that…we come in kind of cold compared to some of the relationships they’ve already built but they’re very accepting of us and welcoming and they just throw us into the mix.

I have to say that the biggest thing for our Providence College team is that you don’t think about the past and things like that because there were a lot of things that we could have gotten discouraged about where we lost a tough series to UNH and we were on the bubble of the tournament. I think our biggest mindset was if he get the chance, we’re going to make the most of it.

KL: You went out on top, signed with Calgary, they’ve probably made it clear that they have big plans for you- how has the summer been for you- the first in which you’re preparing for the new season knowing that you’ll attend your first main NHL camp?

JG: I want to be open to knowing that adversity is going to come, and go with the flow and take everything in stride by learning as much as possible. I was in the mindset when I went out to Calgary at the end of the season and my mindset in the summer was… the biggest thing people talk about at this level is that you need to take a break, you need to a refresher, refreshment period…and thankfully, my family provides a good outlet for that. That’s what being home this summer- two months was pretty good for that. It’s fun going to the gym every day and working out next to two of your best friends and your little brother (Cameron Gillies), so that kind of stuff helps more than I think I realized at the time when I first started, but looking back on it, it’s been a great summer in that aspect.

As far as training, you try to get to get better every day. You do the exercises once a week, and then the next week, you do the same but you try to get your weight up. The next week when you come across that same cluster or something like that and you just go from there. I was making sure that the fun I was having this summer was balanced out with hard work to get ready mentally and physically for the long haul of the season.

KL: You went out to Calgary, you saw the city and was around members of the team and management/coaching staff- what are some of the takeaways you got from that brief period in Western Canada last spring, and what are most looking forward to?

JG:  I think the first thing you notice is the passion of the city and the passion of the fans. Everyone talks about it and you have an idea of it when you go, but I was sitting up top with some of the injured (NHL) guys for one of the home games and the catwalk was literally shaking from the crowd at the Saddledome and how incredible the energy from all the fans was. Every single person is in a red jersey and it was a pretty fascinating sight- so I’m very excited for that passion and how everyone cares so much about the Flames, cares about the players- the success on and off the ice of the individuals as well as the team as a whole.

From what I notice about the team itself- the culture is a lot like- it’s very similar to the culture that Coach Leaman instilled in Providence- the never quit attitude and the expectation that you work as hard as you can and try to get better every single day, one game at a time- everything’s a process. It’s a great place to be and I’m very fortunate to be a part of this organization and the city and so I really can’t wait to get the ball.

KL: Is there anything else you want to add or anyone else you want to recognize for your success as we wrap it up?

JG: Just make sure that my mom knows that I love her and that she’s been as big a part of my success as my dad- we talked about him a lot but my mom doesn’t get the headlines, but as any hockey mom is- she’s been incredible and she’s a saint and I want to make sure that’s out there as well.

***

Thanks again to Jon for taking the time to chat- although this blog tends to be Boston Bruins-centric, I want to have more of an NHL flavor from around the league and I believe that Gillies is one of the league’s young stars in waiting. Flames fans have much to be excited about in the years to come with their team, and I suspect he will be a part of that success.

Gillies (at lower right) has a WJC gold medal & NCAA championship already- is a Stanley Cup ring in his future? (Getty)

Gillies (at lower right) has a WJC gold medal & NCAA championship already- is a Stanley Cup ring in his future? (Getty)