NHL Free Agency Day 1: Bruins add depth, Acciari to Panthers

cropped-fitzgeraldbs.jpg

As expected, the Boston Bruins played on the margins during the NHL’s annual free agent derby July 1, re-signing defenseman Connor Clifton to a three-year pact at a $1M per annum cap hit along with Ryan Fitzgerald (pictured) to a 2-way contract valued at $700k for one year. From the outside of things, the B’s added bottom-line forwards Par Lindholm (Jets and Maple Leafs) to a 2-year NHL deal valued at $850 k per, and Brett Ritchie (Stars) to a 1-year, $1 million contract. The B’s also signed 2012 1st-round forward Brendan Gaunce (Canucks) to a 2-way (700k cap hit) deal, 2011 4th-round defenseman Josiah Didier (Canadiens) to an AHL contract and free agent goalie Maxime Lagace (Golden Knights) 2-way (700k cap hit) to bolster their AHL depth.

Clifton was a no-brainer after his emergence in the Stanley Cup playoffs and to lock him up for 3 years at that price is excellent value. It’s nice to see the local Fitzgerald get another shot to find his way to the Big B’s after being a fourth-round pick in 2013, but the scouts were concerned about his overall speed/pace game and how it would translate to the NHL, and thus far, he’s still fighting to break through.

The B’s also saw their first casualty of the free agency period, as grinder Noel Acciari came to terms on a 3-year/$5 million contract with the Florida Panthers. It’s only a matter of time before we find out where Marcus Johansson will end up, but it won’t be back in Boston.

While the groans in some fan circles are audible- most knowledgeable fans understand that given the current cap situation facing Don Sweeney, there simply wasn’t any room for spending sprees on the open market, especially with three key restricted free agents needing extensions in Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen. The only hope for some additional coin to spend here in July of 2019 was for the B’s to somehow off-load David Backes and the 2 years remaining on his $6M cap hit. Since the deal signed in 2016 was front-loaded, Backes’ contract is appealing to teams looking to get to the cap floor whose operating budgets are lower than the richer teams in that the cap hit is higher than the money owed, but it’s easier said than done. Of course, with other teams around the league moving bad contracts, it’s natural for B’s fans to want the same- it always takes two to tango and the team is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to behind-the-scenes negotiations, so good luck finding out what if any overtures were made in this regard. Barring a trade of some fashion, whether Backes or somewhere else on the roster, there simply wasn’t any money to spend on over-priced free agents. And there won’t be much to handle next year’s more challenging roster turbulence.

Fast food mentality ain’t gonna work here, folks- instead of being envious of the huge contracts being handed out around the league today, set your sights to 2020 and the longer game. It never ceases to amaze that so many of the nimrods out there clamoring for the B’s to be players in an annually inflated free agent market will be the first to turn on the GM when said player(s) don’t live up to their big cap numbers. Truth in lending- TSP was bullish on Backes three years ago in the face of some pointed criticisms elsewhere. In hindsight, the fears (at the time) have come to fruition- there’s not much tread left on the tire, and Backes, as tremendous a character/glue guy as he is, hamstrings the B’s for two more years at $6M per. Teams are better to invest in their own players and leave the madness of the UFA market to others who will be doomed to repeat history because they aren’t learning from it.

Think of all the NHL teams today who worked so hard to clear cap space only to fill it up again. Now, in some cases- the signings look smart and should pay dividends (Lehner- CHI; Donskoi- COL; Hartman- MIN; Perry- DAL; Spezza- TOR to name a few). Others are courting major disaster (Bobrovsky- FLA 10M cap hit? For 7 years?? Wow!!; Stralman- FLA; Zuccarello- MIN; Hayes- PHI delayed reaction from 19 June signing & Erik Karlsson’s big pay day as he approaches 30 with a lot of wear and tear on his slight frame). But, if we’ve learned one thing over the past several years, there always seems to be a GM or three out there who will bail some of their spendthrift counterparts out by taking on the remainders of bad contracts handed out on credit.

We learned the lesson with Backes- character matters, but up to a point. You have to balance that with a more realistic assessment of your ROI- return on investment. We all wanted Backes to be successful in Boston, but the warning signs were there. In the end, he’s a player more suited to the NHL of yesteryear…it sucks to say it, but as some predicted three years ago, that contract is, in fact, an albatross. And we’ll have to see what the B’s are able to do about it with 24 more months left on the term.

Now, on to the new guys:

Center Par Lindholm spent the season between Toronto and Winnipeg after signing with Toronto a year ago, and the move makes sense if you believe the rumors that the B’s are shopping Joakim Nordstrom.

Lindholm is an intelligent 200-foot pivot with a wealth of Swedish pro experience, but didn’t play much in his first North American season in the NHL. He’s not a dynamic offensive player and more of a Swiss Army Knife/Jack of All Trades type. He typically played less than 10 minutes a game for the Leafs and Jets, so if you noticed him much, then you’re a far better judge of talent than we are.

We’ll chalk this one up as a wait-and-see kind of addition, as it smacks of a set-up for something else to happen on the roster…otherwise, color us perplexed as to where this player fits in the B’s lineup when all is said and done.

Here’s an informative article on him out of Winnipeg from a month ago…

Brett Ritchie comes to the B’s from the only organization he ever knew- the Dallas Stars- who drafted him in the second round of the 2011 lottery. Interestingly enough, when the rumors of Tyler Seguin being dealt to Dallas first came to light, we (that is Kirk) thought that Ritchie might have been one of the prospect pieces included in that ill-fated trade that is coming up on 6 years old.

We’d like to say that the 26-year-old is on the verge of busting out, but the reality is- he’s a big-bodied (6-4/220) forward who never really developed into the player he looked like he could be in his draft season with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs. While not a bad skater, he has trouble separating and is at his best when his team has possession in the offensive zone and he can get to quiet ice/doesn’t have to win footraces to loose pucks.

Posting a career 0.22 points-per-game average with the Stars in 241 career contests (plus 3 playoff games), Ritchie has always had decent possession numbers in Dallas, and looks to be the kind of player at even strength that the B’s are trying to bring in to improve their overall 5v5 play. The problem is- because they don’t have a lot of money to spend in free agency this summer, they’re forced to bring in a low-end producer like Ritchie who fits that heavy, hard-to-play-against style the team loves in its forwards, but simply doesn’t have the production to indicate that he will suddenly find a scoring touch in Boston.

We suppose the B’s could do worse here, but we hope they will find a way to do better! Ritchie is a role player and not much more than that- 1 year and $1M isn’t going to break the bank, but since posting a career-best 16 goals in 2016-17,  he’s only managed 11 total in the last 124 games/ two campaigns. He’s an offensive upgrade on Acciari, but not by much- what is the real play here as it pertains to the B’s roster?

Here’s something a little dated (written a year ago) on Ritchie from a Dallas perspective.

Brendan Gaunce is like Ritchie-light…he was Vancouver’s 1st-round pick in 2012, selected just after the B’s drafted his Belleville (OHL) teammate Malcolm Subban…and he was a guy we had time for as a Bruins draft option that year. Big and has some skill with a high motor and leadership, Gaunce, who was once the 2nd overall selection of the Bulls in the OHL draft, has been an utter disappointment at the NHL level.

He’s the classic looks like a player prospect who didn’t ever develop into one despite a willingness to drive the net and compete/be effective on the walls and on the cycle. He’s not a snarly, in-your-face physical type and ultimately, that plus a lack of skill to establish himself on the top-two lines in Vancouver spelled the end for him in his first NHL organization. He’s going to be a good add in Providence, and his NHL ceiling might be that of a Tim Schaller if he can somehow get his foot in the door, but even that’s probably a stretch.

Here’s an article on Gaunce when news broke he would not be qualified by the Canucks:

Max Lagace and Josiah Didier– The B’s needed a minor league veteran to replace Zane McIntyre, who left the B’s to sign with the Canucks after being drafted by Boston in 2010.

Lagace has 17 career games in the NHL all with Vegas, and was pressed into emergency duty in 2017-18 when the Knights went through an unbelievable rash of injuries at the goaltender position. He’s not an NHL regular but will provide good insurance down in the AHL, as Providence probably can’t afford to hand the keys to a Daniel Vladar/Kyle Keyser tandem and needs a third/emergency goalie to backfill the second season of Tuukka Rask/Jaroslav Halak.

Didier, who was a 4th-round project pick out of the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Rough Riders by Montreal in 2011 and played for current Dallas HC Jim Montgomery at the University of Denver, just won a Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL and is another experienced winner who will bolster the Providence blue line and help Boston’s younger players develop.

The final word: The real value to the Bruins will come when their key RFA’s sign. Don’t cry for the big name UFAs, Argentina…the truth is- they were never really in play for Boston.

Everyone likes their shiny new toys and wants their favorite team to be in the mix to get the name guys on July 1st, but in most cases, the big spenders are left with a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Last year, Sweeney hit the middle tier market and did well, but you can’t step up to the plate year after year and pay market prices for the talent out there and expect to keep the real gems in your organization.

It’s like a high interest credit card- you get some immediate satisfaction in the form of landing a brand name that the hockey media will buzz about, but in 3-4 years, who did that phat free agent contract cost you, and was it worth it?

Something tells us that Sweeney knows that, and also realizes he will have to find another route to upgrading the second-line right wing. How soon it happens and what form the next addition(s) takes is sure to dominate social media from here on, but anyone who knows how the cycle goes in the NHL understood that the B’s weren’t going to make waves today…whether they moved Backes or not.

As for Acciari, he came to his childhood favorite team as an undrafted free agent and did a solid job on the fourth line. He represents decent but not good value for the Panthers, but the reality is- they need more guys like the former Providence College captain, whereas the Bruins have more than enough of those players already. We wish him well as he moves on to his new team and a solid payday.

After coming up short, what’s next?

Five days after the Game 7 loss at home to the St. Louis Blues, fans and pundits alike are left wondering, what’s next for Don Sweeney and the Boston Bruins organization?

First of all, it’s tough to reconcile what was such an inspired season for the B’s with how it all ended. On the one hand, if most were asked before the season started if they would be over the moon to see their team make it all the way to within one game of a Stanley Cup championship, the answer would be an emphatic affirmative. On the other hand, the way it all ended in a manner eerily reminiscent to what the Bruins did to the home Vancouver Canucks eight years ago has left many to vent their frustration and disappointment on the Boston radio airwaves and social media platforms.

Most fanbases would kill for a chance just to get to the Stanley Cup Final and give it a valiant run. But Boston is not most fanbases- with the number of championships the city has boasted since 2001, anything less than another duckboat parade was likely to be seen by many as an abject loss, no matter what went right along the way. To focus on the Bruins’ collective and individual failures to capture a seventh Stanley Cup championship in franchise history is a natural by-product of the way we are conditioned in the modern age. Sure, to those fair-minded folks out there, it can be disheartening to hear some of the more acerbic takes calling out as failures such stalwart performers such as Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, but that’s the way the game is played. When you battle through injuries and triumph in the deciding game, you become immortal legends of Bruins sports lore. When you come up short, you failed.

We don’t have to like it, and we can always argue the various factors and mitigating circumstances, but in the end- those who point to the ultimate inability to win two games in a row all series long, leading to a defeat for the third out of four games at TD Garden, are not wrong.  Winners win, losers lose, and at the end of the day, the Bruins weren’t able to leverage home ice advantage into a championship. This is something that will stay with the players, coaches and front office for a long, long time.

So, what now?

Continue reading

Game 7: Win or Die

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Well, here we are.

It’s Game 7 at TD Garden- last hockey game of the 2018-19 season for the honor of lifting the Stanley Cup overhead.

Boston Bruins are at home against the St. Louis Blues, who had the higher-seeded B’s on the ropes but couldn’t close the deal in Game 6. Now, it’s time to settle the matter of who will lay final claim to the title of world champions.

The B’s took a furious flurry of punches by the Blues in the early minutes of Game 6, with a frenzied, frothing-at-the-mouth crowd of St. Louis faithful hoping to see their team capture its first-ever Stanley Cup victory on home ice. Alas for them, Tuukka Rask and the more experienced Bruins had other plans.

Brad Marchand’s first period 5-on-3 goal drew first blood and the Bruins never really looked back after that, getting the winner from an unlikely source in defenseman Brandon Carlo, whose point shot skipped off the ice and past Jordan Binnington to make it 2-0 in an eventual 5-1 drubbing. Even rookie buzzsaw forward Karson Kuhlman got into the act, the undrafted free agent netting his first career playoff goal with a laser beam at the perfect time. It doesn’t hurt that Bruce Cassidy and his coaching staff are pushing all the right buttons.

At the other end of the spectrum, it didn’t help that the St. Louis Post Dispatch accidentally pushed out some content meant for publication in the event that the Blues took care of business at home. That kind of an unforced error seems inconceivable in this day and age, and yet- it showed the decided lack of experience St. Louis has as opposed to Boston when it comes to the matter of winning championships. Whatever…those silly gaffes didn’t play a role in the big win the visiting team leveled on the Blues, but it does show how thirsty that team’s fans are for a Stanley Cup- something they haven’t enjoyed in the 52 years of the franchise’s existence.

So, now it ends. A new champion will be crowned tonight, and the momentum is with the Bruins.

Unlike Game 5, when the B’s had lost Game 4 to the Blues on the road, the home team is returning with the confidence of a big victory under the belt, and the experience factor may be just too much for the younger, upstart Blues to overcome. After all, Zdeno Chara is about to appear in his NHL-record 14th seventh game.

And the Bruins are no strangers to Game 7’s in the Stanley Cup Final- they went the distance eight years ago in Vancouver.  Different team, different situation, but the core of Boston’s veteran team saw it and lived it- they’ll know precisely what they’re up against tonight.  Only…they’ll have the pure energy of their fanbase behind them as the B’s play in the first SCF Game 7 in franchise history. The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan will be watching from above, and he knows…nobody is gonna be a-knockin’ when that TD Garden gets a-rockin’.

The Bruins will be ready when the puck drops tonight and with an atmosphere reminiscent of the epic 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning to close out the 2011 Eastern Conference Final, the Black and Gold will have a full wind at their backs.

Last week, the Omaha Lancers of the USHL held the team’s main tryout camp at Ralston Arena in Nebraska, and a familiar face was on hand in our building to watch his son make the team. 2001-born forward Cam Recchi is a chip off the old block- looks like his dad and plays like him, too (which is great news for the Lancers). Cam was 10 years old when he watched as Mark lifted the Stanley Cup over his head one last time (as a player- he’s won 2 more since as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization) and skated off into the sunset with three rings.

As the time ticked down on Boston’s 2-1 Game 5 loss on the big screen televisions in the Ralston Arena’s Side Room lounge where Lancers players and their families gathered to watch a clash of titans, I stood next to Rex, one of the most beloved Bruins players in his three-season run to finish his Hockey Hall of Fame career.

“You guys lost Game 5 in Vancouver- what was the feeling going back to Boston for Game 6?”, I asked.

“We knew we were going to win the Cup,” Recchi said without missing a beat. “Vancouver was at their breaking point. They were worn down- it took everything out of them to beat us in that game, and we could sense they had very little left and momentum was in our favor.”

Swing it did, and the 2011 Bruins decisively beat the Canucks in two straight to secure the sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history, doing so on the road. The script didn’t quite play out the same way, but yet here we are- Game 7…winner take all.

“They’ve got this,” said Recchi as we walked away when the final horn sounded with the Blues up 3-2 in the series. “There are just too many experienced warriors in that room, and you can’t say enough about what that does for you.”

The Bruins are back home and in familiar territory, having beaten the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of their opening round series way back in April, which seems like a lifetime ago. The only thing is- they’ve had three more series of battles to hone their skills to a keen edge.

The Blues have done well to get this far- they are the heavy, nasty team we were all told they are. They’ve given the veteran club some serious punches, but as the old saying goes, If you’re going to kill the king, you’d better not miss.

The Blues took their best shot in Game 5 and had a chance to close it out in Game 6, but their trajectory went wide…and miss they did.

Tonight, the Blues are in the crosshairs.

Let the final game begin.

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie…B’s blow ’em out 7-2

14 down, 2 wins to go.

The Boston Bruins sandwiched dominant wins between an OT loss in games 1-3 of the Stanley Cup final series, smashing the home St. Louis Blues by a 7-2 score Saturday, including 4 power play goals, a first with Torey Krug’s 4-point night- the only time a Bruin has tallied that number in a final game, and another top effort in net from Tuukka Rask.

Krug has been unbelievable in the playoffs, as has been Rask. I’s ironic that the two most polarizing players for Bruins fans are the ones who are the most deserving of Conn Smythe consideration should the B’s close the deal- and remember- 14 wins doesn’t win squat. Krug has been a man on a mission- always a player motivated by doubters and skeptics who just look at his smaller size and make judgments about his ability to be an impact NHL D. The same people who give big, mobile defensemen who are complete and total liabilities with the puck on their stick have little to no time for Krug, but his play has been so good this postseason, that even the most obtuse of haters out there have no choice but to be silent. It’s been great to see. Ditto Rask. He’s a world class talent in net who hasn’t always played like it, but to his complete and total credit- he’s thus far taken his game to the highest level, and that’s the difference.

Now, on to some other observations about Game 3…

The B’s got the scoring going when Patrice Bergeron tipped home a textbook point shot from Krug, the first of four man advantage strikes. In fact, the B’s logged just 2:06 on the four power plays they had, because they scored on a perfect 4 of 4 shots- 3 surrendered by Jordan Binnington and one final PPG given up by Jake Allen to Marcus Johansson late in the game.

The Blues have a problem. They don’t have the talent to match the Bruins player-for-player, nor do they have the experience this B’s club has. So, they have to play a tough, physical game- but the Blues were running around trying to level kill shots all night, and the end result was catastrophic for them: they can’t hit and intimidate if they cross the line and go to the box, because Boston’s lethal power play will absolutely make them pay…and it has, with PP goals in every game thus far. Game 3’s special teams play for the B’s was sublime, though- they became the first NHL playoff team to tally 4 power play markers in the SCF since the Colorado Avalanche did it against John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers in 1996. For perspective, Charlie McAvoy was still over a year away from being born when that happened. The Boston PKers did surrender their first power play goal to the Blues in the series- a shot that hit Brandon Carlo and deflected in (both goals against Rask ticked in off the bodies/skates of B’s D).

With Matt Grzelcyk out of action thanks to a head hit from Oskar Sundqvist (suspended for Game 3), John Moore was next man up and played well. Although he’s been criticized for not having the anticipated impact when Don Sweeney signed him last July, Moore perfectly illustrates the disparity in depth the B’s enjoy over their Western Conference counterparts. Moore kept it simple and used his mobility to good effect, playing a strong defense-first game. The B’s are likely to be without Grzelcyk for the remainder of the series and Kevan Miller is done as well- yet the team’s D remains capable and up to the task.

Although Brad Marchand has yet to get untracked offensively in this series (and he was atrocious in Boston’s 3-2 OT loss in Game 2), Bergeron and David Pastrnak had nice bounce-back games.

But it is Boston’s third and fourth lines that have been the difference and exposed the disparity in depth between the clubs. After Charlie Coyle buried a perfect Johansson pass (secondary assist to Danton Heinen, who had his best game of the series) for his eighth goal of the postseason to make it 2-0, Sean “Clutch” Kuraly stunned the home crowd with a five-hole shot with just 8 seconds or so left in the opening frame to give the B’s a 3-0 lead. Kudos to Joakim Nordstrom, who, though entered the zone ahead of the puck, was not ruled offside because Blues D Joel Edmundson (man, has he been bad this series…P.U.!!!) carried it in…took it away from Edmundson and kicked it to Kuraly who trailed the play and buried the shot.

Blues hero Binnington was grody in Game 3…giving up 5 goals on 19 shots before getting the hook. He’s been beatable this series and isn’t playing with the kind of lights-out mentality that his team needs right now. Allen went in after Krug’s power play marker made it 5-1, but the B’s didn’t get much going in terms of shots until later on in the affair.

Noel Acciari even got into the scoring act- scoring the sixth goal into an empty net. He’s got one more goal in this series than does Blues sniper Jaden Schwartz…just saying. Ryan O’Reilly…sleeping giant? Let him sleep.

Overall, it was a statement game from the Bruins- on paper, we all know they are the better team. Saturday night at the Enterprise Center, they went out and proved it.

Bruins in their 3rd Stanley Cup Final since 2011

The Boston Bruins are back to playing for Lord Stanley’s glittering prize- they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 for the first NHL championship parade in Boston since 1972, came up short in 2013 against the Chicago Blackhawks and now join the Windy City team as the only the second team this decade to reach the SCF three times.

How did we get here?

Tampa Bay and Washington both flamed out in the first round, opening the door for the B’s (or as old Blue Eyes used to croon “Luck be a lady tonight…”) to handily defeat Columbus and Carolina after battling it out with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a second consecutive 1st-round seven-game barn-burner of a series. Out West, wagons like Calgary and 2018 SCF runner-up Vegas were knocked out in the first round as well. Not a bad draw when all is said and done, but no matter who you have to play- winning a championship is never easy.

Now, onto some thoughts on the players:

Continue reading

B’s 2019 trade deadline thoughts as final stretch begins

Okay, so it wasn’t a headline-grabbing trade deadline,  but the B’s have gone 1-0-0-1 with 3 out of 4 points since acquiring veteran forwards Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson in separate trades last week and on Monday’s annual NHL trade deadline.

We’re  all still waiting on Don Sweeney’s “signature” trade- he’s made some relatively minor deals in his tenure as GM since succeeding Peter Chiarelli in spring 2015, but as of yet, we haven’t seen a major franchise-altering transaction under his watch. And that’s okay- as of right now at least- because it’s hard to argue that the Bruins haven’t at least improved since Sweeney sent scoring prospect Ryan Donato and a 5th pick to Minnesota for the Weymouth native and former San Jose 1st-rounder in 2010.

The biggest challenge facing Sweeney and Co. is the specter of the NHL’s top club in Tampa Bay (who summarily dismissed the B’s from the postseason a year ago) and an improving Toronto Maple Leafs franchise who will be an even tougher out (after taking Boston to seven games in the first round last year). It’s entirely possible that some of the consternation about what the team did at the deadline you might see out there from media and fans alike has to do with how potent the Atlantic Division is and that the perception is that Boston didn’t do enough. That’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes and no one ever said winning a championship is easy.

Continue reading

Happy 2019- Winter Classic thoughts

2019 is here and the Boston Bruins helped ring in the new year in style with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s annual (since 2008) Winter Classic outdoor game.

Boston’s third trip outside on New Year’s Day was played at the iconic University of Notre Dame football stadium in South Bend, Indiana, the first time a non-football event was played in the home of the Fighting Irish. The B’s were 1-1 in the NHL’s signature event, beating the Philadelphia Flyers at (Frozen) Fenway Park eight years ago on a Marco Sturm OT goal, but getting pumped by the Montreal Canadiens at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, in 2016 by a 5-1 score.

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

For goaltender Tuukka Rask, the 2019 game was a chance for redemption, and he found it, playing well with 36 saves including multiple breakaways and grade A scoring chances. It was also a milestone event for the veteran netminder who has only known Boston as his NHL home since the 2007-08 season. He passed Hall of Fame goalie Cecil “Tiny” Thompson as the goalie with the most career appearances in franchise history. Rask will soon own the most regular season victories for the team as well.

The soon-to-be-32-year-old may be the most polarizing figure we have seen and covered in the 40+ years of following the team as fan and correspondent. A top talent and former 1st-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs before he was dealt to the B’s for Andrew Raycroft even-steven nearly 13 years ago, Rask is often a study in extremes. Ardent fans and supporters often pointing fingers at everyone else on the roster but the man in net when the team doesn’t win with him in the net, while there is an equally obnoxious segment of Boston fans who seem to revel in affixing blame to Rask at every opportunity and making him a convenient scapegoat for their frustrations with the club. There seems to be very little middle ground in the increasingly toxic social media environment when it comes to Rask, but at least in this space, we’ve always tried to be fair-minded in our treatment of the embattled veteran. On this day, he did his job well, and looked every bit the player the Bruins need him to be if they are going to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs for the third consecutive season this spring. The combat math is pretty simple: Rask and Jaroslav Halak give the Bruins the best 1-2 goalie punch in the league. When both of them are on top of their games, the team can beat anyone.

Which brings us to the next point- Patrice Bergeron. It never gets old watching the de facto captain play a textbook complete game of hockey. NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp talked yesterday after the game about how if you polled most NHL players about which player they would want on their team in a one-game, winner-take-all match for the Stanley Cup, you would probably see a large percentage of them vote for Boston’s consummate pro.

Yesterday, we all saw his greatness for what it is- a furious back check to deny a scoring chance at one end that would have opened up a 3-1 advantage for the ‘Hawks, and moments later, an effortless backhand shot that tied the game and opened the door for the B’s to win it on Sean “Clutch” Kuraly’s third period rebound marker (another backhand shot).

At this point of Bergeron’s career, we’re out of superlatives to describe him. He’s the hockey student of the game’s idol- a player who simply does everything right, all day, every day. Some folks are drawn to the sizzle that so many super talents of hockey provide with their speed, pace and skill- you absolutely need those guys. And, the players who rack up oodles of points are always going to get more positive attention than those with middle-of-the-pack numbers. Here’s the rub, though-  those who have careers with skin in the game- whose job security depends on being on the right side of the win-loss column- Bergeron is an inspiration. The Bruins may not have multiple Stanley Cup championships to show for it, but since Bergeron joined the club as a precocious 18-year-old rookie in 2003, it has been a prosperous era for the team despite setbacks and disappointments along the way.

It’s hard to believe because there were other players who popped offensively earlier in their careers, but Bergeron has quietly and steadily climbed to be the third-highest scorer in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft class, behind only Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf with his 769 career points in 989 games. He’s tied with Thomas Vanek (who will play his 1,000th NHL game on Jan. 4), but Vanek’s days of high production are over- Bergeron will blow by him and establish himself solidly in 3rd behind Staal and Getzlaf. What’s important about this is that offense has never really been the thing that has defined Bergeron’s Hall of Fame career, but he’s proven that the consistent approach of 50-60 points year after year, has helped to propel him to the top of one of the greatest collective draft groups in NHL history. He should have gone over 1,000 NHL games played about 2-3 years ago and would be closing in on 1,000 career points and might be the No. 1 scorer of the 2003 draftees had it not been for 1.5 years of  lockouts and almost 2 full seasons lost to injuries of various types. But even with all the missed time, Bergeron’s impact on the Bruins and the game of hockey cannot be undersold. He is the greatest defensive forward in NHL history. No disrespect to Canadiens great Bob Gainey, who inspired the very Frank J. Selke Trophy which rewards two-way excellence up front, but Bergeron hasn’t benefited from a dynastic machine that the Habs were in the 1970’s, and the offensive production isn’t close.

Simply put- No. 37 is the best there ever was, and he’s inspired a generation of players who want to do things the right way and focus on the habits and details that are lost on so many who can only really focus on the flashy stuff that makes the game so great. There’s room for it all of course, but if I’m in a 1-game knife fight for my hockey life, there’s one guy I’d sell my soul for to have in my lineup: Patrice Bergeron.

Brad Marchand is heating up at the right time. We of course love what David Pastrnak is doing, but the driving engine of Boston’s offense is the Lil’ Ball of Hate, and when he’s finding the back of the net, the wins are plentiful. He generated multiple scoring chances and in the waning seconds, hit the empty net- notching his 42nd point of the season to quietly move closer to Pastrnak’s team-leading 50 points.

Just like Bergeron, both of these forwards embody the luck of the NHL draft- had anyone known what kind of an impact they would have, you’d have seen them go off the board with the 1st or 2nd overall selections in their respective years, and yet, they both essentially fell into Boston’s lap. In a time where fans spend more time kvetching about who the team missed on, it’s sometimes nice to be reminded that the B’s scouting staff, long under the guiding hand of veteran talent chief Scott Bradley and Ryan Nadeau’s vision and leadership, has had some tremendous bargain finds over the years. And we haven’t even gotten into Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka and Jakub Lauko yet.

And like Bergeron, Marchand is ascending to the top of the 2006 draft’s scoring list. Of all the players from that class, only Niklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux and Jonathan Toews have more than Marchand’s 503 points and counting.

Finally, it was great to see Zdeno Chara out there after returning from injury. Like Tim Wakefield near the end of his MLB career, Chara is a lifetime Bruin, though he played elsewhere before making the Hub his home. He has quietly racked up nearly 1,000 games in the Black and Gold, and like Bergeron, is headed for a place in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s not the horse he was in his prime, but the steady play, experience and value he provides cannot be understated. Once he retires, whenever that is, the B’s will have a challenge to replace what he means to the club on and off the ice. Instead of rushing to anoint the next wave of youth (and there are some worthy heirs coming down the pipeline), we should all embrace the legend and enjoy him for as long as we can. Once he’s gone, we may not ever see another player quite like him.

Okay- that about does it. Here’s hoping you all have a great and prosperous 2019. Thanks as always for reading the sporadic posts on the blog- didn’t cover all the ground I wanted to on this one, but be on the lookout for more content as the season goes on.

Boston Bruins v Calgary Flames

Nifty’s nifty night in Boston

Middleton retirement

(Image courtesy of NHL.com)

It took a shootout and winning goal on the fourth iteration from rookie Ryan Donato to secure a 2-1 victory for the Bruins against the NY Islanders (Brad Marchand tallied Boston’s lone regulation goal) but the home team closed out a special night in which one of the franchise’s greats had his number 16 officially retired.

Richard D. “Rick” Middleton, known around the Boston Garden as “Nifty” from 1976-88, saw his digits raised to the rafters in a nice pre-game ceremony. The former Oshawa Generals great and first-round draft pick of the NY Rangers was acquired in one of longtime B’s GM Harry Sinden’s heists, sending veteran Ken Hodge to Broadway to rejoin his pal Phil Esposito for the electrifying but inconsistent Middleton, who was still figuring out how to be a pro hockey player in the Big Apple.

It didn’t take Middleton long to figure it out, and he became one of Boston’s true hockey stars in the late 70’s and 80’s. Although often lost in the mix when it comes to Bruins greats over the years, Nifty would end up making three trips to the Stanley Cup finals during his Bruins tenure, and he was a member of the 1979 B’s squad that experienced devastation and heartbreak in Montreal in the infamous “too many men on the ice” game 7. He’s the most recent Bruin to win a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, earned after the 1981-82 season.

In the early 80’s Middleton was the linchpin at forward for some very good Bruins teams, but they unfortunately ran into the NY Islanders dynasty.

What could have been a storybook ending for Middleton’s NHL career ended in a sweep by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1988 Stanley Cup final, but on the way, Nifty exorcised some Canadiens demons by being on the first B’s team to beat the Habs since World War Two was ongoing. Middleton’s breakaway game-winning goal in Game 3 at the Garden may be one of his most iconic moments in Boston; although he wore a Jofa helmet and no longer had the long golden locks that flowed behind his helmetless head when he got up to speed for so many seasons, the “old man” still had it and scored one of the most symbolic goals of his career.

Middleton didn’t make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in all honesty- he likely never will. But, for a lad growing up watching the Bruins, there was something magical about him. People can grumble about the team retiring his number if they want, but for those of us who saw him in his prime, elevating his play year after year in the midst of the Firewagon Hockey era of the late 70’s and 80’s, Nifty belongs in the rafters.

Thanks to Tuukka Rask’s excellent play in net, and Donato’s slick deke and tuck of the puck inside the post for the winning score- a move that no doubt made Mr. Middleton smile- one nifty, nifty night (to coin a phrase from Jack Edwards) ended the way it should have: 2 more points in the bank and one of Boston’s classiest and more unappreciated stars honored the right way.

81-82 Rick Middleton Home Sandow Mesh 004

Here’s the Middleton retirement ceremony highlight video- published on YouTube by the NHL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOCyB2wj6b4

 

 

 

 

 

What, us worry?

Chara4

Zdeno Chara (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

You mean to tell us that since two critical veterans went down with significant injuries, the Bruins are 3-0-2 with 8 points out of 10?

And that, dear readers, is why they play the games.

Given the Boston Bruins’ recent run of wins, welcome news despite not having two of the franchise’s faces out for at least 4 weeks or longer: captain Zdeno Chara and defacto captain Patrice Bergeron. The duo of future Hockey Hall of Famers are more than likely at the top of a short list of players that if you polled fans before the season, were the guys the team could least afford to lose for extended stretches of the 2018-19 campaign.

And yet, as the Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, the B’s pulled out two close wins, a 2-1 OT contest against the underachieving Pittsburgh Penguins at home on Friday and then Saturday night’s 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, helping Boston secure the sixth-best record in the NHL to date. Of course, few would have guessed that the Jeff Skinner-led Buffalo Sabres would be sitting atop the league standings as November comes to a close, but that’s a story for another day.

In the meantime, let us focus on the Bruins and how they’ve put themselves in position to remain competitive despite suffering through some personnel setbacks that would cripple many teams in any league.

Continue reading

Sunday Flashback: 2013 B’s-Pens playoff column “Sweep dreams will end the Steel City nightmare”

An old friend recently reminded me of a column I wrote in 2013, after the Boston Bruins had taken a 3-0 series lead over Sidney Crosby and the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final (you remember- the guys who were anointed Stanley Cup champs when they scooped Boston on Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline?) Alas, the B’s were unable to close the deal against the Chicago Blackhawks, who earned their second of three rings between 2010-15 against the Black & Gold, but he asked me to dig the piece up and so here it is- in its raw and unedited glory prior to being posted on HockeyJournal.com.

All of my old work at NE Hockey Journal that was not in the printed issues is gone forever from the Internet, as no archive exists given the different format changes the website went through over the years since I started covering the Bruins there in the summer of 2000. All I have left are the files on my computer and so, on occasion, I’ll bring out the dead and we can take some trips in the Wayback Machine to save you any time otherwise wasted with a Google search- the old stuff no longer exists online.

Enjoy the column…in the 5 years hence, the Penguins have fared certainly better than the Bruins, with a pair of championships in 2016-17, but I have to admit- this one was a ton of fun to write. -KL

***

Sweep dreams will end the Steel City nightmare (June 7, 2013- HockeyJournal.com)

For some reason, one particular ‘s’ word has somehow evolved to be on par with the one goalies don’t want you using before the shutout is actually in the books.

But say the word ‘sweep’ when your team is up 3 games to none, and everyone starts to get that queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach. In Boston, it’s understandable, given that we are just three years removed from a historic collapse against another team from the Keystone State after building a commanding series lead.

This column is not for the superstitious (another s-word since we’re on the subject), so if you’re one of those types, then you probably should stop reading now. However, if you’ve got an iron constitution and will in line with Gregory Campbell, or don’t take yourself (or sports) too seriously, then forge ahead.

On Friday, the Boston Bruins will sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins to take their place in the Stanley Cup final series for the second time in three years.

There it is. Carve it in stone or put it up in lights…it’s happening, folks.

Just as the B’s exorcised the demons of their agonizing 2010 seven-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in style with a sweep of their own just one year later, Boston can revisit history on Friday at the TD Garden. That was important, because it put an exclamation point on the Olde Towne’s first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years. That 2011 Cup victory was a euphoric rush for the Bruins and their fans, but does anyone deny that crushing the Flyers on the way to the summit of hockey supremacy made it all the sweeter?

Two years later, the Bruins have stunned the mighty (and heavily favored) Pittsburgh Penguins in capturing the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final series. This opportunistic, lunchpail group of Black and Gold-diggers have laughed in the face of the vaunted Steel City juggernaut thanks in large part to goaltender Tuukka Rask’s otherworldly performance in net and gritty production from stars like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Nathan Horton.

In short, the B’s have taken everything the Penguins have thrown at them and then counterpunched to the tune of an 11-2 drubbing on the scoreboard. In those three games (and almost two extra periods), the front line skaters like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, and Kris Letang have combined for a grand total of no points between them.

It’s as if Dean Vernon “Zero Point Zero” Wormer were staring down Bluto Blutarsky as we speak.

The Bruins will sweep because even if they decisively won the first two games on the road in Pittsburgh by a combined 9-1 score, the Penguins showed some remarkable pluck by battling back in Game 3 to give the B’s all they could handle.

Aside from a Krejci puck off Matt Niskanen’s skate that got behind Tomas Vokoun at the 1:42 mark, the Penguins netminder was near flawless. Until Bergeron took a Marchand feed (thanks to a play along the boards by veteran Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr that would have made Peter Pan’s pirate nemesis proud) and put a dagger in the hearts of the Pittsburgh hopeful just after midnight in Boston.

By all rights, the Penguins should have won. But the hockey gods…ye gods…frowned on Crosby and Co., allowing the Bruins to hand flightless fowl a soul-crushing loss.

And so- the B’s are in position to not only sweep the Penguins, but to put the screws to one team that has been every bit the villain of any in the Boston franchise’s history.

Back in 1991, it wasn’t Crosby, but Mario Lemieux who led his Penguins back from a 0-2 deficit in the Wales Conference championship series. That club, complete with a 19-year-old rookie wunderkind in Jagr, smacked the B’s down in six games en route to easily handling the Minnesota North Stars for the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups. It was Ulf Samuelsson, however, who’s dirty hit on Boston legend Cam Neely hastened the end of No. 8’s Hall of Fame career.

A year later, the Bruins got a rematch in the Wales final, but without Neely (still suffering the after effects of the Samuelsson low blow), the high-flying Penguins blew Boston out of the water in a sweep. The series was punctuated by a highlight reel goal of Lemieux turning Ray Bourque inside-out, outside-in on the way to a back-breaking goal.

It has been 21 long years since the two teams met in the playoffs, but for many Boston fans, the Pens are still a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Matt Cooke’s blindside hit on Marc Savard in 2010 is only the tip of the iceberg, but the incident served as a flashpoint to escalate the rivalry between the teams.

Many cannot ignore the fact Pittsburgh not only landed a franchise player in Malkin in 2004, but also struck gold with the top lottery pick in the cancelled season a year later, essentially handed another hockey king in Crosby. Some won’t forget that when Ray Shero was on the verge of becoming the GM of the Boston Bruins in 2006, he opted for a more promising situation in Pittsburgh at the last minute.

If hell hath no fury like a Bruins fan scorned, then Iginla is the newest Boston target. In a much-publicized aborted trade fiasco, Iginla, the Calgary Flames and Penguins humiliated Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins. In what everyone but Iginla thought was a done deal, the Calgary captain instead elected to lift his no-trade for the Steel City only, leaving the Bruins holding the bag.

If you know the ever-simmering cauldron of intensity that is one Cameron Michael Neely, then you know that the way Pittsburgh embarrassed Boston by scooping Iginla and seeing the B’s snubbed so publicly must have re-ignited his burning desire to pay them back one hundredfold. So far, his team is doing just that.

Even if Iginla is proving that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make, the smugness with which the Penguins and their fans swooped in to exult in the bitterness of Boston’s disappointment cemented that team’s status as Public Enemy No. 1.

If having a villain to focus your angst and anger is a cathartic, then consider the Penguins the therapist you have on speed dial.

The Bruins are in position to sweep away the nightmares of two crushing playoff defeats more than two decades ago. They’re poised to erase the visceral disgust of having lost so many prime years of Neely’s playing career to one of the dirtiest and unaccountable players in history.  They’re on the verge of gaining the ultimate revenge against all of the real and perceived slights that have accompanied one of the most heralded teams on paper in quite a few years.

They say revenge is sweet.

Or is it sweep?

It’s not over yet, but the best thing the Bruins can do is close the deal in Game 4 and put the bitterness behind them once and for all.

(As a bonus- Here’s the brilliant HNIC opening for Game 3 after the B’s won both games in Pittsburgh to Radiohead’s classic “Karma Police” with some amazing juxtaposition of imagery & lyrics)