Blowing it

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”– Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The Boston Bruins may have dodged a bullet last night in the standings when the Detroit Red Wings lost in regulation to the non-playoff Montreal Canadiens.

After the B’s outshot the New Jersey Devils and peppered backup goalie Keith Kinkaid with 40 shots to New Jersey’s 15, but lost by a 2-1 score on a pair of power play goals, the Wings missed out on a chance to leapfrog Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, burning their game-in-hand. Just one point separates the two.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The effort was certainly there for Boston last night, but there was simply no finish. Effort is good, but in the world of professional sports, results are ultimately king. Boston, with the exception of Saturday’s white-knuckle win over the bottom-feeding Toronto Maple Leafs, have lost six of their last seven games.

Just two weeks ago, the Bruins had a share of first place and had won some critical games they were expected to lose. Optimism was creeping back into it as the team was bringing the effort and results…until they went out to California, that is. A string of five consecutive losses, buttressed by the one road win up north has now added another ‘L’ to the ledger and the next two games could push the B’s into major non-playoff jeopardy: they travel to the Midwest to face Western Conference powers the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

But, Kirk- they beat the ‘Hawks earlier this month, you say. That they did. But that was a different time. In the last six games, the Bruins have mustered just 10 goals for. Those two opponents could easily hang 10 or more on Boston in just the pair of games, so the B’s must not only dig deep into the effort well, but they’ve got to execute to have any chance of getting points out of the next two critical matches.

On the plus side, Brad Marchand netted his 35th goal last night and it was a beautiful, parting-of-the-Red Sea kind of goal where he split the defense, zoomed in alone on Kinkaid and shifted from his forehand to his backhand before lifting the puck into the yawning cage. Marchand owned the space in front of the net, and you just got this sense that after Kinkaid was beaten so effortlessly, that the floodgates might open. Didn’t happen.

Now, the B’s get to face either one of Brian Elliott or Jake Allen– life certainly isn’t going to get any easier. The Blues recently posted a four-game consecutive shutout string and they’re getting healthier.

As we said before, the effort is good thing to see. This team has heart and it’s been like that for much of the season. The Bruins have been in the playoff standings since December and that’s saying something when you look at the roster from top to bottom. This is a club that was expected to struggle and likely miss the playoffs. This plucky bunch deserves credit for making such a good run of things. Claude Julien and his coaches- Doug Jarvis, Joe Sacco and Doug Houda– have managed to keep their charges motivated and playing hard, which has narrowed the talent gap the team faces on many a night.

Sometimes, it has worked out for them- take the night they went into Dallas to face the vaunted Stars at home and fell behind early but came roaring back and crushed Tyler Seguin’s crew at home.  Other nights, it’s simply not enough.

Most fans understand this and realize that this team was probably playing over its head for some key stretches of the season. That the playoff race has become so tight should not be a surprise, but it’s probably a fool’s errand to rage at the team (or your television and/or computer screen) when they fall short as they did against the Devils. Frustrating as it was, losses like the one in Newark last night are probably more the rule than the exception. It isn’t like the Bruins have a high-end, championship-caliber roster: they compete hard, but the Matt Beleskeys of the world work hard, make big hits and get themselves in position to score- they just have a harder time finishing off the play than others around the NHL. It does’t make him any less of a Bruin, but it does remind us that Don Sweeney and the Boston front office has a lot of work to do.

The hard part of all of this is that we’re witnessing the Bruins sagging down the stretch, much like they did a year ago. Games against the Devils must be won, because contests with the Blues and Blackhawks aren’t expected to deliver the needed points. Now, the B’s must overachieve in order to stay ahead in the standings. Had Boston endured this slump in the middle of the season and were surging back at the end, the sentiment amongst the fans might be a little different than it is now. In the grand scheme, it’s of little consequence, but timing is everything, and as the late Yogi Berra once said- “It’s deja vu all over again.”

What we are learning is that Boston’s core players aren’t getting it done to a high enough degree. Zdeno Chara did net the game-winner against Toronto Saturday, but he also took the boarding call that resulted in Reid Boucher’s game-winner last night. Whether it was  a weak call made by referee Steve Kozari, who one might have to strain to recall when he’s actually called a penalty against a Boston opponent in recent games, it doesn’t matter. Chara needs to be better.

David Krejci, he of the $7.2 million per year contract and no-movement clause, has to be hurt. Has to. Because if he isn’t, Peter Chiarelli’s final gift to the Bruins- the extension with five more years remaining- could be an albatross around the neck of the team going forward. Krejci turns 30 soon and his slight frame has taken a good amount of physical punishment over the years. He’s an outstanding competitor and one of the smartest offensive players in the league, but he carries a huge cap hit and a no-movement clause, both of which conspire to make him virtually impossible to move in any kind of meaningful deal unless it meant the Bruins were taking back a similar bad contract in return. That NMC remains in effect through 2019- when he’ll be 33- and then a no-trade goes for one more season- through 2020. The B’s could buy him out, but that’s not a feasible option with so much money invested in him and the crippling payout structure associated with such a move (the league did this to prevent teams from throwing money at big-ticket mistakes to make them go away).

If you think I’m picking on Krejci, then here’s an example of what’s bothered me of late: near the end the game last night, with his goaltender out of the net and Krejci going back for the puck deep in his own end, a Devils forward zipped by him and stole possession. The play didn’t lead to an empty-netter, but it did bleed valuable seconds off the clock- time the Bruins could have used to start the breakout the other way and try to get the equalizer. Speed has never been Krejci’s forte but I’ll come out and say it- he just looks slow out there. And, he seems unable to win footraces to loose pucks at critical moments- footraces Krejci used to win.  If you’re not concerned about this, I don’t know what else to say.

In net, Tuukka Rask has been up and down for most of the year. There is no question that when on his game, he is one of the NHL’s elite netminders. Unfortunately, he can also be significantly mediocre at times as well. The defense in front of him is a major issue, but the B’s could have used a stop from him on the Travis Zajac goal last night and didn’t get it.  If you read this and translate it as blaming Rask, that’s not what I’m saying, but at some point- Rask has more than 7 million reasons to play better than he has at points this season. He’s under .920 for a season-long save percentage, and on a team like this one, it’s simply not good enough.

Finally- Patrice Bergeron may be a saint, but he’s not all-powerful. He had the tying goal on his stick in close but fired the puck wide after it appeared a Devils defender got just enough of him to hamper him from getting the shot off cleanly. His 29 goals are a real testament to just how important the 30-year-old has been to Boston’s fortunes this year. Everything the Bruins stand for is symbolized in the play of Bergeron. But, he can’t do it alone. Julien shook the lines up last night to no avail- Boston could not find a way to salvage at least a point out of it to buy them some breathing room.

Brad Marchand has done his part as well. You can almost hear the cha-ching! as his next contract negotiations will begin next season with one year remaining on his current deal that pays him a bargain rate of $5 million with a $4.5M AAV. If the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, Marchand is going to be a key focal point to get them there, but he can’t carry the team. Others must find a way to take the pressure off of the team’s heavy lifters.

But by others- the pickings might be a tad slim.

Brett Connolly left the game with an injury, so now we’ll wait to see what lies ahead for him. Ryan Spooner didn’t make the trip but sources tell me his injury is not that serious- it’s just something that can be made worse if he doesn’t rest it properly. We’ll see him back soon. Jimmy Hayes is the easy target and whipping boy, but he hasn’t had much of an impact all season, so the fact that he’s done next to nothing for the past month doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Noel Acciari has been a revelation, but he’s not going to do much offensively. Landon Ferraro is another speedy but limited contributor scoring-wise. Frank Vatrano has the speed and hands to get something done, and he’d be a nice Cinderella story if he could pot some big ones to help his team net some critical points.

What the Bruins need is more production from their core and others like Loui Eriksson and Lee Stempniak, who had a hat trick denied him a week ago on one offside and one replay call that could have gone his way, only it didn’t. He’s cooled off considerably since Boston’s 6-0-1 run after the trade deadline, and Eriksson has been hot and cold for the most part since the team opted not to trade him- Bruins need more from both of them.

The defense is trying, but as the wise sage Yoda once said (paraphrased)- trying hard isn’t good enough. Or is it- good enough trying hard is not?

I respect the effort this team has made this season. A lot of that, regardless of whether you agree with his personnel decisions or not, falls on Julien. He’s managed to take a mediocre roster and put it in the thick of the playoff rest. Contrast that to some of the other teams out there from whom much, much more was expected given how they looked on paper, but have fallen flat.

Ultimately, though, results are what matters in the NHL and in most walks of life. The Bruins weren’t seen as potential champions this year and their performance has validated that. However, many (present company included) didn’t even see them as a playoff club coming in, and they’ve demonstrated what hard work can get you.

Hard work isn’t enough to win it all in this league, but the Bruins deserve credit for coming this far.

Now, they need to dig deep and find a way to be one of the final eight teams standing in the Eastern Conference. Just missing the playoffs means they’re in the same boat they were in a year ago- the draft won’t help them all that much. At least, not in the immediate sense.

They’ve squandered the cushion they built up just a few short weeks ago, so they’ll have to make it in the hard way. If they can deny Detroit, that team’s long playoff streak of 25 years will come to an end. If not, then we’ll know that sometimes, try as one might, effort is not enough to guarantee success.

I want to believe the Bruins will get in, but this finish is too close to call.

***

On another note- I will be joining radio host Allan Mitchell aka “Lowetide” on Edmonton’s TSN 1260 today to talk about Jimmy Vesey. His recent decision not to sign with Nashville and become a free agent as of August 15 has polarized a lot of people in the hockey world, so I thought I would weigh in with my own perspectives on Vesey, whom I’ve known for a long time and the NHL’s system, which allows for a team like the Predators to get nothing after they invested time and resources into developing him over the past four years. If you forgot that hockey is a business, then the Vesey situation reminds us all that it is.

I will be going on Mr. Mitchell’s show live at approximately 12:40 EST time today but if you can’t tune in (they stream their content online), his producer is very good about posting the SoundCloud file and I will put that up on the blog later and also tweet the link if you don’t want to wait.

 

B’s losing skid hits 4 games

The heat is on.

The Boston Bruins went into Madison Square Garden after losing all three games on their California road trip last week and promptly got behind the 8-ball in a 2-0 hole (thanks to goals by Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan) before ultimately falling by a 5-2 score.

The game’s complexion changed when Lee Stempniak had a 1st period goal wiped off the board on a coach’s challenge when Brad Marchand was ruled offside on the initial zone entry. Although the play developed much later and Marchand preceding the puck did’t have much of anything to do with Stempniak’s eventual tally, the rule is the rule and replay clearly showed Marchand did not have control of the puck when he crossed the blue line before the puck did. Instead of 2-1, the game remained 2-0 after one period of play.

Milton, Massachusetts native and former Cushing Academy star Keith Yandle assisted on both Rangers goals to stake his team to the early lead, including a superb feed to Stepan on the second strike, looking one way then putting the puck on the forward’s tape for the two-goal lead. It didn’t help that the Rangers seemed to get the benefit of some early ticky-tack calls that always seem to go against the Bruins, but complaining about the inconsistencies in officiating is tired and worn out- death, taxes and the other guys getting more power plays than Boston has become so much background noise and the team has to find ways to overcome that. There’s no grand conspiracy by the men in stripes against the Bruins when it comes to penalties, but we’re not likely to get much in the way of consistent applications of the rules, either. For whatever reason- it is what it is.

Tuukka Rask started the game, though he had been battling flu-like symptoms. He took himself out of it after 20 minutes, leaving Jonas Gustavsson to try and keep the Bruins in it.

Gustavsson was in a tough spot when the Rangers made it 3-0 on a blistering shot by Derick Brassard (his 26th) before the B’s could answer with a goal of their own when Stempniak scored his second tally as a Bruin.

Patrice Bergeron started the play when he took the puck away from Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who made an ill-advised attempt to try to chip the puck past the NHL’s top defensive forward. Bergeron forced the turnover then passed it over to Marchand on the left side. He then deftly put the puck to the far post where Stempniak was positioned for the easy tap-in.

That set the stage for another decision that would not go Boston’s way after it appeared initially that a sprawling Henrik Lundqvist had denied Stempniak with his glove on a brilliant goal line save. However, replay convincingly showed that Lundqvist’s glove was behind the goal line and in the net when the puck looked like it crossed the line and ended up inside the glove before he pulled it back on the right side of the line. The review went to Toronto and league replay officials ruled that there was no “conclusive evidence” to overturn the initial call on the ice of no goal. So, instead of a 3-3 game and Stempniak hat trick, the score remained 3-1.

Rangers forward J.T. Miller scored in the third period to make it 4-1, but Frank Vatrano responded with his 7th goal of the season and first since being called up this week from Providence. Unfortunately, the B’s had no more comeback magic and Rick Nash closed out the scoring with an empty-netter. He blew by David Krejci after the B’s won a faceoff in the Rangers’ end, but puck skipped by the veteran center near the offensive blue line and it turned into a footrace that Krejci lost.

The Bruins now find themselves squarely on the horns of a dilemma: they’ve lost four games in a row for the first time all season. It isn’t like they played poorly last night- they outshot the Rangers 41-24 but Rask was not 100 percent and if he wasn’t he should not have been in net- that’s on him and Claude Julien for making that decision. It might or might not have made a difference, but Rask left the game with his club in an 0-2 deficit after playing a strong opening period.

As for the wiped out goals, the B’s continue to come out on the short end of the byzantine replay processes that the NHL presides over. I’ve watched various games all season and I still can’t figure out how the decisions are made to uphold or remove goals from contest to contest. The entire process seems pretty subjective, but the Bruins are bound by the system the NHL has, not the one we’d like the league to employ. The negated goal is understandable and the Bruins have themselves to blame for allowing for a coach’s challenge which has served to bring games to a screeching halt and kill momentum. By rule, it was the right call to wipe out the first Stempniak goal because Marchand was clearly offside. However, his being offside had nothing to do with the actual play that resulted in the goal. Bottom line- since the zone entry was improper in the first place, the goal has to come off the board, but sometimes, linesmen miss calls like that and goals stand- the coach’s challenge, as constructed, does more harm than good. Law of unintended consequences- the self-imposed delays while referees review the various angles and replays aren’t good for the game. And, we’ve seen instances where, despite clear evidence to uphold or reverse the call, that they’ve made the opposite ruling. The challenge is flawed- the NHL should tweak and fix the gaps in the process or scrap it altogether.

The third Stempniak goal gets back to inconsistency. I think even the most ardent Rangers fans would look at the replays and concede that was a goal, even if by definition, the NHL was able to invoke the “inconclusive” clause to uphold the call on the ice. The commentators (Pierre McGuire perhaps?) had it right when they talked about common sense showing that the puck was in the net before Lundqvist snatched his glove back over the line, and it’s completely understandable that the on-ice official would give him the benefit of that call- it was a tremendous play typical of King Henrik’s Hall of Fame-caliber career. However, that’s no consolation to the Bruins, who can make an equally compelling case that the replay showed that puck was in the Ranger goalie’s glove when his glove was on the wrong side of the goal line. If we have the technology and we aren’t going to use it, then what is the point of having replay at all?  Just give all the power to the referees in a game and don’t give false credence to a farce that the NHL is dedicated to making the right call when it’s right in front of them. Either rewrite the rule to allow for common sense to prevail in a situation like that or don’t have replay…it’s that simple.

Ultimately, though- the B’s now have to play the rested Florida Panthers at home tonight. The TD Garden environs have not been kind to them this season and this could get ugly if the B’s don’t put in a top effort. The way things have gone, an effort won’t be enough for the ever-growing-surly fans, who want to be rewarded with a winning performance. The B’s have had the effort of late, but don’t have anything to show for it. The offense, once clicking along at an impressive rate (third in the league before the road trip) has now gone south. The defense continues to be an adventure- they limited New York’s shots last night, but the Rangers capitalized on the quality chances Boston gave them, burying several goals from in close when B’s players didn’t cover the eventual goal scorers.

On one final note- Boston will recognize Claude Julien in a pre-game ceremony for becoming the team’s all-time winningest coach, passing Art Ross to sit alone atop the B’s coaching victories list as he closes in on 400 (but won’t get there this year). It’s a nice sentiment and one he deserves given the job he’s done with this roster and its limitations. The team needs to dig down deep to earn him a win and buy some breathing room as folks are getting antsy and looking back to last year.

I personally believe the Bruins will hold on and make the playoffs. They’re too hard-working to not eke out the points they need to get in. But as has been said all year, at some point, talent and depth will trump hard work and desire. Boston is on the right track and making the playoffs will be a good experience for the players, but Don Sweeney and the team understand the club’s shortcomings.

The sad thing about the loss in New York City last night is that the Bruins played well enough to win. They had plenty of chances to score and two goals that weren’t would have made all the difference. Vatrano, whom I thought would have been fine staying in Providence to soak up top minutes in all situations looks like he belongs in Boston. His snipe was vintage Vatrano- he slipped into a seam in the Rangers defense  and with no one on him, buried a laser beam just inside the short side post before Lundqvist could react. Kid’s a keeper.

The B’s left two points on the table in a game they most certainly could have had. It’s hard enough to beat the Rangers, but when you’re having to work agains the refs and the off-ice officials as well, you’re left with last night’s result.

That kind of a game can be a morale crusher, so it will be crucial for them to not come home tonight and lay an egg in a critical division game. If that happens, then we won’t only bear witness to a five-game losing streak but a snowball effect in Boston that will create an oppressive climate from now until the club’s next game in Toronto on Saturday.

The Bruins must find a way to get some wins.

Are You Not Entertained? Bruins recover to grab critical 2 points in South Florida

The Boston Bruins blew a pair of three-goal leads- 3-0 and 4-1 to the Florida Panthers, but got a tremendous top-shelf snipe from Lee Stempniak to get out of the BB&T Center with a critical two points in a 5-4 sudden death victory Monday night. It marked the 388th coaching victory of Claude Julien’s Boston career, moving him past Art Ross for sole possession of first place in Bruins franchise history.

Stempniak’s 17th goal of the season was his first as a Bruin- he broke into the zone during 3-on-3 overtime play with Ryan Spooner, took a cross-ice dish from Boston’s third-line pivot and then wired the puck over Al Montoya to escape Southern Florida after the Panthers tied it late on Jiri Hudler’s second marker of the night.

Things started well enough for Boston- Patrice Bergeron, No. 37 in your programs, No. 1 in your hearts one-handed a feed from Brad Marchand into the Florida net behind starter Roberto Luongo to give the road team a 1-0 lead just 37 seconds into the game. On 3.7.2016. Coolness.

David Pastrnak went five-hole on Luongo after slipping past the Florida defense for his 10th strike of the year (equaling last season’s total in 46 games) to make it 2-0 and then Brett Connolly rushed into the zone after getting the puck from Noel Acciari (his 1st NHL point) and firing a shot past Luongo to make it 3-0 at 12:22, his ninth goal.

Third-year center Aleksandr Barkov ( he’s Finnish, btw) cut the Florida lead to a pair of goals when he jumped on the rebound of a Jaromir Jagr shot and ripped home his 20th. The Jagr apple moved him past Gordie Howe for sole possession of third place all-time on the NHL’s scoring list (he trails No. 2 Mark Messier by 37 points).

Bergeron restored the three-goal lead with his 28th goal of the season and second at 17:25 of the opening frame when he took a Stempniak pass and buried it on a rush.

It looked like the B’s would cruise, as Luongo gave way to Montoya to start the second period. The Panthers had other ideas and jumped on the B’s when they came out for the middle frame stuck in neutral. The game seemed to turn when Shawn Thornton fought Adam McQuaid after a heavy hit in the corner, and fired up his team and the fans. Of course, the Bruins skating like they were in quicksand might have had something to do with goals by Hudler and Jussi Jokinen to cut the lead to 4-3, while allowing the Bruins to get just four shots on Montoya in the entire period.

That set up a back-and-forth third, which started to click down to the wire when the B’s lethargy in the neutral zone caught up with them and Hudler pounced on a rebound of an Alex Petrovic shot to make it a 4-4 game with under five minutes left in regulation.

Tuukka Rask gave up a couple he’d like to have back, but faced 51 Florida shots (he’s 7-0-1 when the B’s surrender 36 shots or more) and turned aside 47 (for a .922 save percentage). It was Rask’s 27th win of the season and put Boston in position to jump past both the Panthers and Lightning if they can beat Tampa on Tuesday.

Every point counts- the B’s can’t afford to leave anything on the table and tonight nearly got away from them if not for Stempniak, who now has one goal and six points in four games since coming over for a fourth-round pick this year and a second in 2017.

Although it was an ugly win, the scoreboard don’t say how, just how many. And it also allowed the Bruins to take on a little swagger (just a little- they did blow a couple of three-goal advantages, after all) and head out of South Florida saying this:

Gladiator

 

 

Big Boy Win

The Boston Bruins just beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2. At home, even.

The B’s got goals from Patrice Bergeron (25), Brad Marchand (33), Ryan Spooner (12) and Loui Eriksson (24) to earn a crucial 2 points and move to 2-0 in March- their toughest month of the season.

Claude Julien was behind the bench for his team’s 36th win of the season which gives him 387 with Boston, good for a tie for the club’s top spot all-time with Art Ross. What a way to get there in style, coach!

More important- they move into a (temporary) tie with Tampa Bay at 78 points, who are currently leading the Ottawa Senators and within two points of division-leading Florida, down 2-1 early to Colorado. Every game, every point is important, as we all learned last year. The victory gives them a tiny bit of breathing room against idle Detroit, building a three-point cushion for third place.

The Blackhawks played last night and started backup Scott Darling, and he at times looked like the No. 2 in Chi-Town, but that should not take away from Boston’s effort- they were gritty, tenacious and overcame a bad goal to Tomas Fleischmann late in the second which cut the 4-1 Boston lead in half.

However, as he did most of the night, Tuukka Rask shut Chicago’s attack down.

Those who want to look for negative things will no doubt find plenty, but I have to say- John-Michael Liles has impressed in his first two games. He skates like his legs are 25 not 35, and he’s always got his head up, looking to advance the puck. He had two helpers tonight but none prettier than the aerial sauce pass he fed to Eriksson, who was chugging right up the middle of the slot to the net. Loui deftly redirected a shot through the wickets to put an exclamation point on the contest. He went from a team that was selling off parts at the deadline after making an admirable push, to a club that is firmly in the thick of things. Even if the Bruins aren’t realistically a contender this year, Liles is playing with the energy and passion of someone who thinks they are.

The B’s get to face the nemesis Washington Capitals next on Saturday, and they’ll have a tough row to hoe. At least backup Philipp Grubauer will be in net and not the “Holtbeast”- Braden Holtby, who truly has Boston’s number and has pretty much owned them since earning his first career NHL win against the Black and Gold.

All you want from a team is pluck…a willingness to get after it and not fold in the face of pressure. The B’s passed their first major test of many this month and the first half of April. They’ll get to take one again agains Chicago on the road before the regular season ends, but at least we know the team has a split.

Now, the Bruins need to bear down and steal some games against playoff-bound opponents and not play down to those looking up at them in the standings.

Like we said- every point is important. This is why they opted to hold onto Eriksson rather than take a less than optimal return. He showed everyone why tonight, but there is much more work ahead.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Bruins hammer Penguins in decisive home win

Are the Boston Bruins Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Are they a good team with clear shortcomings on the defensive side that sometimes make them look worse than they are, or a mediocre team that is able to pound opponents so decisively on occasion so as to fool the optimists out there who support them?

The answer just might represent a little of both.

On Wednesday night, the B’s completed a three-game series sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is a similar team in that it has been a perennial contender since the Sidney Crosby era revitalized the team’s fortunes, but this year has been a shadow of its former powerful self since squeaking into the playoffs at Boston’s expense last spring.

Like Boston, the Pens have a powerful 1-2 punch at center (though Evgeni Malkin was unable to return from injury to help his team at the TD Center last night), a leaky defense made up of game, but  often overmatched 4/5/6 types and a goaltender who can minimize the damage but can’t do it all himself in Marc-Andre Fleury.

As was the case in Dallas last Saturday, the B’s didn’t exactly dominate the contest, as the Penguins came at them early, hemming them in their zone. Tuukka Rask withstood a 13-shot opening period, not allowing any pucks by him, and David Pastrnak scored the third penalty shot goal of the season for Boston to make it a 1-0 contest.

Pastrnak (his eighth) and Penguins forward Tom Kuhnackl traded goals in the second period to set the stage for a critical third period with the B’s still smarting after getting zinged at home the other night against Columbus.

Jimmy Hayes, Landon Ferraro and Brad Marchand, who scored his team-leading 31st goal, tallied three goals on three shots in the final 10 minutes to push the score to 5-1 and give the Bruins a much-needed home victory.

Hayes finished off a brilliant rush by Ryan Spooner, who got the puck from Hayes after Adam McQuaid blocked a shot (after losing his helmet- no fear) and took off like a rocket up the ice, crossing with Matt Beleskey at the offensive blue line to gain extra space. He then approached the net from the left side and threaded a pass right to Hayes, who didn’t miss for his 13th marker.

Ferraro then broke away after slipping behind the defense and getting a home run pass from Dennis Seidenberg, beating Fleury with a top-shelf laser for just his fourth goal of the season. Ferraro also had an earlier fight with Scott Wilson and gave better than he got, showing off the kind of energy that has made him a capable bottom-line player since the B’s snatched him off the waiver wire from Detroit.

Marchand’s final tally was vintage No. 63, as he got the puck from Torey Krug, cut to the net and let a jumpy Fleury make the first move before going around the defender and sprawling goaltender to slip the puck in on the far side.

Rask, for his part, was magnificent in a 41-save effort- he gave up just the Kuhnackl goal, scored off the German forward’s skate after a fat rebound. This is the kind of game that the Bruins typically need from their one-time Vezina Trophy-winning netminder. The defense still gives up a good number of quality scoring chances, but when Rask is on top of his crease and in the zone, he’s as good as anyone else in the league. The problem is- when the B’s go up against clubs with better top-to-bottom roster depth, they have a tough time matching up against teams that have the speed and skill to employ an effective forecheck that disrupts Boston’s timing on the breakout and leads to defensive zone turnovers.

Pastrnak’s performance gives the team multiple reasons for optimism. For one thing, it’s been a tough slog for the 19-year-old, who burst onto the scene a little over a year ago when he was called up in January and then proceeded to become Boston’s brightest hope for the future. Beyond his obvious offensive talent, Pastrnak is an easy kid to get behind because he wears his love of hockey openly, with a wide, infectious smile that reminds everyone who watches him of how all of these pro players began their lifetime association with this sport. Pastrnak is also serious and hard-working. He’s not quite on the same level as Patrice Bergeron was at the same age, but he’s not that far off, either. Pastrnak made the NHL at 18 because he not only gave the Bruins something they desperately lacked, but also because the coaches saw his work ethic and desire to improve manifested at practice. Some people have to be taught by others how to work harder to maximize their natural gifts, but Pastrnak needed no such coaching, and was often the last player off the ice (and still is). Claude Julien and his veteran coaching staff saw that, and so even with the setbacks the second-year right wing has dealt with this season, they’re willing to stick with him and maintain the faith that he can become the regular scorer he’s shown the penchant for in flashes.

Where do we go from here?

The Loui Eriksson trade watch continues, and I’ve been intrigued by the polarized sides on Twitter and the Internet- the two camps that are clearly at odds with one another within the B’s fandom. I explained at length last week why the Bruins will trade Eriksson and try to leverage him into the assets that can allow GM Don Sweeney to more properly address the elephant in the room: the defense.

Although there seems to be a group of folks who believe Eriksson can and should be signed, I have yet to see any plausible explanation from that side on how it will work. Assuming his agent JP Barry wants to secure money and term from his client (and why wouldn’t he?), the Bruins would essentially be rolling the dice that the soon-to-be 31-year-old would be able to maintain his current level of contributions for another four years at least to make an extension worthwhile. While that’s not impossible, the odds are certainly not in favor of that. Eriksson has never been a dynamic skater, so if he loses a step over the next couple of years as many players on the wrong side of 30 tend to do, his production could essentially drop off a cliff. The B’s cannot afford to be shortsighted here- that thinking is what got them into salary cap jeopardy in the first place.

Loui is a fine man and teammate. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and in the scope of the here and now, he obviously makes the Bruins a better team than they will be without him. But fans demand that their teams be in the winning mix year after year, and extending Eriksson puts that philosophy in peril. Sure- he’s one of the team’s most versatile and dependable forwards, but one can also make the argument that there are young players in the system that can capably address what Eriksson brings to the club given a little time. They won’t cost upwards of 5.5-6 million dollars a year (at least not right away) and dealing Eriksson gives the Bruins the much-needed coin of the realm: assets in the form of picks and futures that every team covets to off-set the ever escalating salary structures needed to retain the top talent across the league.

Should the B’s prove me wrong and hold onto Eriksson, either extending him or keeping him for the playoffs, we’ll revisit the implications of that when the time comes. Even if he’s not moved at the deadline, they can still flip him to a team that wants his exclusive negotiating rights before the July 1 free-for-all for a middling pick, which is not ideal but better than nothing. If they commit the term and dollars to him, then I think it works in the short run, but could have profound consequences by the years 2018 or 2019. I guess for those who like to live in the now, that may not be such a bad thing.

What we’re figuring out here is that making trades and acquiring the kinds of essential players needed to assemble a winning mix in the modern NHL is easy to talk about, much harder to pull off. It isn’t like Boston is bereft of young defensemen in the organization, but nobody is truly ready to step in and make the kind of difference this team needs right now with a goalie in his prime along with multiple forwards whose window might be closing by the time the B’s home grown blue line talent can make an impact.

Colin Miller has shown he can create offense, but he’s still got much to learn defensively. Rob O’Gara is having a down senior year at Yale but has size and mobility to become a bottom pairing staple after a little seasoning in the AHL. Matt Grzelcyk has the speed and offensive talent to be a two-way threat, but like Krug, will need some time to develop in the minors and will be a wild card in terms of what kind of role he can carve out for himself in Boston. Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon were all drafted last June and are not realistic options to make a difference for at least another full season but likely two or three more years at the earliest.

That means Sweeney needs to add a key piece now or at least in the coming off season. You have to give to get, and Eriksson represents the kind of asset that can increase the GM’s options, not diminish them. Yes, fans may not be thrilled with the kind of return he brings back in a few days (assuming he’s dealt), but you have to play the long game here and realize that a trade made today could set up the even bigger haul tomorrow (or in about three or four months).

If we’ve learned anything about the recent wins over Dallas and Pittsburgh, it is this- the scores didn’t represent how close the games actually were. The B’s benefited from shaky goaltending play from their opponents, but in the playoffs, when every game’s intensity is ratcheted up a few notches and the better teams can make you pay for every mistake, this Boston club isn’t going anywhere far as currently constructed.

That means you have to live with the tough calls and some short-term disappointment in order to benefit from a potential sustained run of excellence. Ask Columbus fans how much fun it has been to cheer for a team that has always tended to fiddle around the margins rather than make bold decisions to build for the long term and you’re not going to like the answer. Teams like Edmonton and Columbus should serve as a reminder that picking at the bottom of the draft every year is no sure path to contention. The Bruins have the pieces to be a contender, but the team has to be smart about how they streamline the effort.

Making decisions based on emotion, loyalty and what someone did in the past versus what they will do is more of a recipe for failure than success. When it becomes time to come to grips with the fact that Bergeron, Krejci, Rask and Marchand can no longer do what Boston fans have enjoyed and come to expect for so long now, the team cannot afford to have multiple albatross contracts around the neck.

Digging out from that kind of hole could take years.

Bruins beat Sabres & Leafs to show moxie, but the’D’ does not rest

The losses were piling up on the road trip, but the Boston Bruins stopped the bleeding with big wins in Buffalo and at home Saturday night against Toronto to salvage a tough stretch and keep teams behind them in the standings at bay.

Saturday’s 3-2 victory was especially heartening, as the B’s saw a Brad Marchand go-ahead goal with under 13 minutes remaining in the final frame get wiped out on a coach’s challenge that ruled the play offside. After contending with some pretty one-sided officiating all night that play seemed to convince the skeptics that it wasn’t Boston’s night, but the Hockey Gods smiled down on the TD Garden, and a Martin Marincin gaffe allowed for Marchand to pot the winner with under a minute remaining in regulation to break a 2-2 deadlock.

The referees- Dave Jackson and Justin St. Pierre– made me feel at times like Professor Terguson from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School. The role put comedian Sam Kinison firmly on the map with his “Oh, Ohhhhhh!” battle screech from the mid-80’s until his death in a car accident in 1992. The officials last night brought out the absolute worst that is the two referee system in hockey- two guys who just seemed to make inconsistent, subjective calls at whim while players like Nazem Kadri disgraced the game by flopping to the ice anytime a Bruin touched him without being held accountable. I guess I should not be surprised given Jackson’s reputation, but if this is the kind of effort the fans can expect- then why bother, NHL? Just put the teams out there and let them decide everything themselves- you wouldn’t get much more bang for your buck than what those two did last night. And with that, I cede the floor to Professor Terguson/Sammy K.

The win put Boston back into third place in the Atlantic Division, just one point ahead of Tampa Bay (51-50…hey- that’s an old Van Halen album!), who will play the division leader and Sunshine State rival Florida Panthers this evening. The B’s also stayed ahead of the hated Montreal Canadiens, who hurled 49 shots at Brian Elliott but lost in overtime in a game in which the Blues brought back goaltending legends- Mike Liut, Curtis Joseph, Grant Fuhr and Martin Brodeur for a pre-game recognition ceremony. Interestingly enough, Elliott’s 46 saves were the most at home by a Blues goaltender since…you guessed it…Joseph. And to top it off, Elliott was wearing a special tribute mask to Joseph with the same paint job that the former NHL great wore in St. Louis from 1990-93, before he adopted the ubiquitous CuJo rabid dog visage that decorated his headgear for the remainder of his career. But I digress…

This Bruins team is a game bunch of players who put in a good effort on most nights even if their hard work isn’t always rewarded with a win. For the past several weeks, they’ve been without center David Krejci, but Ryan Spooner rose to the occasion by playing like the  2nd-line pivot that many of us felt he had the potential to be. With Krejci close to returning, that’s good news for the B’s but the issue with this club is not the scoring as much as it is a lack of a viable championship-caliber defense. Unless Don Sweeney and his scouts can figure out a way to bring someone in, then fans can expect that this is about as good as it will get.

Tuukka Rask has shown that he has more than enough talent and experience to carry the team at times, and Jonas Gustavsson has been the serviceable backup that the team hoped Niklas Svedberg would be a year ago. However, without a balanced defense, the Bruins are a middle-of-the-pack team, and even the most optimistic of observers aren’t blocking off their calendars in May and June for an extended playoff run.

The B’s are doing about as well as they can, even playing above their heads for stretches of the season. However, the elephant in the room is the current makeup of Boston’s defense. The team knew this would be a sticking point when Sweeney traded Dougie Hamilton last June, and the 22-year-old has certainly not taken that next step that seemed a given just seven months ago, but make no mistake: the loss of Hamilton opened up a void that the GM was simply unable to fill and we’re seeing that with a 23-16-5 record and 4-5-1 in the last 10. The B’s are losing games that during the Claude Julien era they wouldn’t have in previous years, by losing leads because they depend too much on their goaltending and forwards to cover up for a group of players that works hard, but lacks the talent and ability to match up effectively against some of the NHL’s better offenses.

Zdeno Chara is the easy target for fans, frustrated by the fact that father time is catching up to him at age 39 (in a couple of months) and hoping against hope that Sweeney could make a trade for new blood using him as capital.

Here are just a few reasons why that isn’t going to happen: 1. He has a no-trade contract and a wife expecting twins in 60 days. Even if he wanted to play for a contender, it is highly doubtful Chara would even consider putting Tatiana Chara through the turmoil such a move would put his family through. That reason alone precludes serious consideration of any others, but here they are: 2. His best years are clearly behind him, and if you are a Boston fan, do you really think that another team would give the B’s the kind of value that improves the team today? If your answer to that question is yes, then I would submit your position is pretty unserious and you might want to learn a bit more about how the NHL works. I don’t say that to be arrogant, it’s just a fact. 3. There is simply no other defenseman remotely close to assuming the role Chara has on this club. It’s easy to declare he should be traded while Boston can get something for him, but with the NTC and a diminishing body of work, the return isn’t going to justify the net effect of such a move, which would be to elevate Torey Krug or Dennis Seidenberg to the top spot, a role neither player is suited for or capable of at this stage in their respective careers. Even when not producing the results that fans seem to have taken for granted in the decade Chara patrolled the Boston blue line, he’s still an integral part of the roster and Julien’s system, whether we like it or not.

Besides, assuming Chara asked out and wanted to be dealt (which he doesn’t at present) there is no shortage of teams that would want to add him, but those clubs aren’t going to give up a premium young roster player in return- that defeats the purpose of adding Chara to a contending team’s lineup in the first place. The best the Bruins could hope for is a young prospect along the lines of a Colin Miller, but more realistically, the trade partner team would give up a 1st-round pick for him, and that’s about it. If you want an improved Boston team in the present and immediate future (next year) that scenario doesn’t help. You can probably make a good trade on NHL ’16 involving Chara, but this is real life so just stop with the video game mentality, please.

But getting away from trading Chara for a second- the future Hall of Famer is worth far more to the Bruins than he is most anyone else. It would be one thing if the B’s had a legitimate young colt waiting in the wings and approaching the time to take over as the No. 1 defender on the Boston roster. Right now, Sweeney and Co. don’t have that player. They don’t even have a clear-cut No. 2, leaving Krug to take  on more of that role, but with very little help around him, as the rest of the defense corps in Boston right now is at best a group of 5/6, bottom-pairing guys. That situation places enormous pressure on Chara and results in his minutes being much higher than they should be at this stage of his career.

So, to close out the thoughts on Chara- he’s clearly not the player he once was, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy answer to just trade him and be done with it. He can still be effective in the right situations because of his size, reach and experience, but his lack of foot speed and declining skill set means that the team that employs him as a top defender cannot rely on him to perform like the dominant No. 1 he was in his prime. That’s sad, but the team and fans, at least in the short term, must come to terms with that fact and look for options that include Chara for now, because with that NTC and a lack of a viable marketplace at present, he isn’t going anywhere.

Krug has earned his way this year as a very good No. 3/4 at the NHL level. He does all the things you want from a puck-moving defenseman, making a brilliant neutral zone pass to spring Patrice Bergeron for the first of his two goals. Krug also put on an impressive display of skill during the second period when he stickhandled through the Toronto defense and deked Jonathan Bernier out of the Leafs net before losing the handle at the last second. However, he saved his best for last when Rask got caught out of his net and lost the puck to Tyler Bozak, who flipped it back to P.A. Parenteau. Krug’s instant recognition of the unfolding play allowed him to go right to the crease and cover for Rask. He dropped into the butterfly and absorbed Parenteau’s shot (that would have broken a 2-2 tie late in regulation and likely crushed Boston’s spirit).

When we talk about how Krug can’t physically outmatch the bigger, stronger forwards but that he needs to play smart defense, there is your exhibit A. He could have chased the puck and tried to make a play on it himself, but he had the hockey IQ and situational awareness to cover the cage with Rask out and made a game-saving stop while doing a pretty passable impression of the former Vezina Trophy winner in the process. Krug is Boston’s best defenseman after Chara- if he was about 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he’d be that ideal heir apparent that Boston so desperately needs. As it stands, Krug’s tremendous character, competitive drive and ability mean that he is worth getting locked up after this season and if it were up to me, I commit the expected $5 million he’ll command on the market to do so- he’s worth it, and the team can’t afford to bank on unknowns like Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara or even Brandon Carlo right now by allowing Krug to follow Hamilton out the door.

Against Toronto, we saw flashes of what Joe Morrow could be, but we also witnessed the likely effect of not playing every night, as he mishandled pucks and turned them over in several instances when a better decision to move the puck out of danger would have been smarter. The more I watch Morrow, the more evident it is to me why Pittsburgh and Dallas both decided to trade him. He’s a complementary player- not someone who is likely to develop into a top-3 NHL option. Morrow’s impressive skills are clearly evident when you watch the way he can carry the puck and will jump into the rush, but he looks like more of a specialist than a heavy lifter, and that’s a shame.

C. Miller has the best potential of all the youngsters at the pro level currently, but he’s not a player who can play unsheltered minutes and expect to instill confidence especially late in close games. There’s a valid argument to be made that Chiller should be in the lineup over Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman, especially with Adam McQuaid out, but he gives away toughness and size, even if the difference is so trivial that it seems inconceivable that the Boston coaches would not use him more. Trotman is big and mobile…he can make the crisp first pass and it showed last night with a helper on Bergeron’s second goal. He doesn’t have a big NHL upside, but he’s a serviceable player. With more physicality in his game, he might get more recognition than he does.

Dennis Seidenberg is a warrior, and I’ll always respect him for what he did for the Bruins when they traded for him in 2010 and a year later, he was one of the stalwarts that helped bring Lord Stanley back to Boston. However, he’s playing far too many minutes for what he can bring to his team on a consistent basis. He was solid against Buffalo and Toronto, but those are two clubs behind Boston in the standings- when up against the higher-end teams like Washington and St. Louis, DS44 struggles with containment and coughing up the puck under pressure from the ferocious fore check those clubs can employ. If he was contributing on the bottom pair, that would be one thing, but like Chara, too much is asked of him.

Ditto Kevan Miller- as good and hard-nosed a guy that you will find, but who is simply being asked to do too much and play too many minutes. It’s too lazy to just point to him and say he’s unworthy as an NHL defenseman- that’s simply not true. However- the issue is with the role the B’s have him in. Like Hal Gill in the early 2000s when Ray Bourque was gone and Chara was several years away from signing as a free agent, Miller is in over his head. It’s a shame, because as a bottom pairing D- he’d be a fan favorite. He was when he first showed up in the 2013-14 season with a younger, better cast around him and went out and rocked opponents nightly. He didn’t just forget how to play- but you can’t expect a role player to evolve into a top-2 or 3 option if he isn’t suited for it. And so, that’s what we get with No. 86- a nightly adventure wherein we wonder what exactly we will get when he’s out there. That’s no way to set conditions for success, but given the team’s current state of affairs, it’s what we’re left with.

So- to wrap up. This defense is a gritty, gutsy group that does the best it can with the talent it possesses. Adam McQuaid is the embodiment of this defense both as a tough, rugged, character guy who gives you every ounce of what he has, but also as a limited talent who pays the price for his physical style and is asked to do more than he is capable of. It isn’t a lack of want to for the Bruins defense, but in pro sports, heart and will can only take you so far- if the other guys are more talented and have more of them, then your ability to separate from the pack is greatly hampered.

This B’s defense deserves credit for trying, but the NHL is a cold, results-oriented business. If teams won because of effort or grittiness, then the Buffalo Sabres would have won a Stanley Cup by now.

The Bruins have some potential help coming in the form of youngsters like Grzelcyk, Carlo, O’Gara…Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon look like they could infuse the roster one day with the blend of skill and ruggedness needed, but none of those players are ready. So Sweeney’s challenge is to try and find a player who can not only help now, but be the bridge to a better future than just staying in the middle of the pack and therefore not getting as good a chance at drafting and rebuilding that the league’s doormats get.

Thoughts on Boston’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers

In a familiar refrain, the Boston Bruins dropped a close game late in regulation to the New York Rangers when a Jesper Fast deflection beat Tuukka Rask with less than two minutes left to break a 1-1 deadlock.

Despite the lack of offense, it was an uptempo game with both teams trading some good chances, perhaps none better than Max Talbot’s doorstep shot that Henrik Lundqvist somehow got his skate on while pushing left-to-right and essentially falling prone to the ice while his legs kicked up into the air in a fashion similar to a scorpion’s tail.

All in all, the B’s had just one goal by Jimmy Hayes (his 10th and set up by Ryan Spooner) on a heavy shot from high out in the slot to show for it. As was the case last year when Boston’s offense was among the league’s worst, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the goaltender to play a near-perfect game between the pipes.

The loss represented a missed opportunity- the Bruins carried the play in the second period but had only the one goal to show for it. As the cynics suspected, it was the Rangers who managed to capitalize when Claude Julien shortened the bench later in the third period, moving Landon Ferraro into David Pastrnak’s spot only to see defenseman Keith Yandle’s point shot sneak through when Fast got a piece of it and the puck changed direction.

We’re past the moral victories stage at this point of the season- every point counts and this is a game the Bruins should have had. To look for silver linings out of this one doesn’t get them any closer to the playoffs.

And, now- some thoughts and observations.

Designated scapegoat Kevan Miller had a rough night, on ice for both goals against and standing around when the winning goal was scored instead of clearing the much smaller Fast out of the crease. Miller has born the brunt of much fan angst and it is understandable- the undrafted free agent and former University of Vermont and Berkshire School captain has made some glaring mistakes throughout the season that get magnified because the puck has ended up in the net. However, much of the reason Miller is struggling is because he’s been put in a position to fail. The rugged, hard-nosed defensive defenseman is a serviceable 5/6 D when used correctly. Unfortunately, a lack of personnel and injuries have meant that the B’s have been using Miller as a 2/3 D for most of the year and he is simply not suited for that role- he’s in way, way over his head. This is not to absolve him of his errors- he’s had problems with his decisions and in basic execution, with gaffes that have cost the B’s in several instances, most notably in Boston’s 6-3 home collapse to Buffalo a few weeks ago. However, for anyone to think that Miller is not an NHL defenseman is a bit harsh: if he was on the bottom pairing and played somewhere around 17 minutes per night as opposed to the 20+ he’s been pressed into, there’s a good chance he’d be pretty respected because he plays the game hard, tough and works hard. Alas, for Miller, he’s limited and not capable of carrying the load, making him a magnet for fan frustrations. It happens to someone every year.

I wonder if Tuukka Rask has been checking the internet (10 years ago I would have said the Yellow Pages) for the numbers of good lawyers in Boston. He could sue the team for non-support after last night. He wasn’t able to do much on either the Fast winner or Derick Brassard’s rebound goal to tie it early in the third frame. But, Rask did what every good goalie must- gave his club a chance to win it.

Would like to see Julien give Pastrnak more of an opportunity to be a difference-maker late in games. Ferraro was not a terrible option to move up into his spot last night with a 1-1 game on the line, but the waiver pickup has cooled considerably since his first month as a Bruin.You live and you die by the talent you have, and when your team has only scored one goal in some 55 minutes of action, I’m not sure taking out the one guy who is arguably your most gifted scorer makes sense when you are trying to secure at least one point. Julien has coached 900 career NHL games, so there’s a reason he’s behind the bench and I’m not, but it’s about time to take the shackles off of No. 88. It’s really saying something about how woeful Boston’s offense was last night when Zac Rinaldo is in the conversation as your most effective forward. I don’t mean that as a slight because he’s been a pretty decent fourth-line option this season, but with just one goal and one assist- he is who we thought he is.

Frank Vatrano and Tyler Randell took a seat as healthy scratches last night after both being in the lineup against Ottawa Saturday night. Vatrano has a bright future ahead of him, but if this is to be his lot in life going forward for the rest of the season, then I suspect Butch Cassidy would love to have him back on the team in Providence. The undrafted free agent from Western Mass. has been a revelation, and his speed, dynamic shot and hustle are exactly what this Bruins team needs, but he had just 10 AHL games under his belt before going up to the big show, so there is more room for development on the farm rather than eating popcorn at press level.  Just saying.

Keith Yandle is a Milton, Mass. guy and former Cushing Academy star who had been linked to the Bruins in rumors for a couple of years before Arizona traded him to the Rangers last year at the deadline. There’s been some real grumbling in circles about how Alain Vigneault has used him this season, and let’s be honest- defense was never really Yandle’s strong suit. That said- with time ticking down and his team needing a play, they got one when his point shot was tipped in for the winner. He’s not the player a lot of people thought he would be early in his career when he showed signs of developing into something special, but a team like the Bruins sure could use him in a No. 2 role right now. Yandle only has two goals (on 88 shots) but his 23 points lead the Rangers from the blue line. He’s still a good offensive presence, even if the defensive side of his game isn’t there. He’s an unrestricted free agent this coming summer and will cash in- the question is where, and for how much/long?

Hayes netted his 10th goal last night, which puts him on the same pace as last year, when he established a career high 19 goals. It’s the inconsistency that has bothered Hayes this season, however- he had a brutal November, enduring a nine-game pointless streak at one point, and he went without points in nine of 12 December games. However, with his big body and soft hands, he’s capable of bringing more to the table. Last night’s goal was a rocket of a shot- scored from out near the tops of the circles when Hayes does most of his damage in close near the paint. He’s a good kid and wants to do well. I criticized him the other night because he stood around while Patrick Wiercoch worked over Vatrano after the diminutive forward crashed the Senators net. I felt that some kind of response- not necessarily fighting Wiercoch but at the very least, trying to restrain him so that Vatrano could extricate himself- was warranted, but many feel that he was right not to intervene and risk a penalty late in regulation of a tie game. Even if I don’t like it- that’s a fair assessment and with the way the NHL’s referees call games nowadays, any kind of intervention would be risky. That said- if Hayes is not going to bring much of a physical presence, then he’s got to keep scoring because he won’t be doing much else for this team.

It’s been a quiet couple of games for Patrice Bergeron (he was beaten by Mats Zuccarello on Brassard’s tying goal) and Brad Marchand since the latter returned from his three-game suspension. The B’s need those two to get it going.

Ryan Spooner continues to play well in David Krejci’s absence. Later this week, I’ll do a post dedicated to him and address some of the things he’s done behind the scenes to make himself a better all-around player, along with the help he’s gotten to get him there.
And that’s it. The B’s are 1-1-1 on their current road trip. They’ve been a good away team this year but they’ve got to find ways to get more points in the final two games at Philly and Buffalo before returning home Saturday to take on the Leafs with an ever-tightening Eastern Conference.

 

Final Buzzer: Stone OT goal powers Sens in 2-1 victory

The game was theirs had things been a little different for the Boston Bruins Saturday night in Canada’s capital city.

After young guns Mika Zibanejad and David Pastrnak traded goals in the first two periods of play, not another puck got past either one of Craig Anderson or Tuukka Rask until the 3-on-3 overtime period. Loui Eriksson had two glittering chances to give his B’s the extra point but could not cash in. Denied on a breakaway early in sudden death, he rang a shot off the post during a 2-on-1 break, and Ottawa took it the other way, finishing off the play to secure the home victory.

The winning goal came off the stick of Mark Stone, who had previously scored a pair of goals when Ottawa beat the B’s in the same building a few weeks earlier. Give the Senators forward credit- after Erik Karlsson’s shot hit off of Rask’s crest and bounced away from him, Stone gathered it up and attempted a wrap around goal. Rask somehow reached back in time from the left post to get his goal stick up against the far post to deny Stone’s initial bid. Unfortunately, with Eriksson behind Stone and out of the play, along with Colin Miller slow to react and put the body on the Senator player, Stone was able to corral the puck after it bounced off Rask’s stick paddle and flipped it up and over the goalie to end it.

Zibanejad’s first period tally, his eighth, was scored on a jailbreak rush after C. Miller’s shot attempt was blocked and Ottawa worked it back the other way. Karlsson slipped a pass to Zibanejad in the B’s zone after he broke in all alone and the Swede made a nifty deke before lifting the puck into the open side.

Pastrnak’s goal came on a deflection in the second frame, when he worked the puck around to Patrice Bergeron, who gathered it on the left half-wall and then passed back to Zdeno Chara at the point. Pastrnak rotated over to the slot in front of the net so that when Chara’s shot came in, Pastrnak was able to get a piece of it with his stick, making sure he made contact below the crossbar to make it a 1-1 game with his third marker of the year (in 12 NHL games).

That left it to the two teams to trade chances, with both Rask and Anderson holding down the fort until Stone finished off the B’s. Ryan Spooner and Senators forward Shane Prince (acquired with the 2nd-round pick in 2011 that Boston sent to Ottawa for Chris Kelly, btw) had particularly effective chances but neither player could find the back of the net.

 

Final buzzer: Bruins lay smackdown on Sens

Where to begin?

The modern NHL is different from the league I grew up with. In some ways it is better and others not so much. But tonight, when the Boston Bruins took on the Ottawa Senators in the second of a home-and-home series (Sens prevailed 3-1 on home ice Sunday), the home team set the tone for Friday’s Winter Classic against an even bigger rival.

The old NHL I grew up with- the one with the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conferences and the Adams, “Black and Blue” Norris Divisions and all the others- gave the league a character and toughness that simply doesn’t exist any more to a large extent. There were no Ottawa Senators in the old days of the Adams Division, but tonight’s Boston opponent might as well have been wearing the blue and white of the old Quebec Nordiques…or the green, white and (later) blue of the Hartford Whalers…because as the game wound down, the fireworks began in a manner reminiscent of some memorable fracas at the Boston Garden.

If you take nothing else with you tonight, remember this- these two teams don’t like each other. That’s how it should be. And that’s how it all went down in Boston’s decisive, grind-your-face-into-the-ice victory in a 7-3 final score punctuated by local kid Jimmy Hayes’ hat trick with just .02 ticks left on the clock.

The three-goal game for Hayes, done in front of the hometown fans, was undoubtedly a dream come true moment for the Dorchester native, who grew up skating in nearby rinks pretending to score goals for the Bruins. It’s been an at-times frustrating season undoubtedly for the former BC star, who came home in a late June trade. All at once, it had to be a thrill, but also brought enormous pressure to perform, too. It is therefore no small irony tonight that when skating on Boston’s bottom line, he brought the hats raining down at the TD Garden to put an exclamation point on a win the Bruins had to have.

Hayes got the first goal of the contest at 8:01 of the opening frame when a Kevan Miller drive into the end boards took a fortuitous bounce out in front of the net and the right winger punched it in. Longtime Boston nemesis (but oh how B’s fans would’ve loved this guy if he wore the Black and Gold) Chris Neil scored the equalizer at 12:31, converting a second rebound after the Bruins got caught running around in their own end. Patrice Bergeron restored the lead with the first of four Boston power play goals on the night when he took a Torey Krug pass and made a nifty little deke to put the puck past Craig Anderson, hero of the Sunday game for a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.

The final score does not accurately reflect how close this one was, as the B’s clung to a 3-2 lead that looked anything but safe going into the final stanza. Fans no doubt recalled the collapse Saturday night against the Bruins and when Matt Beleskey tallied a power play goal to put Boston up 3-1 only to see Mika Zibanejad score a late second period goal (his second in as many games after getting the game-winner Sunday night against the B’s) to cut the lead to one, you’d forgive the good folks for not being as optimistic going into the third.

The rollercoaster game continued into the last 20 minutes, as Bergeron got his second power play goal of the night (Boston’s third of the game) at 2:38 when Krug faked a big windup for a shot then sent a slap past to Bergeron, who was occupying his customary “bumper” position between the two circles. He deftly redirected the puck into the net before Anderson could track and reset. Seth Griffith, recalled as David Krejci was officially put on IR today, registered the second assist on the play, his first NHL point of the season in his first big league game this year.

However, less than two minutes later, Mike Hoffman reduced the deficit to just one goal again when he threw the puck towards the middle of the ice from the left side. It hit Dennis Seidenberg’s skate and caromed into the net to make it 4-3 with about 15:30 remaining in the game.

That set the stage for a wild finish, as Boston scored three goals in the final 4:11, with two Hayes tallies sandwiched with one Beleskey strike to put the Sens away for good.

After the B’s made it 6-3 on Beleskey’s second of the night, a chippy night got even more spirited. In the final minutes, Ottawa coach Dave Cameron sent Neil, Max McCormick and Mark Borowiecki (who tangled earlier in the game with Zdeno Chara and was promptly rag-dolled for his efforts) on the ice perhaps to send a message to Boston for their next contest in a few weeks. McCormick and Landon Ferraro dropped the gloves in a spirited but nasty bout that began with McCormick firing some vicious punches into Ferraro before the Boston center scored a punch and take down.

Things blew up at 19:33 when action around theBoston net that began with a David Dziurzynski hit on Miller on the end boards flared into a near line brawl. Zac Rinaldo  squared off and pounded Dziurzynski, while a hesitant Adam McQuaid battled Neil (and appeared to get an eye gouge in the process). The referees- Frederick L’Ecuyer and Kyle Rehman, wanting no more shenanigans, then issued 10-minute misconduct penalties to Miller, Beleskey, and Zack Smith. But with Boston on the power play after Neil took an extra penalty in his donnybrook with McQuaid, Hayes finished off the hat trick with a bullet into the net on a feed from Max Talbot (who played his finest game since being acquired from Colorado at last year’s trade deadline.)

As we have seen in the past, games like this one brings teams together. The fans in Boston certainly loved it, and more important- it allowed the Bruins to enter the three-day buildup to the 2016 Winter Classic on a high note, without the negativity of a four-game losing streak. Better yet, Montreal lost to the upstart Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers tonight, spoiling the debut of goaltender Ben Scrivens.

For Boston to go from a nasty game and key moral victory to now facing their bitterest rival of all- this is the stuff that used to make the NHL what it was.

I’m not saying the new NHL is bad, but for one night at least, we were all reminded of the toughness, emotion…the pure electricity that a game like this one generates. Those nights- which once came with far more regularity- are a product of a by-gone era, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t give us something to get excited about.

UP

Patrice Bergeron- He scored two very important power play goals at critical times in this game and got the game-winnerr, once again providing the leadership by example he has been known for throughout his entire Boston career. At this point, his excellence has just come to be expected, but the humility and character with which he carries himself only adds to his body of work. With 14 goals in 36 games, he might just establish a career best in that category at age 30, and he’s certainly cruising for a fourth Selke Trophy and could garner Hart Trophy consideration as league MVP as well. Regardless of what happens, Bergeron is the heart and soul of this team and continues to raise the bar as he climbs the ladder of franchise historical feats.

Jimmy Hayes- It hasn’t been the easiest of years, but he hung in there and had the best night of his NHL career in front of a fired up crowd. The former prep star at Nobles isn’t ever going to be a bruising, in-your-face power winger the way B’s fans wish a 6-5, 215 pounder should be, but as long as he’s working hard and finding ways to contribute, he’ll be value added to a team that is counting on him to provide secondary scoring, especially with Krejci now out for an undetermined length of time. Hayes wants to be here, and this game will do wonders for his confidence. Perhaps he’ll quit gripping the stick tight and take the chances as they come…he’s probably finding out that playing for your hometown team comes with a whole different set of expectations and pressures, but on this night, he was the man of the hour.

Matt Beleskey- His first two-goal game as a Bruin came in what is a typical contest that plays to the former Belleville Bull’s strengths. He was a force on the forecheck all night and both of his goals showed off his excellent shot. Pucks hadn’t been going in for him over the first half of the year, but he was working hard and generating chances. Playing the law of averages, you knew things were bound to change at some point.

Ryan Spooner- This was a big boy game for the center who moved up to the second line with Beleskey and Loui Eriksson with Krejci out. He set the tone early with solid defensive play in his own end and an underrated blind pass to Beleskey that sprang a breakout and key scoring chance. He assisted on Bergeron’s goal, then later set up Beleskey’s second tally with some superb work along the wall to shake a defender and get the puck to his linemate. Spooner does not get enough credit for his genuine desire to improve and be a part of his team’s success. Tonight, he sent a key message to Claude Julien and the Boston coaching staff- he wants to be a top-two line center in this league and against his hometown team, he looked like one in his season-best 17:02 (in regulation games) of ice time.

Max Talbot- I have long enjoyed covering him when he was on other teams, and he was an easy whipping boy for fans as his best years are behind him. Tonight, Talbot played like he did when he was in his prime with the Penguins and a major piece to their 2009 Stanley Cup championship squad. He’s limited, but no one will ever question his heart or effort. Tonight, he was the yin to Hayes’ yang and made that fourth line one effective unit. Credit where it is due, folks.

Tuukka Rask- He was victimized on the Hoffman goal, but Rask came up big numerous times to keep his team ahead before they gave him the offensive support to make it a laugher.He’s in the zone- Rask deserved a better fate Sunday, but he got his 14th win of the season by maintaining his focus, tracking the puck well, and making some controlled saves at crunch time. With Rask playing like this, the B’s are in every game.

Torey Krug- You could see how much the B’s missed Krug in the final period of the Buffalo loss and the entire Sunday Ottawa game just by the way he was motoring up and down the ice and pushing the pace. You could also tell how fired up he was to be back in the lineup. This was vintage Krug- making things happen with a pair of assists to reach the 100-point milestone in his young NHL career, while also playing a strong all-around game to help stabilize the defense. The team desperately needs him to keep up the two-way contributions going forward.

Zdeno Chara- Even at 38, he’s still an effective defenseman and tonight he showed it, playing with some snarl and a heaviness to his game that made it tough for Ottawa to get much going in the Boston end. He’s still making some dangerous passes, especially when on the power play, but he played a smart, focused game tonight. He imposed his will physically on Borowiecki, who wanted no part of Chara once the captain started slinging him around like a sack of potatoes. Chara could have punched him in the face when he had him down but didn’t. That not only showed respect for an opponent who probably didn’t deserve a whole lot given how Borowiecki took advantage of Hayes the other night after steamrolling Frank Vatrano, but also demonstrated restraint by not taking an extra penalty in a close game.

DOWN

Brad Marchand- There aren’t many downs to this game, but his low-bridge on Borowiecki could draw supplemental discipline. If the NHL suspends him for the Winter Classic (and they could given his past transgressions), that will put the Bruins behind the eight-ball for sure. On a night he was wearing the ‘A’ for the first time in his big league career, he also took an undisciplined slashing (it was more like spearing) penalty on Kyle Turris in front of the Boston net when the game was still 4-3. He’s been such a good player this season, but Marchand has to know where the edge is and not skate over it.

It’s onto Foxboro and the Winter Classic against the Montreal Canadiens. You can bet these Bruins will be ready to go.