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Brad Marchand, Bruins begin crucial home-and-home vs. Sabres

12.29.16 at 5:21 pm ET
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The Bruins are 2-0-0 against the Sabres this season. (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins are 2-0-0 against the Sabres this season. (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

A three-day holiday break from the ice brought about a noticeable uptick in the pace of play from some of the Bruins’ best in their Tuesday head-to-head with the white-hot Blue Jackets.

The game brought everything but the most important thing: a win.

Although the Bruins overcame an 0-3 deficit for the second time this year, the B’s were ultimately dropped when they were unable to counterpunch a Nick Foligno power-play goal scored midway through the third period, and finished as a 4-3 loser in spite of a 40-to-22 shot advantage and massive domination of the Blue Jackets almost immediately after the goal that made it 3-0 in the first period.

The Bruins had dominant puck possession from each line and the David Krejci line with Ryan Spooner and David Backes on the wings shined with goals from Backes and Krejci. They also had solid contributions from another solid game from Colin Miller on the backend, and their third line rolled with some noticeable chemistry redeveloped with Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano. Still, it wasn’t enough.

With the defeat, the Bruins dropped to 3-4-3 in their last 11 games, and have almost officially run out of breathing room in regards to their grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, with the Lightning knocking on their door and just one point away from the Bruins (and with one game in hand) and the Leafs just three points behind and with three games in hand.

“We’re gaining some points,” B’s coach Claude Julien said this morning, “but we’re not gaining enough.”

A Bruins loss coupled with a Lightning win over the Maple Leafs tonight would be enough to bump the club from the playoff structure for the time being, and that’s more than enough for the Bruins to stress the importance of a win in the first game of a home-and-home with a hapless Sabres club that’s dropped 10 of 17 home games this year.

“Right now it’s about winning hockey games,” Julien said of their lone home-and-home on this season. “I’m not dissecting this thing unnecessarily more than we have to win a hockey game here and that starts tonight.”‘

Bruins winger Brad Marchand has been a factor in both of the prior meetings between the Atlantic Division rivals this year, with the game-winning goal in the first meeting and an assist on the game-winner in their last head-to-head, and enters play with 16 goals and 26 points in 33 career games against the Sabres.

“We’ve got to control this guy,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, whose team is without do-it-all forward Ryan O’Reilly for this game, said of Marchand. “We’ve got to get after this guy and make sure he’s not the storyline in the game.”

Marchand is currently leading the Bruins with 29 points, and the B’s are 5-1-3 when he scores a goal.

Tuukka Rask is expected in net for the Bruins. The 29-year-old Rask stopped 18-of-22 in Tuesday’s loss to the Blue Jackets, but has been a nightmare for the Sabres this year, with two wins and stops on 67-of-68 shots thrown his way. Overall, Rask has 11 wins and a .933 save percentage in 18 career starts against the Sabres.

The Sabres counter with Robin Lehner. A winner in his last game behind a 40-of-43 night in the crease, Lehner enters action with eight wins and a .922 save percentage in 24 games this season. Lehner has just three wins in 14 career starts against the Bruins.

Injured defenseman John-Michael Liles was once again skating with the Bruins, but is not any closer to a return to action, according to Julien. The 36-year-old Liles has missed the last 15 games with a concussion.

Forwards Noel Acciari and Tim Schaller, along with defenseman Joe Morrow, are the expected healthy scratches for the Bruins.

The Bruins have not lost in Buffalo since Feb. 26, 2014.

Here are the expected lines and pairings for the Bruins tonight…

Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak

Ryan Spooner – David Krejci – David Backes

Frank Vatrano – Austin Czarnik – Riley Nash

Anton Blidh – Dominic Moore – Jimmy Hayes

Zdeno Chara – Brandon Carlo

Torey Krug – Adam McQuaid

Kevan Miller – Colin Miller

Tuukka Rask

Let ’em go: Refs should not have stopped Josh Anderson and Adam McQuaid from fighting

12.28.16 at 3:58 pm ET
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Adam McQuaid

Adam McQuaid

Who doesn’t love a good hockey fight? David Brisebois and Mark Shewchyk, the linesmen in Tuesday’s game between the Bruins and Blue Jackets, apparently do not.

Tempers flared between the B’s and Jackets, two teams that play just three times a year but two teams known their physical presences (the preferred styles of both Claude Julien and John Tortorella, their respective head coaches), after Scott Hartnell dumped Brad Marchand with a huge hit. There was carryover into the B’s end as Adam McQuaid and Jackets forward Josh Anderson started shoving.

The two were both willing, dropped their gloves, squared up, and were immediately stopped by the referees. No big deal, this has happened before, and plenty of times this season. They’d just skate around the referees. Nope. They were stonewalled out of a bout, and on numerous occasions.

Instead of a player, both Anderson and McQuaid were sent to the box with roughing minors.

 

Lame. As. Hell.

The Does Fighting Belong in the NHL debate has become an incredibly polarizing one, of course, and it hasn’t become any easier, especially with the amount of NHL enforcers that have died entirely too young over these last few years and their links to CTE. Human brains are not meant to play hockey or football to begin with, and adding in an element of getting punched in the head and face repeatedly — sometimes 50-plus times a year (look at some of the old stat lines of minor league enforcers that tried to fight and tangle their way into a big league call up) — only makes it worse. The NHL has done their part to curb some of the impacts (read as: dangers) of fighting — you’re no longer allowed to take your helmet off before a fight begins and most guys in the league now wear visors, which at times limits your ability to pop a dude in the face, unless you want to smash your hand up on some glass — while the AHL has imposed a new 10-fight limit and banned fighting right off a faceoff.

But as far as everybody knows, the NHL technically speaking still does allow fighting in their game (the Bruins have 11 fighting majors to their name this season, the 16th-most in the NHL). On what terms, however, remains vague at best.

Was there a reason why two eager-to-go fighters were denied last night? Of course not. It was not as if this was a late-game situation that would have come with a match penalty or allow animosity between the two teams to explode. In fact, it may have have had the opposite effect if they were allowed to go, as a finality of sorts to the building resentment between the two teams.

And at the risk of sounding like a neanderthal, I do believe there is still a place in the game for fighting. It’s still a way to either settle tempers (which is again what I think you saw both Anderson and McQuaid doing, in a weird way) and draw the line in the sand that things started — be it scrums, late hits, snow-showers on goalies, etc. — will have to be answered. It might not be the ideal way of responding to something, but you’ll take it over the alternative of dudes getting elbowed into next week and onto a stretcher. “But that doesn’t happen in the first place!” the people against fighting will counter. Yeah, you’re more often than not right, though John Scott concussing Loui Eriksson in Oct. 2013 — something he did because nobody else could beat up Milan Lucic for his hit on Ryan Miller two years before, y’know, when Eriksson was skating with the Stars — kinda goes against that.

But if there’s a leaguewide phase out of fighting, doesn’t an equally hard and/or dangerous hit on the other player become the solution? As a whole, coaches and players have become a bit better when it comes to turning the other cheek and trying to make them pay on the scoreboard instead, but if you touch any star player or young gun in this league, you’ll still have somebody guaranteed to be coming after you, be it directly after or later in the game when it’s score-settling time. The NHL is still very much an eye-for-eye, teeth-for-teeth kind of league in that regard, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

That said, I’m all for banning muggings. I don’t need to see Scott try to obliterate Phil Kessel. I don’t need to see Ray Emery beat Braden Holtby back into the Twilight series. That’s not why people go to games, nor should it be. That’s the lowbrow stuff that the league doesn’t need, especially when it involves a star player getting his head kicked in by some plug.

But if two combatants are willing to go, as both Anderson and McQuaid were last night, let them go.

Unless that’s been banned, too.

David Krejci coming through with stronger efforts for Bruins

12.28.16 at 1:37 am ET
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David Krejci had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

David Krejci had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

Tangible four-line efforts from the Bruins, a former staple of Boston Hockey during their since departed Stanley Cup window from 2009 to 2013, have been few and far between this season.

Much of the team’s scoring has been carried by the B’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

Actually, that’s better said as just Pastrnak, who has accounted for 19 of the 79 goals scored by Bruins forwards this season (nearly 25%), compared to the 15 combined goals between Bergeron (five) and Marchand (10). The third line has — at times — been a factor for the Bruins, too, mostly due to the hot streaks of Austin Czarnik, be it at center or on the wing. There’s also the outlier known as fourth-line center Dominic Moore’s offensive resurgence, with his eight goals currently sitting as the fourth-most on the team.

One that’s struggled to get going on a consistent basis? The B’s second line featuring David Krejci and David Backes at center and on the right, and with a rotating cast of characters to their left. Just off the top of my head, that left side has been occupied by Ryan Spooner the most, then Danton Heinen, Matt Beleskey, Tim Schaller, and even Frank Vatrano, who skated in just his third game of the season in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets, for a quick minute. As weird as it may sound, too, the left side (and the right side) of the line is irrelevant if the centerpiece of that line — literally and figuratively — Krejci, remained quiet.

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Bruins have fight, but not enough in 4-3 loss to Blue Jackets

12.27.16 at 10:00 pm ET
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The Bruins overcame an 0-3 hole for the second time this year, but still lost, 4-3 to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins overcame an 0-3 hole for the second time this year, but still lost, 4-3 to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

As maddening as they are and will surely continue to be, this time after a 4-3 loss to the NHL-best Blue Jackets for the Jackets’ 13th win in a row, you can’t say that these Bruins don’t have fight in them.

It’s just a matter of how long they can hang in said fight.

Back from their three-day holiday break and matched up with the best team in the league (the Blue Jackets entered play without a loss this month, with wins in 12 straight games and the league’s best goal differential, at plus-45), the Bruins looked like it was a three-month break from play as the Jackets quickly grabbed a 3-0 lead.

An irate Claude Julien yelled at his club after the first Jackets goal. Understandably so, too, as the B’s just simply forgot about Scott Hartnell in the attacking zone and let the veteran net-front nuisance score on Tuukka Rask without a Bruin within 20 feet of him. He toyed with the idea of changing some things after the second. But before he could even do that he stared at the jumbotron in near-disbelief it appeared, as the Jackets’ cannon fired once again on their third goal on Rask, just 52 seconds after the second, and their third in a 6:37 stretch in the first period.

But Julien did not panic. Rask stayed in the crease. And the Bruins answered with the desperation they needed.

David Backes and Austin Czarnik scored 55 seconds apart to cut the Jackets’ lead to one through 20 minutes of play, and David Krejci’s seventh goal of the season, scored 18:26 into the second period, drew the game back even through two periods of play. Not only did the Bruins find the tallies they needed, but they straight-up dominated the puck, too, with a shot advantage that at one point favored the Bruins by a 29-to-11 mark since the Matt Calvert goal against. And the Bruins likely would have found the go-ahead goal had it not been for some otherworldly goaltending from Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky.

But they couldn’t, and when the Jackets were gifted a late-game power play in the third period, it was Nick Foligno that finally answered with the fourth Jackets goal of the night, and enough for the Jackets’ 13th win in a row.

Foligno’s goal — a product of an inability to clear the front of the net, with Zdeno Chara and Adam McQuaid caught between awkward spacing and puck-watching for a second-chance look from the Columbus captain — the Bruins were left to score a fourth goal on Bobrovsky, a goaltender with a .947 save percentage in his last 10 games, with 9:14 in the third period.

The Bruins gave it their best shot, too, but it didn’t happen. Bobrovsky instead stood tall for a season-high 37 stops.

You could see it coming from a mile away, too. For all the things that the Black and Gold have done well this year, there are two areas of the clock that have stuck out as year-long killers for the club, and it’s been their starts and finishes.

In an 0-3 deficit for the sixth time this season, the Bruins have too often been left with the task of battling their way out of a near insurmountable hole. (The last time the Bruins overcame a three-goal deficit? Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Maple Leafs, so no, it’s not all that easy.) And even when they have — they clawed back to make it 3-3 against both the Capitals and again tonight against the Blue Jackets, but dropped both games — the team has lacked the killer instinct or snipe needed to jump ahead and make the comeback actually worth something with a lead and/or a win.

“It all goes back to that [first] 10 minutes,” Krejci said.

And when that fails to happen, as it has countless times this season, you know the answer the other way is coming.

It’s become the story of the Bruins’ season, too. The Bruins have to work almost twice as hard as their opposite to score the same amount goals (the Bruins put 40 shots on goal compared to just 22 from the Jackets), and when math like that is constantly against you, it’s going to be especially tough to skate off as victors, especially as the season gets deeper and fatigue rears its head.

At least in Washington — when the Bruins last sorta-but-not-really overcame a three-goal hole — they nabbed a point with an overtime loss, but tonight, a loss is a loss is a loss. Even if it comes at the hands of a team that’s just on fire.

Bruins return from holiday break with tall task against Blue Jackets

12.27.16 at 6:23 pm ET
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The Bruins take on the Blue Jackets tonight.  (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

David Backes and the Bruins take on the Blue Jackets, winners of 12 straight games, tonight at Nationwide Arena. (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports)

If the Bruins made the good list this winter, the Santa Claus of NHL scheduling sure had a funny way of showing it.

Back from the league-mandated three-day Christmas break, the Bruins return to game action tonight with a trip to Nationwide Arena against a Blue Jackets group that’s rattled off 12 straight wins.

Beyond the 12-game winning streak, the Jackets have lost the fewest games in the league this year, with just five regulation losses (and nine losses in total if you include overtime/shootout defeats). They also have the league’s best goal differential, at plus-45, and the NHL’s top power-play percentage, at 26.9%. In the league’s toughest division, the Blue Jackets have been the juggernaut nobody saw coming.

“We’re playing a team that right now is firing on all cylinders,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien, whose team blew a 2-0 lead and dropped an overtime contest to the Hurricanes in their pre-Christmas finale, said after the morning skate. “Defensively they’ve been good, offensively, good goaltending. When you play a team like that, you know you have to be ready to play one of your better games and that’s all you can ask from your hockey club right now.”

But it’s not a meeting without some hope for the Bruins. Of the Jackets’ five pointless losses this season, two have come against this same Bruins club, who defeated them by a 5-2 final at TD Garden on Nov. 10 in their last head-to-head (a game in which the Bruins chased Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky with four goals on nine shots in less than 13 minutes of play in the first period), and the Bruins have outscored the Jackets by a whopping 11-to-5 mark in those two meetings this season.

That’s not enough to let Julien and the B’s think they have it easy tonight.

“I think what you have to understand that they’re playing much better than they did back then,” Julien, whose team has won just three of their last 10 games (though they’ve grabbed 12-of-20 possible points) admitted. “We can look at some of the stuff we did well, and we can talk about, but at the end of the night it’s about playing a team that’s gonna be better than what we did before.”

After he stopped 29-of-30 shots against in a Dec. 22 win over the Panthers before getting Friday night against the Hurricanes off, Tuukka Rask will be back in the crease for the Bruins. Rask has been great with prolonged stretches of rest this season (five wins and a .965 save percentage in six games with at least three days of rest), stopped 15-of-17 shots in his last meeting with the Jackets, and comes into action with seven wins and a .929 save percentage in eight career starts against the Blue Jackets.

The Jackets counter with Bobrovsky. The Russian netminder has taken wins in 10 straight and posted a .947 save percentage over that stretch, including a 36-of-37 effort in his last game, a 2-1 victory over the Canadiens. Oddly enough, however, the Bruins are the lone NHL team Bobrovsky has yet to beat in his NHL career, as he is winless in two starts against the B’s this year, and boasts an 0-4-2 record and .900 save percentage in seven career games against the Black and Gold.

This is the season series finale between the two Eastern Conference foes, and with a win, the Bruins would sweep their second season series of the year (the Bruins swept the two-game set with the Jets this year). They had four series sweeps a year ago.

Here are the expected lines and pairings for the Bruins

Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak

Ryan Spooner – David Krejci – David Backes

Frank Vatrano – Austin Czarnik – Riley Nash

Anton Blidh – Dominic Moore – Jimmy Hayes

Zdeno Chara – Brandon Carlo

Torey Krug – Adam McQuaid

Kevan Miller – Colin Miller

Tuukka Rask

Bruins defenseman John-Michael Liles back on ice for morning skate

12.27.16 at 2:57 pm ET
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John-Michael Liles has missed the last 14 games with a concussion. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Bruins defenseman John-Michael Liles has missed the last 14 games with a concussion. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time since he was helped off the ice by teammate Adam McQuaid after a thunderous crash into the TD Garden endboards — and kneed in the head by Austin Czarnik on his way there — in a Nov. 27 win over the Lightning, Bruins defenseman John-Michael Liles was back on the ice with his teammates this morning.

Out for the last 14 games with a concussion, Liles was a participant in the B’s morning skate at Nationwide Arena ahead of tonight’s game with the Blue Jackets, and though it was not his first time skating (Julien noted that Liles has skated on his own in recent days), Liles does seem to remain a ways away from a return to game action.

“Still no contact with him, so he’s not cleared,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Liles’ status. “He’s going through the protocol, and eventually he’ll move to some contact if he can get through this.”

In Liles’ absence, the Bruins have leaned heavily on Colin Miller, who has one goal, three points, and 22 shots on goal in 12 games without Liles (if you include the Lightning game in which Liles was injured less than five minutes into play), along with Kevan Miller (who returned to action just a couple of games before Liles was injured), while the club’s seventh defenseman, Joe Morrow, has stepped in for five games since Liles’ injury.

An experienced defender with the ability to play both sides, Kevan Miller has taken on the bulk of Liles’ minutes (and played both the left and right side) and situational hockey plug-in fix to a struggling pair, with 17:27 of time on ice per night.

Liles’ presence is a welcomed one, of course, but there’s still no set date or even targeted date for the 36-year-old defender to return.

“It’s unknown,” Julien said.

Liles, acquired from the Hurricanes in exchange for prospect Anthony Camara, a 2016 third-round draft pick, and 2017 fifth-round draft pick last trade deadline, has recorded five assists and 19 shots on goal in 22 games for the B’s this season.

The Bruins have gone 6-4-4 since Liles went down.

Admiral’s Mailbag: Bruins’ New Year’s resolution is to find better backup goaltending

12.25.16 at 7:09 am ET
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Frank Vatrano

Frank Vatrano

Happy holidays! Here’s the mailbag …

How much of a difference will Frank Vatrano make to the Bruins line-up? Jimmy, West Springfield, MA

Well, we saw an immediate impact as the Massachusetts native scored to put the Bruins up 1-0 on his second shot of the season Thursday in Sunrise, Fla. But this is just the second season for Vatrano so expectations ought to be tempered somewhat for the 22-year-old free agent signing. We know that he has an NHL-caliber shot but still haven’t seen him perform over a full NHL season so he still has a small sample size (he scored eight goals in 39 games last season and has one goal in two games this season). One thing is certain about Vatrano: he’s going to shoot the puck and shoot it often. If he can put the whole package together, it’s not a stretch to think he’s turns out to be a Top 6 guy over the next couple of years.

What’s up with Anton Khudobin? Jeff, Nashua, NH

He definitely hasn’t looked the great back-up he was here four seasons ago—a performance, by the way, that earned him a two-year, $4.5 million deal from the same Carolina Hurricanes team that handed him an OT loss last night. But you do wonder how many more subpar performances the team will tolerate before perhaps giving Zane McIntyre, (who has been scorching hot in Providence) a shot at doing a better job as the team’s No. 2 goalie. Khudobin is popular teammate and good guy but the simple fact of the matter is his 3.06 and .885 aren’t numbers that any team wants to see on their goalie’s stats page. Not to mention, Claude Julien needs a guy he can rely on when he needs to spell Tuukka Rask, and he’s simply not getting it lately.

Have you ever seen so many streaking teams in one season? Ralph, Tewksbury, MA

Nope. I can’t recall ever seeing this many teams put up such lengthy winning streaks like this before. I’m half-expecting Frank the Tank from “Old School” to show up for one last hurrah. Two teams currently have double-digit win streaks (Columbus at 12 and Minnesota at 10) and I can’t remember ever seeing that either. Still, while a long streak is a nice way to stockpile points to ensure a playoff appearance, it is hardly an indicator of future post-season success. And even with so many teams going on such impressive runs, only one can win the Stanley Cup.

It’s that time of the year … what are your favorite Christmas movies? Jessica, Medford, MA

I got “Bad Santa” as my favorite. Billy Bob Thornton’s epic, thieving ‘Santa’ is hilarious and the movie pulls off being raunchy as hell while still keeping that Christmas spirit. No small feat. “A Christmas Story” is No. 2. The timeless tale of Ralphie gets the deserved airs all day over and over again on Christmas slot because it still holds up 33 years after its debut. And third, I have “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” because the Griswolds are always a treat (regardless of who is playing the kids). Add in the superb supporting cast led by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and you got yourself a Yuletide classic. And on that note, I want to wish everybody a Merry Christmas and hopes for a much better 2017.

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