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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.

Anton Khudobin needs to prove himself as reliable option for Bruins

12.24.16 at 3:58 am ET
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Bruins goalie Anton Khudobin has one win in eight games this season. (James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports)

Bruins goalie Anton Khudobin has one win in eight games this season. (James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s not goaltender Anton Khudobin’s fault that the Bruins lost to the Hurricanes by a 3-2 final Friday night. But at the same time, and for the sixth time in seven starts this season, he didn’t really help.

Saddled with the overtime loss thanks to a Teuvo Teravainen shot that beat him upstairs, the 20-of-23 night from Khudobin dropped his record on the year down to 1-5-1 with an .885 save percentage.

Beyond the final saves total, though, the loss stuck out as another night in which Khudobin failed to make the big stops the Bruins without question need him to as the necessary breather to Tuukka Rask.

When the ice tilted the ‘Canes way with the Bruins up 2-0, the 30-year-old Khudobin was beat by a shorthanded breakaway goal from Jordan Staal and was clean by Justin Faulk off a faceoff play that Bruins head coach Claude Julien said was mentioned as something to watch out for heading into this game. It also didn’t help Khudobin that Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, who was peppered for 33 shots, seemed to make countless big stops — and at every turn, especially when the ‘Canes clawed back into the game — while Khudobin caved.

But at a certain point, you need — or better yet, expect — Khudobin to help himself.

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The Airing of NHL Grievances

12.23.16 at 4:08 pm ET
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It might be time to put the Winter Classic on the shelf  for a few years. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

It might be time to put the Winter Classic on the shelf for a few years. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

In case you didn’t know, Dec. 23 is an official holiday. Happy Festivus!

In line with Festivus traditions, and before we get to the Feats of Strength, it’s time for the Airing of Grievances (NHL style). I got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it.

OK, Winter Classic and outdoor games, that’s enough

Remember the first Winter Classic? It snowed, the goalies were wearing winter hats on top of their helmets, and it involved the game’s best player (Sidney Crosby), and it went to a shootout where Crosby had the game on his stick (spoiler: he scored). The pictures that came out of that game were incredible, and it was clear that the NHL struck gold. And it took less than a decade for the league to let the event become completely oversaturated and just not that interesting.

In case you didn’t know or care to know (I honestly had to Google this), this year’s Winter Classic will be played in St. Louis between the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. (This is now the fifth outdoor games involving the Blackhawks since 2009.) And at first, the venues were interesting. Ralph Wilson Stadium. Wrigley Field. Fenway Park. The Big House in Ann Arbor.

Now, we’ve cycled through so many venues that we’re now going back to Heinz Field. Neat. But who cares?

Between the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series (the game at Heinz field between the Penguins and Flyers is going to be filed under the Stadium Series umbrella), the league has simply had too many of these games in recent years and they often involve the same teams. Behind the Blackhawks’ five outdoor games, the Penguins will be in their fourth this winter, the Flyers will be in their third, same for the Red Wings and Rangers, and the Bruins have been in two.

The overexposure has really taken a lot of allure out of these games.

My idea: Put it on the shelf for a few years. Come back with a crazy awesome venue. Involve a non-traditional matchup, too.

Malcolm Subban, what’s the deal? 

The Bruins selected Malcolm Subban with the 25th overall pick in 2012. It’s 2016, and Subban has appeared in two games for the Bruins. He has not finished either one of those games. Subban was pulled after he allowed three goals on six shots in his NHL debut in 2015. A season later, Subban received an early hook with three goals on 16 shots against. Both starts lasted 31 minutes.

Subban has actually regressed in the AHL, too, with a 2-7-4 record for the P-Bruins this season. His .894 save percentage ranks 40th out of 47 qualified goaltenders and his 3.27 goals against average is the fourth-worst.

Subban may have hit finally professional rock bottom, too, with seven goals against on 39 shots in a Dec. 17 loss.

What’s weird about this is that Subban is better than this. It’s just… there’s something off. You can’t put your finger on it, exactly, but for me it does come back to his mental makeup and attitude. It’s as if when one goes in, they all go in. And an NHL goaltender can’t have that sort of mindset. Not even close to it, actually. Memories like goldfish. Not save attempts like goldfish.

The Florida Panthers are still Mickey Mouse

Jaromir Jagr is incredible. He’s the best. Love him to pieces. And it was awesome to see Jagr pass Mark Messier for second on the league’s all-time scoring list against the Bruins. But how absolutely goofy are the Panthers for stopping a game in the middle of play to hold a ceremony for the 44-year-old legend? The answer, of course, is very.

You can almost see the look on Jagr’s face that’s like, ‘Oh, God, we have to do this right now?’

Not only did it stop the Panthers’ momentum against the Bruins (and they had a ton of it), but it was just so weird. This was absolutely something that could have been held off on until the club’s next home game and actually meant something. Very little seemed to be gained from presenting a commemorative gold stick and interviewing an exasperated Jagr in the middle of the game. For both the Panthers and Jagr, as the club still lost for the eighth time in their last 12 games.

All that said, I hope Jagr plays til he’s 60. No, 65. 80! 80 years old.

Give Jimmy Hayes some credit

Jimmy Hayes might be playing some of the best hockey he’s played in a Bruins uniform, and yet, he’s still the butt of everyone’s joke. That’s weird to me. Rarely have I seen fans of a team just openly mock a player — even when he finds a way to score a goal or record a point or even just make a good play — like the way I see people rip Hayes to shreds at every possible turn. If you’re going to dump on him when he struggles, at least be a little bit fair and give the dude some credit when he contributes.

Stop telling me that the Vegas Golden Knights have a cool logo

They don’t.

5 Things We Learned as Frank Vatrano scores in first game back in win over Panthers

12.22.16 at 10:23 pm ET
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Bruins winger Frank Vatrano scored in his first NHL game of the season in Thursday's win over the Panthers. (Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)

Bruins winger Frank Vatrano scored in his first NHL game of the season in Thursday’s win over the Panthers. (Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)

On the shelf for the first 34 games of the season as a result of September foot surgery, Bruins winger Frank Vatrano was counting down the days to his NHL return.

He had to be patient, had to bide his time (you could tell just how badly Vatrano, recalled and cleared to play after two games in the AHL last weekend, wanted to play against the Islanders the other night), and had to understand that even when he did come back, that there might be some time until he made a noticeable impact for the Big B’s.

That time, as it turned out, was just one-plus period.

On the ice for just his sixth shift of the night (and first of the middle frame), Vatrano beat Panthers James Reimer netminder with a signature quick wrister fired just 2:09 into the second period in a 3-1 win over the Panthers at the BB&T Center.

Reunited with Austin Czarnik — Vatrano’s preferred playmaking centerman during his absurd run with the P-Bruins a year ago — on the B’s third line with Riley Nash on the right side, the 22-year-old provided a noticeable spark and played with the shoot-first mentality that the Black and Gold had penciled into their top six before Vatrano went under the knife after a freak foot injury sustained while jogging.

The Bruins rolled with the momentum of Vatrano’s first goal of the season with a power-play goal from Patrice Bergeron, scored just 3:04 after their first goal, for Bergeron’s first goal in nine games.

And with a 2-0 edge through 40 minutes of action, the Bruins went into a defensive shell against the trailing Panthers, and it was Aleksander Barkov that beat Tuukka Rask up high, scored with under seven minutes to go in the third.

But the Bruins caught a break on a 6-on-5 chance for the Panthers when Keith Yandle whiffed on a puck at the attacking blue line after a Florida faceoff win and allowed Brad Marchand and David Backes to charge towards an empty net, where Backes deposited a goal for the dagger in a 3-1 final.

With the win, the Bruins improved to 3-0-0 against the Panthers this season.

Here are four other things we learned in the win…

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Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr could make history tonight against Bruins

12.22.16 at 7:22 pm ET
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Jaromir Jagr is one point away from moving into sole possession of the second-most points in NHL history. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Jaromir Jagr is one point away from moving into sole possession of the second-most points in NHL history. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins have been here before. Jaromir Jagr, who might honestly be the first machine ever made (hit the bricks, waterwheels and windmills), has been here before. And yet, here they are, back for more.

It was in a Mar. 7 meeting between the Bruins and Panthers that the ageless Jagr moved into third place on the NHL’s all-time points list with an assist in the first period of a loss to the Black and Gold. Now, one offseason and 37 points later, the 44-year-old Jagr enters tonight’s game in need of just one point to pass Mark Messier for sole possession of second place on the NHL’s all-time points leaderboard.

With three assists in the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Sabres two nights ago, Jagr, who said he dropped 15 pounds over the summer, bumped his season total on up to 19, and his career total to 1,887.

Familiar with the Bruins long before his brief run with the club in 2013 — Jagr, acquired from the Stars in the lockout-delayed season, totaled two goals and nine points in 11 games with the Bruins (and added 10 assists in 22 playoff games, figures that are not included in those 1,887 points) — Jagr has made it a point in torching the Bruins since the club walked away from him following their Stanley Cup Final loss to the Blackhawks.

In 13 games against the B’s since 2013 between the Devils and Panthers, Jagr has totaled two goals and 11 points, and has recorded 34 goals and 101 points in 83 career games against the Bruins in his career.

After Messier, Jagr will begin a climb towards Wayne Gretzky’s NHL-best 2,857 points.

Something he will reach by 2080, when he is probably still playing.

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