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Bruins continue to come up short on offense

11.03.09 at 11:26 pm ET
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The timing is simply too coated in irony to ignore.

The Bruins dropped another game to the Detroit Red Wings by a 2-0 score and lost two straight games for the first time this season in the process, and haven’t scored a goal in exactly 132:58 and counting. Once again they completely whiffed with an 0-for-3 on the power play — which drops them to 0-for-their-last-17 power play chances — and couldn’t muster up any notable offense over the course of the game aside from a pair of early Marco Sturm opportunities and a few post-worthy bids.

The B’s are averaging 1.85 goals per game in the seven contests since Savard landed on long term injured reserve with a broken left foot, and that isn’t going to win a lot of hockey games.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, Phil Kessel played his first game for the Maple Leafs coming off shoulder surgery and fired a career-high 10 shots on net while playing 23:50 of ice time in the overtime loss — a good two minutes more than the ice time logged for any member of the Bruins in their listless loss to the Wings. Kessel was buzzing around the net all night and showing the kind of dynamic offensive presence that Boston is sorely lacking. The Black and Gold have to work ridiculously hard for their offense right now, and things aren’t getting any better. 

The B’s are playing solid enough defense (exactly 2 goals per game in their last seven), getting pretty decent goaltending and playing with effort and grit in most instances, but they simply have no finish to their game. David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron can both give the Bruins quality play at the center spot, but they don’t have wingers capable of finishing with anything approaching a flourish. Bergeron led the B’s with four shots attempted on net Tuesday night, and the Black and Gold simply don’t have that one game-changing force able to lift them out of the goal-scoring doldrums.

YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND, NOTHING’S EVER GONNA BRING YOU DOWN: Got to give it Kessel. He didn’t score and finished a minus-1 for the game, but he squeezed off a game-high 10 shots and showed more offensive dominance in one game than many of the Boston forwards have all season. He showed some toughness shaking off a Matthias Ohland hit in the first period that bloodied his lip, and gave Toronto fans a preview of the explosive skill set the 22-year-old brought to the table for three seasons with the Spoked B. Give Shawn Thornton full marks for skating the entire game as if his pants were on fire. The fourth-line tough guy finished with a game-high nine hits, but he couldn’t spark a genuinely lifeless Bruins bunch.

GOAT HORNS: The power play might be taking permanent residence in this spot soon enough. The B’s have put up a pungent 0-for-17 on the PP, and went 0-for-3 with two cruddy shots on goal for the entire night. The B’s are 1-for-20 on the PP without Marc Savard and sit at a miserable 11.5 percent success rate. That’s 6-for-52 on the season, and a 2-for-44 mark without counting their four power play goals against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second game of the season.

Read More: Phil Kessel, Shawn Thornton, Tim Thomas,

Kessel set to suit up for the Maple Leafs

11.03.09 at 1:06 pm ET
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It’s clear now that it was first and foremost all about the money for Phil Kessel, and secondly about some measure of respect he didn’t feel from the organization while constantly hearing his name bandied about in trade rumors through three strangely turbulent years with the Boston Bruins.

Phil the Thrill got his wish to escape from Boston and the Spoked B way of doing things, and the 22-year-old scorer savant informed reporters Tuesday afternoon that he will indeed play his first game for the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. Kessel will be riding shotgun with veteran center Matt Stajan and Jason Blake. That’s not exactly the same as skating alongside Marc Savard, but it’s the best that Toronto can muster at this point.

It’s exactly six months since Kessel went under the knife for rotator cuff and labrum surgery in his left shoulder, and the sniper returned a solid 7-10 days prior to previous expectations and timetables.

It’s not the miraculous early return that allowed cetner David Krejci to play Bruins’ Opening Night after undergoing surgery on his right hip, but it also doesn’t sound like a slow, deliberate recovery by a player viewed by those in and around the Boston organization as being “soft” in terms of focus, work ethic and play on the ice. The arrows were released against the 36-goal scorer last summer when it became apparent the big money in Toronto was too good to pass up, but there’s one thing that isn’t under dispute about Kessel’s game: the kid can score.

Kessel is the age of many players either playing or just leaving the college hockey ranks in the United States, and — as one scout said about Kessel when things were heating up — “he’s just a young pup” in terms of hockey development. Former BU defenseman and current New York Rangers rookie Matt Gilroy is one of the heralded youngsters in the league this season, and he is three years older than Kessel. That’s something that seems to escape most people in the Kessel argument. There is a high ceiling for a player that finished 12th in the NHL in goals scorer last season, but the B’s have gambled that No. 81 will never reach a consistent ceiling of 40-50 goals per season.

He won’t be a savior this year for a Maple Leafs team that already appears to be running headlong into a lost season, and it’s not likely he’ll light up the Tampa Bay Lightning in his first game back since the Stanley Cup semi-finals against the Carolina Hurricanes last May.

But Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was never able to properly replace Kessel’s playmaking abilities, and supply the team with the simple threat of throwing a natural goal-scorer on the ice. The B’s have a collection of nice 20-30 goal-scorers, but they don’t have a single skater that strikes fear into a goaltender with their combination of speed and pinpoint shooting.

Perhaps the treasure trove of draft picks shuffled off to Boston in exchange for Kessel will bring another elite scorer into the B’s fold beginning next season, but right now Boston isn’t able to absorb Kessel’s defection with heightened play from Marco Sturm, Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler among others — and that’s been underscored even more with the loss of Marc Savard and Milan Lucic to injury.

The Bruins have scored 10 goals in their last five games and allowed 10 goals in their last five games, and have been mired dead smack dab in the middle for the entire season. Good enough to avoid any long losing streaks, but just middling enough that they can’t string even two wins together through the first 13 games. That will only get worse should — as unlikely as it may seem – Kessel burst off to a fast offensive start with the Leafs despite missing all of training camp and the first month of the season.

Unfair as it might be, Kessel’s gain would only stir up the masses to begin chanting that familiar New England refrain: “Why can’t we get players like that?”

Read More: Marc Savard, Peter Chiarelli, Phil Kessel,

US Olympic roster to be announced at Winter Classic

11.03.09 at 12:34 pm ET
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As expected, USA Hockey announced that they will reveal their 23-man US Olympic Team roster during the Jan. 1 NBC broadcast of the Bridgestone Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park. Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas was the only current B’s player invited to the Olympic orientation camp on Aug. 17-19 in Woodbridge, Ill., but is expected to get some stiff competition for starting goaltending honors with Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and Avalanche goaltender Craig Anderson among others.

There are three goalie spots on the 23-man roster put together by Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. The XXI Winter Olympic games set in Vancouver, B.C. will begin on Feb. 16 and wind up 12 days later with the gold medal game on Feb. 28 during a two-week break in the NHL season. Team USA will begin their schedule with a game against Team Switzerland on Feb. 16.

The U.S. roster will include 20 skaters and three goaltenders. It is expected that all 23 players will come from the NHL.  Ron Wilson, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is the head coach of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team, with Scott Gordon, head coach of the New York Islanders, and John Tortorella, head coach of the New York Rangers, serving as assistant coaches.

Read More: Brian Burke, Tim Thomas, Winter Olympics,

B’s searching for scoring against the Rags

11.01.09 at 4:54 pm ET
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Did you hear the one about the Bruins power play?

No, there’s no punchline. It’s just that Boston’s toothless man advantage is one of the biggest jokes currently running in the Eastern Conference. The Black and Gold power play unit squandered five different opportunities against a feisty New York Rangers defense and All-Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and the B’s fell by a 1-0 score to the Blueshirts Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

The Bruins outshot the Rags 14-6 in the third period and 29-23 over the course of 60 minutes, and outhit the Rangers by a 41-28 margin in a game where the Black and Gold clearly paid the price. The biggest difference between the two teams were glaring, however.

Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik provided the only goal of the game in the final minutes of the second period on a pure goal-scorer’s strike from the high slot, and the B’s just couldn’t capitalize on five frittered away power play chances. The biggest disappointment for the team is simply how well they’re playing in just about every other area of the game, but they just don’t have any elite goal-scorers.

Everything earned offensively is going to through gallons of sweat and hard work in front of the net. Goals simply aren’t going to sometimes come easily as they did last season when the B’s were the second-best offense in the NHL. The Bruins now sit 28th in the NHL with a power play that’s scoring only 12.2 percent of the time, and taking out their blowout against the Carolina Hurricanes makes things only more gruesome in these post-Halloween days. 

It’s almost fitting that Boston’s scoring fits are coming in the same week that Phil Kessel is expected to make his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and give their woebegone franchise the scoring transfusion that the B’s seem to badly need after the season’s first month. Patrice Bergeron and Blake Wheeler share the B’s lead in goal-scoring with four apiece, and Boston needs to do much better if they hope to escape a .500 fate that seems all too realistic 13 games into the season.

YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND, NOTHING’S EVER GONNA KEEP YOU DOWN:Brad Marchand played a physical spark plug game for the Bruins, and finished with five shots on net and three registered hits in 17:18 of action. His open ice flying shoulder hit on fellow rookie Michael DelZotto was exactly what the B’s could use more of. Mark Recchi was also a strong presence around the net in the third period when Boston was trying to force overtime and secure a point. 

GOAT HORNS:Ummm, power play anyone? No offense, but no offense. This is becoming a serious flaw within the hockey team, and one has to hope it’s not a fatal flaw for this season.

Read More: Brad Marchand, Mark Recchi, Phil Kessel,

Three Things We Learned in striking gold against Oilers

11.01.09 at 11:18 am ET
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Zdeno Chara couldn’t hide a fairly incredulous smirk when asked the question while sitting at his locker stall.

“Are you completely healthy? Is everything all right physically?” a reported inquired.

The Norris Trophy winning defenseman cast his head downward and gave his lower body a once over before knocking on wood and saying “everything feels great.”

The 32-year-old was answering performance-related questions for the first time earlier this week after getting off to a bit of a slow start for Chara’s standards. The towering defenseman hasn’t found the back of the net after 12 games — Chara also didn’t score until his 12th game of the season last winter — but of greater concern was a distinct regression in the physicality department. There didn’t seem to be the normal fear factor from opposing forwards buzzing around in Boston’s defensive zone with Chara patrolling out on the ice. A lot of that comes strictly down to a lack of Chara snarl, and it could be attributed to a number of things.

Chara is adjusting to his first season in four years without defenseman partner Aaron Ward, and the veteran contributed mightily to the Norris Trophy winner’s style of play. Chara was free to play with a little more mean and a little more freedom knowing that Ward was going to cover for him, and it takes time to develop such a trust bond with Derek Morris. Perhaps there was even a little bit of satisfaction after getting named the best defenseman in the NHL last season.

Never was that more obvious than Thursday night when 5-foot-11, 190-pound Zach Parise beat Chara in a battle behind the boards for possession, and set up the game-winning third period score for the New Jersey Devils. It highlighted a passivity that simply can’t be a part of Chara’s game while the Bruins coaching staff relies on his “give no quarter” nature in the D-zone.

So on Friday Bruins coach Claude Julien fired up the “Chara signal.” In so many words, Julien indicated that his franchise defenseman had been “just OK” in the first 11 games of the season, and the entire team — including their 6-foot-9 captain – needed to respond to the request for better, more intense effort. The Big Slovakian heeded the call and responded along with the rest of his teammates to a clarion call for more concentrated effort. The B’s mantra is to be “hard to play against” and Saturday afternoon’s 2-0 win against the Oilers was the perfect time to reintroduce themselves to their way of hockey life.

Chara won every puck battle, punished the Edmonton skaters with eight thunderous hits and seemed determined to keep the Oilers forwards aware of his pounding, unrelenting presence at all times. In other words, he played like the 2008-09 version of Zdeno Chara — an imposing figure that’s needed when the intimidating force provided by Milan Lucic is withdrawn from the lineup.

“I know that when you are one of the top players in the league, ‘good’ is not good enough,” said Chara, who finished with a game-high eight hits. “You have to play almost perfect every game. That’s the way it is. That is what comes with it when you are one of the best players in the league. As a captain you carry the team and you have to accept that, so that’s normal.”

The overpoweringly defensive tone struck early by Chara permeated through the rest of the Boston’s lineup, and the Black and Gold played their most complete, structured game this season. The four lines rolled through a complete 60 minute effort and the B’s dominated time of possession in the Edmonton zone while playing good, sound positional defense in front of Tuukka Rask in a shutout effort. After two scoreless periods, the offense finally busted through with a pair of opportunistic scores in the third period.

But the uniformity of effort, purpose and intensity gave Boston their best win of the season, and – in Julien’s mind — a great deal of credit goes back to the hockey gauntlet tossed down by their captain early in Saturday’s victory. Chara still finds himself in search of his first goal after his 12th game of the season and he’s still searching for ways to snake the big slap shot through traffic on the power play, but hockey’s version of “The Terminator” proved once again Saturday that he’s much more valuable than statistics.

“The thing with Z, he’s our Captain. He’s our leader,” said Julien. “We keep talking about Norris Trophy, and being deserving of that. His energy and attitiude spreads throughout the team. Certainly it makes our team that much better.

“That’s the responsibility that comes with being that type of player. It’s okay to want to be an elite player, but you have to take on the responsibilities that go along with it. He thrives on that stuff, and I thought he did a great job.” 

Chara was up to the challenge in Saturday’s shutout win, and will need to continue answering the call with the victory over the Oilers kicking off a crucial 15 games in 29 days stretch for the B’s. Make or break time for their season is coming up, and Big Z appears to be ready.

With Chara finally back in the saddle, here are two other things we learned in Saturday’s win over the Oilers.

A “TUUUKKKKAAAA” CHANT HAS BEEN BORN

Though he didn’t consciously hear it while locked into his second career NHL shutout, the TD Garden crowd is beginning to embrace Rask as one of their own. Each time the B’s goalie would snatch a high, hard shot out of the air with his strong glove hand or use his lean, long frame to absorb a puck, the crowd would let out with a low, rumbling “Tuuuuukkkka” chant. The sound initially sounded like booing, and wasn’t all that different from the “Yoooouuuk!” or “Loooooch” chants commonly heard in most partisan Boston sports crowds.

The 22-year-old rookie was worthy of the chants on Saturday afternoon after watching Tim Thomas start five of the previous six games, and made 19 calm, cool, collected stops en route to his second career shutout. There was nothing flashy or jumpy about Rask’s netminding game, but instead he simply played sound, textbook butterfly style between the pipes and never offered a single crack in his wall of defense.

“I saw the puck really well,” said Rask. “I can’t say there was one shot I didn’t see, and that’s probably more because the [Boston defense] was at its best — and forced those blocking shots that were on net. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys for blocking shots, and really not screening me much at all.”

While Rask saw every piece of vulcanized rubber tossed his way, he didn’t hear the burgeoning chants of his name in the stands. Some of it, Rask thought, might have just been because his distinctly Finnish name has a certain sing-songy ring to it.

“It’s probably because of my name and because it’s so easy to pronounce: Tuukka,” said Rask. ”It’s like ‘Looch’. I might have heard it a couple of times in Providence when we won a big game. It’s fun and it’s nice to hear so many people are into the game because that really gives us a boost.”

SOBOTKA AND WHEELER ARE COOKING UP SOMETHING SPECIAL

Forget for a minute that Vladimir Sobotka typified everything Julien and B’s GM Peter Chiarelli preach about being “strong on the puck” when the 22-year-old B’s forward battled along the boards in the third period, and fought through both Theo Peckham and Fernando Pisani to set up Boston’s first goal. The spark plug center was knocked down several times along the boards by both Oilers players, but never gave up possession of the puck and continued working toward making a play.

Somehow Sobotka sensed Blake Wheeler moving toward the Oilers cage as he battled, and threw a beauty of a backhanded pass to a waiting Wheeler. The B’s second-year forward noticed Edmonton goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin peeking at Sobotka behind the Oilers goal, and Wheeler quickly fired an accurate shot at the net before the goaltender had a chance to reposition himself.

Just like that the Bruins were on the scoreboard, and the score might as well have been 100-0 given the way the B’s were playing mistake-free defense in front of an effective Rask. Wheeler and Sobotka hooked up minutes later for a second goal with Sobotka this time getting the nice feed to deposit into the back of Boston’s net. The two goals capped off an honest day’s work for the trio of Sobotka, Wheeler and Daniel Paille, and made up for a Sobotka score that failed to beat the buzzer at the end of the second period.

“The last two games [before Saturday] he’s had like 13 hits or something. I don’t know what he had [against the Oilers] but I talked to him before the game and said it’s great if you get five or six hits — but let’s try to score. He’s tearing up the AHL, he’s a very talented offensive player, so let’s just get three or four hits and a goal and an assist. That’ll be a good night.

“We tried to focus a bit more on the offensive side. [Sobotka] works so hard every single night, that it was just a matter of getting rewarded.”

Sobotka strikes gold in win over Oilers

10.31.09 at 3:14 pm ET
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It isn’t going to get the fans jumping out of their seats or snag them many trophies at year’s end, but the Bruins are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. Game by game the Black and Gold are sinking deeper into the disciplined, layered, exacting system of defense installed by the B’s coaching staff, and that brand of hockey was fully on display in Saturday afternoon’s 2-0 shutout win against the Oilers.

The Bruins were led by the gritty Vlad Sobotka, who finished with a goal and an assist — and had another tally wiped away when it came a second after the buzzer ended the second period.

“Our team without the puck is getting better,” said Claude Julien. “Vladdy [Sobotka] is starting to find his game again with us that we saw a few years ago. [A game] we really liked. He’s an in-your-face type of player, but he’s also capable of making some good plays, doing the right things and scoring some goals. He’s been much better the last three games, no doubt.” 

Missing two of their biggest guns due to injury, it’s going to take a simplistic, scaled-down approach to the game and an abundance of slim victories in the near future for the Black and Gold. That was exactly what the team received from their whole team, and the Blake Wheeler/Sobotka/Daniel Paille line finally exploded in the third period with two goals en route to victory. With a two-goal lead suddenly in hand, the Bruins defense and goaltender Tuukka Rask clamped down to preserve the shutout over the final 10 minutes of hockey.

The Bruins are still activating their defensemen to keep pressure in the offensive zone as much as possible and rolling their lines, but it’s clear that there’s some offensive skill missing from the roster. That’s why a gritty goal by Sobokta — busting his way through Theo Peckham and Fernando Pisani with the puck to set up Wheeler’s score — was exactly what the hockey doctor ordered. Wheeler setting up Sobotka minutes later for the two-goal lead was just icing on the cake.

Andrew Ference missed wide right on a one-time bomber opportunity while pinching down from his defenseman position during a first period flurry. Marco Sturm embarked on a one-man rush up the left side in the second period and earned a clear attempt at the net, but missed high to the top right corner with his slap shot..

The Bruins put heavy pressure on at the end of the second period when Wheeler, Sobotka and Daniel Paille fired off a bevy of shots at the Edmonton cage, and it appeared they broke through when Sobotka whistled an attempt past Nikolai Khabibulin. But the attempt clearly skipped past the goalie following the second period buzzer and whistle indicating the period was over. There was no goal and a scoreless first 40 minutes of action prior to the Sobotka and Wheeler finally putting up some in-regulation fireworks during the final period.

YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND, NOTHING’S EVER GONNA  KEEP YOU DOWN:Vladimir Sobotka has looked increasingly impressive since a pep talk with Claude Julien prior to the Ottawa game last weekend, and it finally showed up on the scoreboard Saturday afternoon. Sobotka broke a scoreless deadlock when he fought through both Theo Peckham and Fernando Pisani with the puck, and dished a beautiful backhanded pass to Blake Wheeler. Wheeler slammed the shot past Nikolai Khabibulin and victory was Boston’s. Wheeler and Sobotka teamed again minutes later to give Vlad the Scrorer his first goal of the season.

GOAT HORNS:Marco Sturm and Andrew Ference both missed golden scoring opportunities earlier in the game, but there was a great deal to like about the effort and execution in an air-tight win over the Oilers. The Bruins kept putting on the pressure, and finally worn down Edmonton in the final 20 minutes. No goats on Saturday.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Tuuka Rask, Vladimir Sobotka,

B’s pregame notes versus Oilers

10.31.09 at 11:24 am ET
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Here are a few quick tidbits to get everyone ready for the Saturday afternoon matinee between the Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers. The Oil are coming off a wild 6-5 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings Thursday night and Dustin Penner already has five multi-point games this season. The key to Penner’s turnaround: dropping some extra weight this summer and shedding the doghouse he was locked in under former Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish.

–B’s defenseman Dennis Wideman is scoreless in his last five games, but played pretty solidly against the New Jersey Devils Thursday night. He’s a candidate for a breakout game against Edmonton.

–Michael Ryder will be playing in his 400th career game with the Bruins Saturday afternoon.

–Saturday afternoon’s tilt against the Western Conference Oilers touches off a 15 games in 29 days stretch thanks to the Winter Olympics-ified NHL schedule, and hands the B’s a pretty hefty challenge that will slowly gnaw away at their roster depth. The key, according to head coach coach Claude Julien, is building some momentum along the way. That momentum starts on Saturday afternoon, when the Bruins go on a mini-stretch of fives games in eight days.

“You’ve got to build some consistency and some momentum. You hope that you stay healthy through this stuff,” said Julien. “As a coaching staff, we need to know when to push on the gas pedal and when to back off. We need to make sure we keep getting better. We’ve had our rest. We’ve had our days. We need to make sure that when it comes time for game time that we’re ready to go.” 

–No word yet on the starting goaltender, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Tuukka Rask get the start after Tim Thomas started five of the last six games.

–A few trends with the Oilers: Edmonton is 1-3 overall on the road this season and sits at 1-4 when they allow the first goal in games this season.

–Penner is coming off a one goal, three assist performance against the Wings Thursday night and is averaging nearly two points a game with 7 goals, 9 assists in his last nine games.

Read More: Dennis Wideman, Dustin Penner, Tuukka Rask,
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