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Blake Wheeler is a Bruins first-timer no more

04.18.09 at 1:37 pm ET
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Blake Wheeler is all smiles grinding it out on the fourth line in the Stanley Cup playoffs

Blake Wheeler is all smiles grinding it out on the fourth line in the Stanley Cup playoffs

WILMINGTON — Hockey players can take part in big-time high school rivalry games and college championship matches, but there’s really nothing quite like the first taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey for the first-timers in the Bruins’ dressing room.

Matt Hunwick, rushed from the B’s practice rink to a Boston hospital with a spleen ailment following a team meeting on Saturday morning, and Blake Wheeler both fall into the “first-timer” category for the Black and Gold, and the B’s rookie forward was in a bit of a different role in Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens — and potentially could be for the entire series.

Wheeler spent 10:19 of ice time largely skating on the fourth line with Stephane Yelle and Shawn Thornton, and was on the same PK unit with David Krejci that he’s manned for much of the hockey season. It’s a change in duties for a big rangy forward that scored 21 goals during the season, and now Wheeler has added a little more grit and physicality to his innate offensive instincts.

“I thought our young games were good and produced,” said Julien. “I thought Wheels played well even though he was on a different line than he’s played on before, but he also did well killing penalties with (David) Krejci. He was very focused and I was really happy with his game (in Game 1).

“(Krejci and Wheeler) have good chemistry together when it comes time to kill and they do a good job,” added Julien. “They might be awfully young pair, but they’re a pair that’s been together since the beginning of the year killing penalties. It’s part of our success in that area, and we’re not going to all of a sudden change things now just because we’re in the playoffs. Our guys that we’ve put in positions to do jobs this year, they’re going to remain in those positions. There’s no reason to change those kinds of things.”

So it looks as if — barring injury — Wheeler should get used to more of the role he played in Game 1. Here’s some thoughts from the 22-year-old following his first playoff experience Thursday night. After playing a full season of hockey that included highs and lows and placing that first playoff game squarely under his belt, Wheeler is a rookie no more. Here’s Wheeler:

How was that first game? BW: It was a great atmosphere. It was great to be out there and see the fans amp the level up a little. All of the yellow towels (waved by the fans) were awesome too. It was a great experience.

You threw a hit early in the game. Playing with Yelle and Thornton, were you cognizant that you had to play a little different like that? BW: Yeah, it’s just a little different mentality. A little different philosophy. The role is a little different, and you have to go out there and do the best with whichever role you’re given. I want to do whatever it takes to help this team. Whatever role you’re put into, you’ve got to flourish in that role and do your best to be the best player at that role you can be.

You talk to a lot of people and they tell you how much adrenaline is pumping in that very first playoff game. How did you deal with that? BW: You just have to stay with it and stay focused with that. The first 10 minutes or so the puck was kinda optional out there, and you’re getting some of the emotion out. For us, we got off to a great start and we’ve just got to keep that mentality and keep that focus going for an entire 60 minutes. You can’t die off. We kind of died off a little bit after we scored those two goals.

What do you have to do to improve in Game 2? BW:Improve? I think our forecheck could stand to be a little better. We dumped some pucks that got to the goalie a little too much, and if we can get them away from him and just try to stay up on our forecheck and continue to do the things we did well in the first game. Obviously you want to stay out of the box because they have a great power play. Those types of things made us successful and we just need to improve it a little bit.

Did that feel like the style of play was any more fast or intense than it was in the regular season? BW: It’s hard to say. We’ve played those guys six times and when you play a team over the course of six games you’re really not going to see a lot that’s different just because it’s a playoff game. We know what to expect when we play them, and they know what to expect when they play us. It’s about kind of exploiting their weaknesses and they’re trying to do the same to us. It’s the same game, but the intensity is greater with every play and every change of possession. Everything is magnified a little more, and that’s the difference maybe with our team and their team.

What about the crowd? BW: Oh, that was awesome. That’s what we were expecting, especially because it’s Montreal/Boston and we knew everyone was going to be into the historical series. It was great to see the yellow towels and how pumped up everyone in Boston was to have this here. The atmosphere in Boston was great.

You dealt with big-time games in Minnesota. How did that help you with this? BW: Oh it helps a lot. You know what to expect and that you can’t get too high or too low. You’ve got to stay on an even-keel and we did a great job of that (Thursday) night. We’ve just got to not let our down-swing get too low like we did and we’ll hopefully limit their chances. I think all of us have played on some pretty big stages before this, so that helps prepare you for that stage.

What did that stage on Thursday night rank with regard to some of the other big-stages that you’ve played on? BW: It’s the same feeling. It really is. I’ve played in a lot of hockey games. Obviously everything was going to be a little higher and a little faster and a little bit of everything, but I didn’t want to let it get into my head too much. I just wanted to play my game because I’ve been playing here all year. You’ve just got to have confidence and do your best. More often than not, when you do that things are going to bounce your way. You can’t let the moment or the situation be too glorified in your mind.

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Hunwick Hospitalized with Spleen issue

04.18.09 at 11:34 am ET
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Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick has been hospitalized with a spleen-related issue, according to Bruins head coach Claude Julien. Hunwick was taken from the team’s practice facility at Ristuccia Arena this morning around 11 a.m. and transported to a local hospital.

According to The Bruins Blog, two ambulances, two fire trucks and two police vehicles were on the scene. The site also reports that Hunwick looked ‘extremely’ pale as he was taken off the ice. Veteran blueliner Shane Hnidy will replace Hunwick in Saturday night’s lineup for Game 2. The Bruins host Montreal tonight at 8 o’clock at TD Banknorth Garden in Game 2 of their first round series, leading the Canadiens, 1-0, in the best-of-seven series.

The Bruins issued the following release at 1 p.m.

“This morning Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick was transported to a local hospital due to a spleen injury. At this point there are no further details regarding Matt or his condition.

The Bruins ask that the media and general public respect Matt’s privacy at this time, and the club will provide an update on Matt’s condition when one is available.”

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Chiarelli phoned NHL to review Habs activity in Game 1

04.17.09 at 1:37 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli confirmed on Friday morning that he called the NHL league offices to request they review the game tapes following the “after the whistle” activity that took place between the B’s and Canadiens. The events in question took place in the third period of Thursday night’s Game 1, and immediately following the game. The league sent out word that they will be disciplining teams engaging in ”message sending” activity at the end of playoff games when a game’s decision is already in hand.

Thursday night seemed to be a pretty clear example of “message sending” by a group of Canadiens players.

“I’ve called the league and I’ll leave it in their hands,” said Chiarelli. “In our meeting with the (NHL) series supervisor it was made clear (they would police ’message sending’).”

There were three separate incidents that could be considered by the NHL Director of Hockey Operations and principal disciplinarian Colin Campbell after Thursday night’s B’s victory: Tom Kostopoulos threw a high elbow that just skimmed by Matt Hunwick’s face and was clearly meant as some sort of ”message”, Maxim Lapierre charged directly after Phil Kessel following his empty-net goal in the final seconds and 6-foot-4, 240-pound Mike Komisarek gave the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hunwick a series of eye-raking facewashes and “eye gouge” that left the rookie blueliner bloodied around the eye and required stitches following the game on Thursday night.

His right eye didn’t look much better on Friday following practice, but Hunwick maintained that there wasn’t any injury to the eye itself and that his vision wasn’t impaired by the redness and slight swelling around the eye. Hunwick also practice with the team, which made Andrew Ference the only B’s player again missing from practice.

 There was no video evidence of it, but Bruins officials believed that Komisarek may have taken off one of his left glove and used his bare hand to scratch and scrape at the right eye and eyelid of Hunwick.  Was it a ”Three Stooges-style eye gouge” from Komisarek? 

“I couldn’t really tell (if Komisarek was attempting an eye gouge),” said Hunwick on Friday afternoon. “It was one of those things where you’re in the middle of a battle and you don’t know exactly what’s going on. Obviously I was face-washing him and he was face-washing me. It was one of those things where it was the heat of the moment and I couldn’t tell.

“It’s not one of those things where I’m waiting for the league to do something,” added Hunwick. “It’s totally up to them and if nothing happens then the series will go on and it’ll be all forgotten about after Game 2.”

Hunwick did get a pretty good look at the mal-intent behind the Kostopoulos elbow that just missed connecting with the D-man’s chin prior to Komisarek’s veritable cat-scratching and hair-pulling episode. High elbows in the closing minutes of games designed as knockout punches seem to be the exact thing that the NHL is attempting to purge from their playoff games.

“Maybe that was just frustration after the game because of the ending,” said Hunwick. “That was something that I did see on the replay was that elbow going flying by my chin. That’s something you don’t want to see happen to any player. Thankfully he didn’t catch me with it, and maybe that’s what started the whole thing later on in the corner.”

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Five things we learned from a victory in Game One

04.16.09 at 10:57 pm ET
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The Bruins' Young Guns (Phil Kessel, David Krejci, Milan Lucic) had a lot of open ice in front of them against the Habs in Game One

The Bruins' Young Guns (Phil Kessel, David Krejci, Milan Lucic) had a lot of open ice in front of them against the Habs in Game One

There was a great deal of talk about discipline, crossing the line and the one-dimensional merits of tossing Big Georges Laraque into the Montreal Canadiens lineup for the Stanley Cup playoffs prior to Thursday night’s Game One.

Zdeno Chara’s shutdown defensive abilities and nuclear missile slap shot combo and Phil Kessel’s game-breaking scoring abilities were virtually ignored amid the hue and cry over bad blood between the B’s and the Habs, but there was no ignoring the Spoked B duo in Boston’s 4-2 victory over the Canadiens in Game One.

Chara took plenty of ice time on both Bruins PP units in the second period, led the Black and Gold with 24:55 on the ice and had Marc Savard thinking he was playing Iron Man Hockey in that middle 20 minutes of the game. Z also played the role of sheriff in and around the Boston cage each time Laraque came looking to start trouble, and he managed to do all of this while steering clear of the penalty box and staying on the ice where he was needed most.

“He’s our heart and soul,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “I think it’s pretty obvious he’s such a valuable player for us. He’s done a great job in all areas, so I can’t say enough about him. The fact that he was disciplined and didn’t get sucked into penalties, which could have been easy for him to do. I like the way he led our team tonight, and it was quite appropriate he scored the winner.”

Chara should be a favorite for the Norris Trophy following a stunning all-around season reminiscent of Chris Pronger’s Hart Trophy-worthy season with the St. Louis Blues. He patrolled the backlines for the B’s, and clearly deserved the No. 1 star when the “Three Stars” were announced following the game. Most nights, his defensive, physical game of intimidation can be mistakenly overlooked by goal-scorers and whirling dervish passes that draw “oohs” and “aahs,” so it was appropriate the “heart and soul” of the Bruins brought home the glory in drawing first blood against the sore loser Habs.

Chara has always been the captain of the Bruins in name and stature since his arrival on Causeway Street prior to the 2006-07 season, but he looked every bit the spiritual leader of Boston’s hockey club in making every right move in Game One — including the game-winner that carried a wee bit of importance.

1) The Kids are All Right.

There were lulls during the regular season for many of Boston’s young star players, but Boston’s young guns were correctly looked at as game-changers entering this series against the Habs. Kessel dazzled all night with game-breaking speed and lethal wrist shots from spots in tight toward the net, and enjoyed particularly strong periods in both the first and third when the Bruins dictated the action. Last night’s game firmly illustrates  just how far the 21-year-old Kessel has come from an erratic, immature skater Julien scratched for three games during last season’s playoff series.

Savard also dropped a rather large hint following the game that he’s hoping to ride shotgun with the young sniper as a dynamic scoring duo wearing Spoked B sweaters for a long, long time. The playmaking center must hope that B’s GM Peter Chiarelli is reading this.

“Kess has come on in leaps and bounds. It’s been a pleasure playing with him all season, and he really brings that dynamic that not too many players have with that speed and that shot,” said Savard. “I love playing with him. Hopefully I can stay around for another six years and maybe hang out with him. He’s ready to take that torch. He’s a great hockey player.”

The B’s are still an undefeated 20-0-2 when David Krejci scores a goal for them this season. The boy wonder center roofed a backhanded bid to put the Bruins up by a 2-0 lead in the first period, and set up Kessel’s first goal with a heady shuffle pass away from the net-front mass of bodies and directly toward the wide open sniper rushing toward the right post.

Don’t believe in the power of the youngsters?

Then just look at the stat sheet. Kessel, Krejci and Milan Lucic were the only three skaters with multiple point efforts for the game, and all three led the B’s with +2 marks for the evening. Lucic also finished with a game-high six hits — including a couple of devastating body blows in the corner — and continues to impress with the way he raises his game on the big stage.

2) The Bruins intend to ”Stay Hungry.”

Following the game several Bruins players were wearing gear that featured a big Flintstones-style steak as the logo with the words ”Stay Hungry” prominently featured across the front of the cap and the leg of the shorts. Savard was wearing  the hat and shorts during his post-game press briefing, and said that injured forward Marco Sturm came up with the design/logo idea while rehabbing from knee surgery.

“The energetic German came up with this,” said Savard, and then he pointed toward the shorts that he was wearing. “He made these too.”

It’s a good team mantra for the Black and Gold skaters to keep in mind after finishing off a solid Game One victory in front of the frenzied fans. The Habs tried to stir things up when the game was firmly in hand, and it was tight all the way through in a contest that could have gone either way in the third. It would behoove the B’s to buy into Sturm’s hat slogan and “Stay Hungry” despite accomplishing everything they set out to in the opening scene of this B’s/Habs playoff opera.

It has got to be difficult for an injured player like Sturm to sit idly by and watch his teammates enter the fray of the playoffs against the Canadiens, particularly after playing such a big role in last year’s epic Game 6 victory that’s been replayed about 1,000 times on NESN – and rightfully so — over the last week or so.

3) Cooler heads prevail when it comes to playoff hockey.

Laraque and Mike Komisarek did their level-best to incite the Bruins, and they really turned on the agitator after-burners in the closing seconds of the game. Montreal Public Enemy No. 1 scrubbed Matt Hunwick’s eye with such a vicious facewash that the B’s rookie was cut open around his eye following the victory. Several times Laraque and Komisarek had words with the Bruins big boys — Chara, Lucic and Shawn Thornton — but in each instance the Bruins played the discipline card and refused to retaliate.

It was something the Bruins had talked about ad nauseum before the game. The “Take It Like A Man” playoff philosophy then played out in perfection during the win. It’s no accident that — despite their reputation — the Bruins were well into the bottom third of NHL teams this season season in terms of penalty minutes. The B’s players have had each other’s backs during times of duress, but they’ve seemingly sworn off the fits of frustration that would land them in the penalty box and ultimately hurt the squad. That is heady playoff hockey.

One thing to watch: the NHL has already warned all of the playoff coaches about “message sending” at the end of games that have already been decided, and suspended Flyers enforcer Daniel Carcillo for his actions in Game One of the Flyers/Penguins series. So there may be possible suspensions for Lapierre, Komisarek or Tom Kostoupolos for some flagrant activity after watching this video. According to the TSN report, Matt Hunwick’s eye is said to be “a mess” following the pro wrestling style eye rake on the Bruins rookie defenseman.

It may be just a little tougher to “turn the other cheek” for the Bruins in Game Two. 

4) Apparently, big Georges Laraque is the secret weapon.

Laraque revealed a little of Habs coach Bob Gainey’s strategy in placing the giant, fight-happy forward on his top line with Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu in the latter two periods of Thursday’s game. Apparently BGL is there to make himself a nuisance in and around Tim Thomas at all times, and force Chara’s attention away from containing Montreal’s snipers.

“That was the plan. I knew for a while we were trying to get more room for our skill guys,” said Laraque following the game. “We knew they were going to use Chara against our top skill guys. That is way to kind of neutralize him. It is a big body against him. He has to tie me up and that will free up two other guys. I knew we were going to do that and it worked fine. We had a lot of chances tonight. It can only get better with time.”

Not to quibble with BGL, but it really only worked “fine” if the Habs escaped the Garden Thursday night with a bigger number on their side of the scoreboard than the victorious Bruins. Just saying.

5) Aaron Ward has earned himself a Bud Light after notching a win in Game One.

Ward, like any good Irishman worth his salt, has a good story to tell or a joke to break up the monotony of a pre or postgame locker room, and he passed along a pretty solid anecdote on how his playoffs began this week. The veteran B’s defenseman received an anonymous package at his door. Let’s let him tell the story.

“Yesterday, I had 16 beers delivered to my apartment, and I turned around and said to my wife, ‘See it’s better here than in Detroit where they give you an octopus.’ There was a note attached with it that said, ‘Drink one after every win on your way to the Cup.’ Now that’s why I love this town. I don’t know who sent it. It was anonymous and now they’re at home on ice. Last night I got a series out of the way already and drank four of them, though.”

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Canadiens clearly ‘mean’ business

04.16.09 at 10:28 pm ET
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Long before they took exception to Milan Lucic passing to a wide open Phil Kessel for an empty net goal, Kessel’s second of the night, the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens showed they were not going to be a pushover in this opening round best-of-7 series, despite losing 4-2 to the Bruins at TD Banknorth Garden.

“That’s the playoffs,” said Marc Savard, who set-up Zdeno Chara’s go-ahead strike midway through the third. “There’s going to be some bad blood. Obviously, throughout the game, we tried to get away from that. There’s some bad blood but that’s the way playoffs are. We’re going to have to be ready Saturday night.”

Saturday night at 8 o’clock there figures to be more tension when the two rivals take the ice for Game 2 at the Garden.

“Obviously, Looch makes a great play like he does and then he’ s unselfish and decides to go to Kess like that, maybe there’s a little animosity on the other side,” Savard said.

The animosity, and hard-hitting, began early in the first period when Montreal enforcer Georges Laraque drilled Zdeno Chara along the corner boards in the Boston defensive zone followed up by a neutral zone hit on Milan Lucic. But it was the one against Chara that made the most noise.

“I want to play hard minutes,” Laraque said. “That’s what you do with every shift. You have to do this for the first couple of games and eventually it will turn around and make it easier for our skilled guys to play against him.”

Those two hits were no mistake. The Canadiens were clearly targeting the two toughest and biggest Bruins in an effort to show that they are not intimidated by the top-seeded Bruins, even on their home ice.

The hard hitting continued in the second period when the Canadiens managed to wipe out what was once a two-goal Boston lead when Alex Kovalev scored. The goal with 2:23 remaining in the middle frame reinforced to the Bruins that these Canadiens, even without Andrei Markhov and a limited Mathieu Schneider, mean business. Read the rest of this entry »

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Chara blast gives the B’s a 4-2 win in Game One

04.16.09 at 8:17 pm ET
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Big apologies for the moderate-to-serious Internet difficulties taking place here at the TD Banknorth Garden, but it took until the beginning of the third period to actually land a signal. I’m calling it “JJ Strikes Back” until I can fine a more appropriate term for the wireless outage.

It’s been a pretty entertaining game through two periods, and has played out as so many hockey games have before it. The B’s stormed out to a 2-0 lead midway through the first period and it appeared the Black and Gold were going to sweep the Canadiens right off the ice. David Krejci scored one of the two goals on a nifty roofed backhander, and the B’s were 19-0-2 during the regular season when the young center light the lamp. So all seemed well in the world.

But the Habs fought back in the following two periods and tied it with less than three minutes to go when Russian sniper Alex Kovalev roofed a short-side wrist shot past Tim Thomas’ left shoulder.

10:12: Cross-checking call on Josh Gorges. PP for the Bruins.

9:04: Near miss for the B’s as a Mark Recchi tip hit the cross bar and then nearly trickled into the net before Carey Price pounced on it.

8:45: Goal. Big Z from the point. Power play score and the yellow towels are flying proud everywhere.

7:05: Things just got a nasty in front of the net with Mathieu Schneider taking a big right-handed swipe at Chuck Kobasew after the whistle had blown in front of the Montreal cage. The crowd is chanting “Carey, Carey, Carey” in the familiar sing-song mocking tone.

2:40: Great recovery by Tim Thomas after playing a puck behind the net and then scrambling when Maxim Lapierre gained possession and attempted a wraparound from the right post. Thomas deflected the puck and averted any further damage. Thomas has been very solid here in Game One.

00:31: Great Thomas save on Andrei Kostitsyn during a scramble in front of the Boston net.

13.4: Empty net score for Boston’s Phil Kessel, and the pushing and shoving between these two hated rivals continues. Saku Koivu and Marc Savard were really getting into it in the corner. Habs players went straight for Kessel after he scored. Milan Lucic made a nice little saucer pass to Kessel at the right faceoff circle with Carey Price vacated from the net.

The B’s beat the Habs by a 4-2 score in a Game One that Boston really needed to win if they didn’t want “The Questions” to start popping up.

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Warning signs

04.16.09 at 8:15 pm ET
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The Canadiens came out and carried play for the first five minutes, spending most of the time in the Bruins end. A concern if for no other reason than they also dominated the final five minutes of the second period, including a game-tying laser by Alex Kovalev from the right circle.

It was the 43rd playoff tally for Kovalev, a rookie when the Rangers ended their 54-year Cup drought in 1994.

Kovalev’s goal was scored just seven seconds after the Bruins killed off Stephane Yelle’s goaltender interference penalty.

2-2 with 12:17 to go in the third. And the crowd that was waving the yellow towels up 2-0 in the first is getting a tad nervous.

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