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Bruins getting downright offensive during Kessel’s absence

04.01.09 at 1:13 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — Both Phil Kessel and Shawn Thornton — missing from Tuesday night’s victory over Tampa Bay with undisclosed injuries — were not present during the morning practice session at Ristuccia Arena, and B’s coach reiterated  Kessel won’t be ready to play until next week.

That means the sniper is out for the next two Bruins games through this weekend — Thursday against Ottawa and Saturday against the New York Rangers — and Thornton is still day-to-day with the dreaded “unspecified injury.”

“Kessel isn’t playing until next week, and that hasn’t changed,” said Claude Julien. “We’re slowly getting (Kessel) back, so hopefully we’ll be getting him back in the next day or so.

“(Thornton) is not on the ice today because he wasn’t ready to go on, but it’s still a day-to-day, minor thing.”

There have been plenty of overwhelming positives in the wake of both injuries — with the Bruins’ startling offensive awakening despite their top goal-scorer’s absence being top among them.

Who would have thought that the B’s could begin rolling three scoring lines and would go completely nuclear with their two power play units sans Phil “The Thrill” in their lineup? In Kessel’s absence, David Krejci (1 goal, 6 assists), Blake Wheeler (2 goals) and Milan Lucic (2 goals, 2 assists) have all exploded offensively over the past three games, and there hasn’t been a missed beat without Kessel’s contributions.

It’s been a back-to-first-half basics approach that’s worked for a team within sniffing distance of Eastern Conference honors and valuable home ice through the conference playoffs.

“(Our play) is more encouraging than what we’ve done in the last month-and-a-half, and I think the way we’re playing is most encouraging,” said the B’s bench boss. “I think the wins are obviously good, but we’ve got back to basics and are doing the things that gave us success early on. Work ethic is at the top of our list, commitment and respecting the game plan.

“That’s what has been happening with the 20 players that are dressed every night,” added Julien.

–One benefit to Thornton’s injury was that it allowed Byron Bitz to again crack the B’s lineup and mix things up with Stephane Yelle and Steve Montador after serving as a healthy scratch for the last five games following the March 15 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bitz was riding the bike, spending extra time skating on the ice and simulating game action in practice to keep himself sharp, and felt like that aided him in jumping right back into the action. Bitz punctuated his night with a bout against Richard Petiot that ended rather quickly after a quick one-two combo from the Bruins rookie.

Bitz and Montador — and Thornton when healthy — have given the fourth line a very gritty, hard-to-play against character that could bring energy, spark and passion during moment’s of postseason need.

“It was good to get out there and play a simple game and help out,” said Bitz, who has carved out an NHL job for himself this season by playing a smart “simple” game in a 6-foot-5 body-checking big frame. “When you’re not playing you’re doing a lot of skating to stay in shape, but once you’re back in the game it doesn’t take long to get a feel for things. It’s one of those things where you don’t know when you’re going to play, so you’ve just always got to be ready to go.”

–Milan Lucic spent a few shifts with Stephane Yelle and Bitz at the end of Tuesday night’s victory over the Lightning, and scored two goals riding shotgun with Krejci and Michael Ryder in Sunday afternoon’s victory over the Flyers. It seems that no matter where the B’s coaching staff has placed Lucic lately, the muscular power forward has been doling out hits and producing offensively– a development that’s come just in time for the postseason. Lucic wasn’t credited with any official hits on Tuesday night, but his body check against the boards started the Zdeno Chara/Evgeny Artyukhin donnybrook that really snapped both teams to attention.

“I felt that putting him with that line that he fit in there, and we had Axy and Blake Wheeler having to move up into Kessel’s spot to have an experienced guy up there with Savvy,” said Julien. “It just turned out that way and with Looch being on that line it might give him an opportunity to play a straight-line game. Things have really worked out for him, and a lot of credit goes to him for playing his style and picking up his game.

“As I mentioned the other day, I think we’ve seen him have a lot more jump than he’s had in a while,” added Julien.

B’s are beginning to closely resemble their dominant selves

03.31.09 at 10:52 pm ET
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It’s ironic that on a night two more Bruins reached the esteemed 20-goal plateau ‘€” to make it a league-best seven 20-goal scorers for Boston this season ‘€” the Black and Gold again look like the mighty three-zone force that terrorized Eastern Conference teams over the first three months of the season.

To put that in perspective, the Bruins had two 20-goal scorers last season (Marco Sturm with a whopping 27 lamp-lighters and Chuck Kobasew with a 22-goal effort that he’s got a chance to match this season) and couldn’t resemble this offensively-rich team any less.

The power-play units are humming (7 PP goals in their last four games) and seemingly scoring goals within seconds of stepping on the ice, David Krejci has racked up three straight multi-point efforts after going more than a month with just one, and opponents are again cowering at the snarl displayed by big boy B’s like Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic when things spiral a little out of control.

The passion, the offensive skill and the suffocating defense ‘€” and even a solid night of tending between the pipes for the too-much maligned Manny Fernandez ‘€” were all on display in a 3-1 smackdown of the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning at the TD Banknorth Garden Tuesday night. With the win, the B’s are only mere points away from clinching the top spot in the Eastern Conference and enjoying home ice throughout their entire Stanley Cup playoff run. A B’s win on Thursday combined with losses by both New Jersey and Washington locks up the top conference spot for the Big, Bad B’s — their first Eastern Conference crown since 2003-04. 

After the game, Claude Julien applauded his charges for playing more of a straightforward “North/South” game with the puck. It was clear to the B’s coach that the confidence ‘€” and the elusive offensive flow that comes along with it ‘€” is again picking up to optimal levels in the B’s dressing room.

“We’re going in direct lines and our speed is much better coming out of our own end as a unit instead of being all spread out and standing still,” said Julien. “That part of our game is slowly coming back. We’re getting better. I think there’s no doubt we’re getting better.

“Still, I know we’re at a stage where we need to be even fussier than we’ve ever been and I still think there’s areas that we can improve,” added the B’s bench boss. “It almost seems like we’re afraid to run up the score and all of a sudden there’s times where we’re starting to make those cute plays again. Those are the things you can’t have once you get to the playoffs. You’ve got to keep playing the same way from start to finish.”

Perhaps nobody more than Krejci and Blake Wheeler epitomized the offensive slowdown of February and early March ‘€” with Krejci going through a 15-game stretch through March 10 where he managed only 2 goals and 3 assists and Wheeler doing the exact same scoring line through that very same span ‘€” and both skaters have almost simultaneously emerged from their offensive doldrums fully intact. Krejci has been revitalized skating with the bruising Lucic and Michael Ryder, and Wheeler has been a good finishing  fit with Marc Savard and P.J. Axelsson in Phil Kessel’s absence.

If ever an answer was needed whether the February/March B’s swoon was nothing more a drift in focus, confidence and concentration amidst a huge Eastern Conference cushion, the response has been resoundingly affirmative over the last four games. This Bruins team has always had the talent, top-end skill and physicality to do damage in the playoffs, but perhaps a slowdown was inevitable given how big their lead was over all competitors.

With the playoffs mere weeks away, everything has snapped back into focus for members of the Spoked B tribe.

“(The confidence) is getting there,” said Wheeler. “We feel good about ourselves offensively. It’s all about playing solid team defense. Everyone saw that in the beginning of the year. That we were so tough to play against and we got a lot of offensive chances. We weren’t going to give them anything.

“We’re getting back to that,” added Wheeler, who has three goals scored in his last six games after scoring three during the entire month of February. “We’re getting pretty stingy and that’s the biggest thing for us is just being really stingy in our defensive zone. Then we’re getting a lot of scoring chances.”

Kobasew and Wheeler both collected their 20th goals of the season in a dominant first 40 minutes of the game, and the second period became a power play extravaganza put on by the quintet of Kobasew, Krejci, Chara, Ference and Bergeron. Both man advantage scores heavily involved Z’s big stick as the first PP score was a simple backdoor play that saw Bergeron slide a perfect feed to Chara as he motored toward an open seam near the right faceoff circle.

The second was pure power, as Chara wound up and unloaded a howitzer from the right point that knocked the stick right out of Kobasew’s hands in front of the Tampa net, and then bounced right past Tampa Bay goaltender Mike McKenna.

“Z told me that he got all of it when he shot the puck, and I believe him,” said Kobasew, who confirmed that the sizzling slapper knocked the composite stick clear out of his gloves.

The three goals on Tuesday night wasn’t quite the offensive outburst that Bruins Nation witnessed over the weekend, but during their current four game winning streak ‘€” which started with that pivotal win of the New Jersey Devils almost two weeks ago ‘€” the suddenly puck-confident Bruins have piled on 18 goals in their last four games. Guys like Kobasew and Mark Recchi look like rabid dogs chasing after loose pucks around the net, and every player on the Bruins roster ‘€” from Patrice Bergeron to Wheeler to Lucic ‘€” has picked up the physicality over their most recent stretch. It all starts down the middle for the B’s, but they’re again getting contributions from everyone.

“I think the game has changed where a lot of teams that are having success are lining up with at least three good lines, and obviously that next line is the one with energy and physical presence,” said Julien. “Just by looking at our center position ‘€” Savard, Bergeron and Krejci ‘€” you look at three guys that are all highly-skilled and then complement them with good players around them.

“You’ve got yourself three scoring lines and it’s spread out,” added Julien.

Once again the team is talking about rolling out their three lines and making things hard for teams to defend against: the good times are back for the Spoked B and it couldn’t have happened at a better time with only six games remaining in the regular season ledger.

Injury Ward: Shawn Thornton missed the game with an unspecified injury that he suffered during the morning skate at the Garden. Julien termed the injury minor after the game, and indicated that the B’s brawler would be back on the ice Wednesday or Thursday.

Player of the Game: Zdeno Chara: A goal, an assist and a fight for a Norris Trophy favorite. In the NHL that’s what we like to call a Gordie Howe Hat Trick, and it’s always a notable accomplishment in the hard-hat city of Boston. Chara displayed everything in his punishing bag of tricks during the victory. Not only did he show his ability to crash back door and rush the net during his power play goal, but he set up Kobasew’s tip goal with a prototypical Chara-powered rocket from the right point. The oversized blueliner also did such an overpowering shutdown job on the Bolts’ top line that Tampa coach Rick Tocchet broke up Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lacavalier mid-game ‘€” so Big Z couldn’t shut both scorers down at the same time on the ice. Extra points for Chara sticking up for Krejci when big Evgeny Artyukhin began shoving  around the much-smaller center after a whistle had blown following a big Lucic hit. Z’s involvement eventually led to the fisticuffs with Artyukhin, and it’s the exact kind of backbone that Chara has shown time and again over the last two seasons under Julien when a teammate is in need. That’s what leadership is all about.

“We didn’t want to have Chara checking both Vinny and Marty, so we tried to have somebody free,” said Tocchet. “Chara’s a pretty good player.”

Extra credit to for Kobasew, who led the Bruins with six shots on goal and was again utilizing that aggressive style of play to be a big factor in the game.

Goat Horns: The whole team let down a bit in the third period after playing physical, sandpaper hockey over the first two periods that helped build up a 3-0 lead. The B’s can’t afford that in the playoffs, and shouldn’t be taking their foot off the gas pedal in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Turning Point: The Bruins power play unit really took the game over in the second period on strikes by Chara and Kobasew, and Byron Bitz and Lucic put up victorious exclamation points with a pair of beatdown brawls when the Lightning attempted to stir up a little emotional response.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Claude Julien, Zdeno Chara,

Sounds of the game… Bruins 3, Lightning 1

03.31.09 at 10:28 pm ET
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Maybe the most important aspect of Tuesday’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning was that it wasn’t pretty.

After all, in two weeks, style points are going to mean even less than they do now.

The Bruins have won four straight and are 6-1-1 in their last eight, and their coach can already see an improvement in the way they’re approaching the game.

“I think we’re starting to get back to that so-called North-South type of game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after the win. “We’re going in direct lines and our speed is much better coming out of our own end as a unit instead of being all spread out. That part of our game is slowing coming back.”

Manny Fernandez looked much better between the pipes on Tuesday night, after surviving a 7-5 win in Toronto on Saturday night.

“We sat down and we’ve talked to each other and looked each other in the eyes and I think from here on out we let the personal stats take a hike and what’s important is the two points every night,” Fernandez said. “There won’t be any easy ones from here on out.”

And that will be especially true after the regular season finale on Easter Sunday, April 12. The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin several days later and captain Zdeno Chara will be one of the key players the Black and Gold will look to for leadership.

They certainly didn’t have to wait long to see it on Tuesday when he got into it with Evgeny Artyukhin eight minutes into the game. The fight set the tone and the Bruins followed in step.

The punch of the night was delivered by Cam Neely-reincarnated Milan Lucic. His right cross to the face of Tampa Bay blue liner Josef Melichar with 12 seconds remaining in the second showed that the Bruins hadn’t fallen asleep in this one. Melichar turtled but the Bruins didn’t.

But Julien reminded everyone that he would like to see his team finish with more of a killer instinct as the Bruins allowed the Lightning hope when they made it a two-goal game with 12 minutes into the third. A long shot from the top of the slot got by Fernandez only to ring off the post behind him and keep the B’s ahead 3-1.

“It almost seems like we’re afraid to run up the score and all of sudden there’s times where we’re starting to make those cute plays again and those are the things that you can’t have once you get into the playoffs,” Julien said.

“We can’t be looking at who we play,” said Chara, who netted two goals on the night. “We just have to be playing our way and bring the intensity and determination from every game now on.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara

Shawn Thornton injury “minor” in nature

03.31.09 at 9:37 pm ET
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Shawn Thornton missed his first game of the season with an undisclosed injury that he suffered at the Tuesday morning skate prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the TD Banknorth Garden. Following the game, Julien termed the injury “minor” in nature and said that the rugged winger would be back on the practice ice either Wednesday or Thursday. Byron Bitz dressed in place of Thornton and played in his first game action since a March 15 game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Bruins fire up the Bolts by a 3-1 final score

03.31.09 at 8:10 pm ET
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14:39: Matt Lashoff just got welcomed back to Boston with a huge body check from Patrice Bergeron in the Tampa offensive zone. Bergeron has two hits through the first two periods and has played one of his most physically-engaged games of the season. The rap on Lashoff in Boston was that he was never physical enough to compete, and there’s another piece of evidence in the building case.

8:34: Time out for the Lightning in a 3-0 game with 8:34 to go in the third. Rick Tocchet must be drawing up the famous three-goal play on the dry erase board. Obligatory boos followed the TO call, of course.

7:53: The timeout must have worked as rookie Steve Stamkos finally cashed one in for the Lightning on a second-effort whack at a puck in front of the net. Ryan Malone put heavy pressure on the net with a pair of bids up close before Stamkos filled lit the lamp. The score was the 20th of the season for Stamkos. Lashoff also picked up a helper on the score.

5:41: Bruins power play wiped out by a high-stick call to Chuck Kobasew. The missed PP chance leaves the B’s 2-for-5 on the man advantage this evening.

3:55: Near miss as Vinny Lecavalier hits the left post on a bid from the high slot that immediately rocketed back out. Big bounce for the Bruins that could have made it a one goal game, but instead My Center Vinny goes away frustrated.

3:00: Ryan Malone in the box for tripping. PP for Boston, and a nice save by McKenna on a Matt Hunwick bid from the right point.

1:53: Great cross-ice set-up from Krejci to Chara at the right faceoff circle, but McKenna again makes the pad save.

The Bruins take their fourth in a row with a 3-1 victory over the Lightning at the Garden.

The Bruins still riding the Lightning by a 3-0 score

03.31.09 at 7:06 pm ET
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18:14: A near score for P.J. Axelsson right at the doorstep off a crisp pass from Savard.

17:18: A couple of good bids by Dennis Wideman that McKenna was able to turn away. The second was a nifty little cross-ice pass from Savard in the left corner.

Chuck Kobasew followed up that flurry with a few bids of his one after following his shot and nearly knocking home the rebound.

16:00: Tampa defenseman Matt Pettinger tossed Matt Hunwick over the boards and into the visiting Lightning bench causing a stoppage in play.

14:00: An easy-to-stop backhanded bid from the right faceoff circle by Lightning winger Adam Hall represents Tampa’s best bid of the night. Ouch.

13:34: Great stick save by McKenna as he managed to throw the shaft at a Chuck Kobasew rebound attempt and toss it aside when it looked like a sure goal. The B’s look on the verge of adding to their lead.

13:04: Artyukhin goes off for hitting Mark Recchi with a high stick, and just like that the B’s PP makes it 2-0. Great backdoor pass by Patrice Bergeron to a crashing Zdeno Chara, who had the whole open net to look at and didn’t miss.

12:34: What looked to be a second goal for the Bruins is instead called goalie interference on Blake Wheeler as he motored through the crease and made slight contact with McKenna right before the score.

8:10: I’m getting tired of writing Artyukhin. Wideman broke his stick on a one-time attempt, but then made a nice recovery play to get the puck away from Artyukhin rushing up the right side of the ice. Artyukhin was coming all by himself with only Wideman to beat, so a solid play by Wideman to hip check the big Tampa skater sans stick and snuff out what could have been a solid scoring opportunity for Tampa.

6:25: Great tip from Chuck Kobasew for a power play score from a long bomb shot from the right point by Zdeno Chara just seconds into their power play. Kobasew managed to redirect the puck despite a mad slash from Matt Smaby that knocked the stick right out of Kobasew’s hands. The power play is absolutely on fire over the last handful of games, and Kobasew has been all around the net again this evening.

4:30: Best Manny Fernandez save of the night. MF beautiully dropped down in the butterfly to kick away a Jeff Halpern bid from the high slot with a pair of Bolts skaters rushing at him. Fernandez hasn’t been challenged much, but he’s looked solid between the pipes.

3:39: A big scrum in front of the Boston net turns into a second fight between Byron Bitz and Richard Petiot in the corner. Bitz lands one solid right and then crash lands on top of Petiot. The Tampa D-man looked a bit shook up after the impact with the ice.

00:11.2: Fight night at the Garden. Milan Lucic finally got in his two cents as he scored a TKO over Josef Melichar with one punch. Melichar came in high with an elbow on Lucic, and both skaters pushed and shoved before dropping the gloves. Lucic came over the top with one right-hand to the face and Melichar hunched and basically waved the white flag. Quite a bit of passion for a late season tilt between a team up high in the standings and another that’s been a doormat all season.

The B’s are riding the Lightning by a  3-0 score after two full periods of play at the Garden.

Wheeler and Savard team up to give B’s a 1-0 lead

03.31.09 at 6:19 pm ET
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13:57: The Lightning just killed off a Brandon Bochenski penalty. Yes, that Brandon Bochenski. The journeyman that the B’s traded Kris Versteeg for was just called up by Tampa Bay for tonight’s game. Not incredibly crisp on the PP, but a few good bids by Zdeno Chara and some good energy from Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci on the second unit.

11:17: Great action over the last minute. Tampa goaltender Mike McKenna made a great save on a Mark Stuart shot from the slot, and then Zdeno Chara and Evgeny Artyukhin ended up dropping the gloves following a big Milan Lucic hit on Artyukhin in the neutral zone. Chara went off for two minutes roughing and five for fighting while Artyukhin simply got a rough. The fight was preceded immediately by a Vinny Lecavalier penalty on David Krejci as he made a rush into the Bolts zone. Chara got in a few good shots, but Artyukhin eventually scored the take-down at the end of a fight between two big boys on skates.

7:46: A Michael Ryder tip of an Aaron Ward blast from the point hit pipe and then ricocheted away.

7:25: A Bruins goal was waved off when the play was ruled offsides. The whistle clearly blew prior to the puck going in the net.

5:57: Crafty little play by Marc Savard as he snuck to the back right corner as McKenna played the puck, and then jumped all over the play when the Tampa goal threw the puck directly Savard’s way. Savard took a quick bad angle shot from the right side that McKenna saved, but Blake Wheeler jumped all over the rebound and poked it through short side. A score totally created by Savard’s craftiness.

The goal is Wheeler’s 20th of his rookie season, and gives the Bruins their sixth player with 20 goals this season.

2:07: Looch to the box after taking out former Harvard D-man Noah Welch in front of the Tampa net after Michael Ryder threw a puck in front of the net. First PP opportunity for the Bolts.

1:33: Aaron Ward gets Martin St. Louis with a high stick to the grill, and also goes off to the sin bin creating a 5-on-3 PP for the Lightning.

Tampa Bay managed only one shot during 90 seconds with a two-man advantage and only mustered four shots in the first period. They look as if they left their game on the Lightning charter jet at Hanscom.

The B’s lead the Lightning by a 1-0 score after one full period at the TD Banknorth Garden.

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