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Mid-day thoughts from Haggs

12.09.08 at 1:08 pm ET
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Here’s a couple of quick links this morning as I blog hockey from the MLB Winter Meetings in Las Vegas and work on the first “Ask Haggs Mailbag” or “Haggbag” if you’re into the whole brevity thing. Utilized the NHL GameCenter Live on the computer to watch portions of the 5-3 win over the Lightning last night at the Garden, and was impressed with the fast start despite Claude Julien’s pointed — and well deserved –remarks about his team relaxing with the big lead after the game. Even more interesting was Julien’s thoughts about Kessel, who appeared on the PK unit last night and could be a short-handed threat each and every time he’s on the ice if he gets regular ice time on the specialized unit.

On forward Phil Kessel‘€™s progression as a player’€¦
I answered that question there after the game with NESN and what I told them was that he’€™s in his third year in the league. He’€™s more mature, and his whole game is starting to round out a little better. As good as he’€™s always been with his hands and his shot and his speed, there was more that he needed to learn for his game. He’€™s much better without the puck, which has given him more opportunities. When you don’€™t cheat guys, you come back, you do your job, you recover the puck quicker, and you go back on the attack.

And I think he’€™s understood that concept very well. I mean he’€™s one of the guys that will bury his head and back check hard, and do that job as well defensively as offensively. I think that’€™s kind of helped his game a lot, scoring goals certainly helps confidence, and he knows he can score goals. All the things put together has definitely made him a better player but it’€™s experience, and a young player needs time to develop and we’€™ve given him that.

On using Kessel on the penalty kill’€¦
We talked about his situation on the penalty kill at the beginning of the year, that we maybe wanted to utilize him at times and his speed could put pressure on the opposing team during the power play. Tonight was a great time because we lost Stephane Yelle, and two of the penalties it was Bergeron or Krejci, Krejci twice, so we needed him to step up and I thought he did a great job on the penalty kill. Again, another body that we can use in those situations.

First-line sensation Phil Kessel continues to set the pace with the Bruins, and is third in all of the NHL with 17 goals scored this season. The 21-year-old scored 19 goals in 82 games all of last season, and is currently on a pace to score an amazing 52 goals and 24 assists for 76 points if he completes a full schedule of games for the Bruins.

The last 50 goal scorer for the Bruins? The answer — which no doubt many of you remember fondly – is at the end of the blog entry…

On to some puck linkage…

–Check in with Where’s Trags for the latest sound and news from Bruins practice as he’ll be the man on the scene while I’m hanging with the Flying Elvii for the week.

–Deposed bench jockey Barry Melrose voices his hopes that the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t win another game in an interview he did with 590 AM radio station in Toronto this morning. In the same interview he drops verbally detonated bombs on both co-owner Len Barrie and rookie Steve Stamkos as well.

–Bad news for a number of US-based NHL teams that are suffering through attendence/performance woes this season, according to the Hockey News – a group of seven squads (Phoenix Coyotes, Atlanta Thrashers, Nashville Predators, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers) will lose at least $5 million this season barring long playoff runs. It continues to reinforce what I’ve been saying all along: ship at least two Southern/Sunbelt hockey teams to back up Canada where they’ll be fully appreciated.

–Yahoo.com is the next in a long line of media outlets to claim that this Black and Gold team is the closest descendant of the Big, Bad Bruins of the 1960′s and 1970′s. I can’t say that I disagree, and it’s getting to the point now where teams simply aren’t messing with the B’s because they know what kind of frozen-fisted beatdown they could be in for.

The answer to the question above is, of course, Cam Neely, who memorably scored 50 goals in 49 games back in 1993-94 in one of his last great moments before succumbing to leg injuries that hampered him over the second half of his career. With that in mind, here’s a priceless ESPN “This is SportsCenter” commercial with Neely and Roger Clemens from a long time ago in a Boston sports galaxy far, far away. We see a great glimpse at the future career of Seabass when he calls Clemens “negative.” Seems like a million years ago and seems like a dead-on appraisal of the Rocket, doesn’t it?

It’s all good… Bruins ready for two-city trip

12.09.08 at 12:40 pm ET
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Bruins coach Claude Julien worked his team through an energetic practice this morning at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, with the emphasis being on how to handle success… namely don’t get cute when you have the lead.

The Bruins led after one period Monday night, 3-0, but allowed Tampa Bay to make a charge at them, closing to within 4-3 with 19.0 seconds remaining before P.J. Axelsson salted the game away with an empty netter.

Some other morsels from Tuesday morning’s skate.

X-rays on Stephane Yelle’s ribs were negative after he collided with linesman Mark Shewchyk on Monday night.

Aaron Ward skated at center ice while the team worked on drills. But don’t expect him to rush back to action for Wednesday in Washington.  “If I were a betting man, I’d say ‘no’ (to playing),” Ward said.

Marco Sturm is making progress and is getting closer to a return from concussion-like symptoms.

All three made the trip to Washington and are considered day-to-day by coach Julien. “All encouraging news,” Juilen said.

Put ‘em upManny Fernandez, not to be confused with Stan Jonathan, joked with tough guy Milan Lucic about a pugilistic battle on the ice should the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.

The 19-4-4 Bruins play the Capitals on Wednesday in Washington and the Thrashers in Atlanta on Friday before returning home for a date with Atlanta on Saturday at the Garden.

Read More: Aaron Ward, Atlanta Thrashers, Boston Bruins, Marco Sturm

Sounds of the game… Bruins 5, Lightning 3

12.09.08 at 7:32 am ET
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You know you’re a good hockey team when your coach says, “We’re getting used to wins, and that’s nice. But we’re at the stage now where we’re really looking at how we’re winning hockey games.” Claude Julien didn’t have to say anything to his team following its 5-3 dispatching of the woebegone Tampa Bay Lightning at the Garden. He left them to think about how a 3-0 first period lead turned into a nail-biter in the final minute of regulation. All of which leads to this, when you are a good team you learn from your wins just as much as your losses and that was the case last night. The Bruins are still in phenomenal shape at 19-4-4, with 42 points and atop the Eastern Conference. Only the unconscious San Jose Sharks have more points in the NHL.

Bruins coach Claude Julien said his team got away with playing with fire.

Julien said he doesn’t want to see his team get cute with leads.

Captain Zdeno Chara said the team came out hot in the first.

Dennis Wideman said the Monday night Garden crowd pumped him up.

Michael Ryder said the Bruins learned their lesson Monday night.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Dennis Wideman, Michael Ryder

Bruins-Lightning Game Day… 5-3, Bruins Final

12.08.08 at 5:20 pm ET
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The Tampa Bay Lightning made life a little tougher than expected in the closing moments as Paul Szczechura scored with 19.0 seconds remaining to make it a one-goal game, 4-3. But P.J. Axelsson, who has been snake bit this season, including earlier in the game when he was stopped on a penalty shot, fired his first goal into an open net with 10.0 seconds remaining to seal the 5-3 win.

The B’s came out on fire, jumping out to a 3-0 lead after one before Tampa Bay took advantage of some sloppiness in the second and third.

“I thought we played with fire tonight. We’re not going to win many games playing like that,” coach Claude Julien said afterward.

It was Boston’s tenth straight win at home, a new record for the TD Banknorth Garden, dating back to the days of the FleetCenter. After starting 0-1-1 in their first two home games, the Bruins now stand 10-1-1 on home ice.

Martin St. Louis re-directed a shot from Vincent Lecavalier at 9:27 of the third period as the Tampa Bay Lightning cut the Bruins lead to 4-2, at 9:27 of the third.

After Tampa Bay’s Adam Hall crashed the net and put back a loose puck to make it 3-1 Boston, the Bruins have had their chances to blow open a two-goal game late in the second.

P.J. Axelsson, with 10:28 remaining in the second, was awarded a penalty shot when he was hooked from behind on a clear path to goalie Mike Smith. But Smith came up big, stopping Axelsson down low and keeping the Bruins lead at three goals. Tampa Bay remained on the power play.

Chuck Kobasew was stoned by Smith with 3:17 remaining in the second. But a five-on-three power play was the back-breaker for the Lightning as David Krejci fed Zdeno Chara at the top of the left circle. Chara’s slap shot bomb was too much for Smith, making it 4-1.

The Lightning, who are just 1-4-4 in the nine games under new coach Rick Tocchet, showed their true grit in the second, outshooting Boston 9-7 and showing some signs of life.

So far so quiet in the second. After outshooting the Lightning 13-5 in the first, Tampa took four of the first six shots in the second and each team is 0-for-1 on the power play in the middle stanza.

On their second power play of the night the Bruins opened the flood gates on the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They were unable to score on their first one when Steven Stamkos was called for holding the stick. But as that penalty expired, Paul Ranger was called for slashing. Milan Lucic just missed Phil Kessel who was coming down the slot for a shot on an open net. But moments later Dennis Wideman found Lucic in the low slot for his seventh goal of the season at 6:44. Bruins are 1-for-2 on the man advantage. Kessel also got an assist on the goal that beat Tampa Bay netminder Mike Smith, extending Kessel’s career-best point streak to 12 games. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Dennis Wideman, Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel,

Hockey Notes: Hunwick earning his spot

12.07.08 at 12:27 pm ET
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Members of the Bruins brain trust correctly predicted that — after playing 10 games in 18 days through a brutal November stretch of hockey – the Black and Gold would begin incurring some injuries that would challenge the team’s overall depth. The Bruins flew through that stretch with a bevy of W’s and continue building a burgeoning lead in the Eastern Conference’s top spot, but bumps and bruised began cropping at a position where Boston could seemingly least afford them: the blue line.

First it was Andrew Ference going down with a broken right tibia and then Aaron Ward followed with a left leg injury, likely a sprained ankle that wasn’t going to keep a tough-as-nails customer like Ward out for a long stretch. But then Dennis Wideman missed a game with the dreaded “middle body injury” and things really began to stretch out in an area that Boston wasn’t especially deep.

But a funny thing happened along the way to Boston succumbing to their defenseman injury woes: they discovered a host of other young guys that have stepped up and filled in along the vacant spots. Matt Lashoff and Johnny Boychuk, who was send back down to the AHL this afternoon, have both arrived fresh off the AHL bus ride circuit to step up and provide steady D-man coverage — with a hint of offensive potential from each young colt — and 23-year-old Matt Hunwick has been an absolute revelation for the Spoked B.

Hunwick was the last defenseman returned to Providence when cuts came down at the end of training camp, and he was handed marching orders to continue raising his competitive levels during one-on-one battles for the puck while gaining physical strength to shake off the hurtling bodycheckers abundant in the NHL.

Hunwick kept his solid D-zone responsibilities and puck-moving ways sharp in two games with the P-Bruins between two different call-ups to Boston, and the 23-year-old was the first one called up to “The Show” when Ference was lost for an extended period.

Young forwards Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel are rightfully getting much of the credit for the puck renaissance that’s currently taking place in the Hub, but Hunwick has similarly emerged as a force within Claude Julien’s defense-first system. The 5-foot-10, 187-pound rookie is behind only Wideman and Zdeno Chara when it comes to defenseman scoring for the B’s with three goals and six assists in 14 games, and he boasts the second-best +/- along the blueline with a sterling +12 mark. More importantly, he’s given the Bruins an average of 21 minutes of ice time per night over the last five games, which has softened the sting of the injury bug along the blue line.

The game of hockey is – in many ways — a game of dopplegangers, where any observant player can scout out another skater with the same skill set, physical attributes and on-ice temperament and begin absorbing valuable puck lessons. Prior to the iron man hockey act he’s pulled over the last handful of games, there were a glut of contests early in the season that Hunwick didn’t dress for. Hunwick instead opted spent his time watching his fellow defensemen — with a discerning eye toward Wideman and Ference. Ference, in particular, is a good match for the relatively undersized Hunwick and offensively-skilled defenseman. 

“I’ve tried to be more aggressive in the play and I’m trying to get more of an edge out there,” said Hunwick. “[Ference] is the same size as me and he’s definitely a guy that I paid attention to when I was up in the press box watching the game. Not only is it the size thing, but the way he’s able to be physically involved at his size too. How hard and intensely he plays, how smart he plays and how good he is on special teams. He’s been around playing this game for a long time, and there’s a lot I’ve learned from him.”

Hunwick’s elevation within the eyes of the Bruins’ coaching staff was never more apparent than their highly successful two-game swing through Florida. During the third period a tight, one-goal effort against Tampa Bay, Hunwick (a career-high 23:27 of ice time), Shane Hnidy (who also elevated his game to another level during a serious time of need for the B’s) and Chara were all playing yeoman’s minutes with a depleted corps, and they still managed to hold down a group of individual offensive talents to one goal. Down three D-men, it was just another night for the NHL’s best defensive crew ( one of only three teams that have allowed less than 60 goals this season along with the Ottawa Senators and the notoriously defense-minded Minnesota Wild) and another rookie quickly learning the new-and-improved Bruins Way of doing things.

“The more he plays and the better he’s going to get, and that’s really just the normal cycle of experience,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. “He’s been put through game situations and so there’s improvement through game experience and there’s a real raising of his confidence levels.

“Every game we keep a close eye on him and gauge how things are going, and if he’s playing well then we’ve got to make sure we find him some ice and if he’s having a tough night then we make sure he doesn’t lose his confidence,” added Julien. “We keep a close eye on him, but he’s playing very good hockey right now.”

For Hunwick, watching Wideman and Ference — before he went down — was like attending a Defenseman Master Class. The young defenseman, who displayed outstanding leadership abilities first skating for the US National Team Development Program and then along to the Michigan Wolverines and the minor leagues, is beginning to look like a steal out of a productive 2004 entry draft for the Bruins that also churned out Krejci and high-scoring Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg. While Krejci and Versteeg were both taken in the first few rounds, Hunwick was a seventh round selection that’s already begun making inroads toward a full time job in the NHL.

“It’s a big opportunity to play good minutes and be a big part of this defensive corps,” said Hunwick. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this squad, and also show the coaching staff that I’m capable of playing at this level.”

Read More: Aaron Ward, Andrew Ference, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien

Kelly: NHLPA monitoring “unprecedented” discipline

12.05.08 at 2:41 pm ET
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In an email to WEEI.com, NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly said he’s closely monitoring the situation between Sean Avery and the Dallas Stars with a keen eye toward the “unprecedented” disciplinary action against the Stars’ bad boy. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman earlier today ruled on a six-game suspension — with two games already served – for Avery after the controversial Stars forward made disparaging comments to ex-girlfriends currently dating other NHL players.

Count me among the many that think the time and the crime didn’t jive on this one, as the NHL is obviously trying to make a statement here about a long pattern of Bad Boy, attention-grabbing antics by Avery over the last few seasons — and also about the premeditated move to beckon over national cameras before making his “sloppy seconds” soliloquy. Call it the ultimate revenge for calling Martin Broduer a “fat pig” last season, or being ahead of the curve with faceguarding the Devils goaltender in the playoffs last year. Sticks and Stones, Bettman…sticks and stones.

“The point that I’m making is that when you have repetitive conduct over a point and time, and you’re looking at inappropriate responses under the circumstances, the fact that somebody may play more aggressively on the ice … we’re not talking about ‘player play,’ and player conduct on the ice,” said Bettman in a conference call with reporters this afternoon. “We’re talking about interaction with people — fans, the media, other players — that is completely out of the norm.

“It’s not talking about the same thing to compare player conduct to the type of conduct that we’re seeing here. “I don’t think there’s any doubt after our conversation [Thursday] that it wouldn’t be a good idea [for Avery] to be back with me again, having this type of conversation.”

Here’s the Avery sound/sights for anybody living under a hockey rock:

 

Here’s Kelly’s statement on the six-game sentence and a mandatory anger management evaluation handed down by Bettman: ‘€œWhile the NHLPA does not condone Sean’€™s comments, which were clearly inappropriate, the discipline imposed by the Commissioner is unprecedented both in its severity, as well as the process by which it was handed down.  We’€™ve also seen signals from the Dallas Stars that Sean’€™s contractual rights might be challenged.  We are monitoring the situation as it develops, and we will evaluate all legal options as the circumstances warrant.  In the meantime, our first priority is making sure we do what we can to support Sean’€™s efforts to learn from his mistake and move forward in a positive manner.”

Read More: Paul Kelly, Sean Avery,

Yelle getting comfortable in the East

12.04.08 at 10:52 am ET
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It would have been pretty easy to assume Father Time had simply come calling a bit prematurely for veteran center Stephane Yelle when the thirtysomething pivot was slow-moving out of the gate this season. The 34-year-old seemed to be having trouble getting into the flow of the game and the faceoff specialist — targeted by the Black and Gold in the offseason for his ability to win draws along the dot and specialize in the little things needed to kill penalties – was uncharacteristically struggling in the faceoff circle while hovering around a 40 percent success rate.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s probably understandable that there was a healthy period of adjustment for Yelle, who has always been a Western Conference denizen and carries around hockey skill set that doesn’t exactly jump out and grab the unsuspecting fan.

In many ways Yelle is similar to P.J. Axelsson in his ability to go long periods of ice time doing all the little things without screaming out for attention with a teeth-chattering body check or a one-man dangle-fest through a host of defenders before scoring. Off the ice, he’s similarly quiet and reserved while also holding the respect of younger players that probably spent an ample amount of time playing Yelle in Sega Genesis or Playstation video game hockey. 

The 34-year-old simply had to make an adjustment to the Eastern Conference-style and tinker with his hockey dial to something with a great deal more aggressive physicality and dump-and-chase puck philosophy, and that adjustment seems to now be complete. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder was scoreless through his first seven games and sat at a -2 through that time period, but things finally started to slow down for the seasoned vet just as the Bruins team caught fire. 

 Yelle is back up to winning 49.7 percent of his faceoffs, and has quickly learned the habits and tricks of the trade employed by his new Eastern Conference draw adversaries. Opposing centers basked in the element of surprise during Yelle’s first time around the division, but the Old Rebel Yelle Dog has caught on to the new tricks.

“Yeah, there’s definitely always a transition period to a new team, but I feel like I’ve been around long enough to really be comfortable with the guys now,” said Yelle. “I’m comfortable with the systems and stuff. Usually you don’t want to get off to a bad start [with the faceoffs] because it’s a long climb up, but I’ve been working hard, doing different things and not being predictable. There are different little strategies you can implement to keep guys guessing.”

Yelle will switch things up on opponents that feel like they’ve got Yelle pegged. The former Avalanche and Flames skater will take some draws with his backhand and go after others with his forehand – or just tie a guy up and attempt winning a one-on-one battle for the free puck — that all fits under the heading of the cat-and-mouse game played with the opposing centers that he’s customarily lining up with.

“Coming from the Western Conference, you play the same guys a lot and you don’t know the Eastern guys as much,” added Yelle. “You don’t know their tendencies and sometimes it becomes a guessing game. Now that I’ve played them a couple of times I’m getting an idea of what they intend to do, and hopefully it can help me out down the road.”

Yelle has 3 goals and 5 assists and sits at a +2 in his last 17 games and the Bruins coaching staff has taken note of him reaching his water level – even if his contributions aren’t easily pinpointed by a casual perusal of the postgame stat sheet. He’s on a pace for 10 goals and 17 assists this season, which would be perfectly acceptable numbers out of the middle man on the energy line.

“Our young guys have been getting better in the faceoff circle and Yelle really brings that experience when he gets in there,” said Julien. “We knew when we brought Stephane in here that he would have a veteran presence and a lot of experience along with his penalty kill and faceoff skills. He’s been a very good fit for this team.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Stephane Yelle,
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