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Chara to the rescue…

12.13.08 at 8:58 pm ET
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One thing a captain does is stand up for his teammates, under any and all circumstances. When Boris Valabik tried to intimidate Phil Kessel in front of the Thrashers net in the second period Saturday night, Zdeno Chara came in like a raging bull and made sure that his countryman knew that wasn’t acceptable.

“It’€™s the number one thing to be playing as a team and stick up for each other,” Chara explained. “That’€™s one of the main things on this team, to stick up for each other.”

Kessel certainly appreciated it.

“I just think it says a lot about him, coming to my defense like that,” Kessel said. “He’s a great captain, a great guy and shows what type of team guy he really is.”

Chara may have taken 17 minutes in penalties, but coach Claude Julien didn’t just give Chara a pass, he applauded the message he delivered.

‘€œIt was the right thing to do. It was for the right reasons,” Julien said.

“That was good by Z,” added David Krejci, who aided the Bruins cause with three assists on the night. “I was actually pretty surprised because Valabik, I’m pretty sure they know each other from Slovakia. It was nice to see Z stick up for Phil.”

That’s what happens when your team is 21-5-4, winners of 11 straight on home ice.

Read More: Boston Bruins, David Krejci, Manny Fernandez, Phil Kessel

Bruins 4, Thrashers 2, Final

12.13.08 at 5:26 pm ET
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Best battle of the night with 3:46 left in the third when 6’9″ Zdeno Chara went up against Atlanta’s Boris Valabik, who stands 6’7″, with Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting roaring over the loudspeakers. Valabik grew up in Chara’s homeland of Slovakia, styling his game after Chara.

Full disclosure, neither pugilist landed any significant blows.

But Dennis Wideman did when he connected for his second power play goal of the night, beating Johan Hedberg at 18:16 of the second period.

Phil Kessel collected his own rebound on a power play shot on Atlanta’s Johan Hedberg. The Thrashers goalie stopped the first but not the second at 6:00 of the first as Kessel lit the lamp for the 19th time this season.

Not only does that figure far and away lead the team, it already matches his career best set last season and extends his point streak to 15 games.

Michael Ryder added his ninth of the season at 13:43 even strength, a weak backhand that was mishandled by Hedberg.

The Bruins had a golden chance to break open the game but Hedberg came up big on a five-on-three Boston power play for one minute, 37 seconds.

The Thrashers turned that momentum into a goal when Nathan Oystrick fired a slap shot from the left point through a mass of bodies infront of Manny Fernandez, cutting Boston’s lead in half.

Some notes at the end of one…

The Bruins are 9-2-1 when they lead after one this season.

The Thrashers are 1-10-1 when they trail after one.

The Bruins have outscored their opponents 66-37 in the second and third periods this season.

Martins Karsums is playing his first NHL game tonight and is on the fourth line with Vladimir Sobotka and Shawn Thornton.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Johan Hedberg, Phil Kessel,

Neely with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

12.12.08 at 9:14 pm ET
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The resurgence of the Bruins has led to plenty of attention from the national media, and Boston Bruins Vice-President Cam Neely has been one of the up-front-and-center voices and faces helping to promote the team. Neely was the guest of Bill Clement and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during the “NHL Hour” on XM Radio and NHL.com this week. Here’s some thoughts from Neely about a host of different Bruins and NHL-related issues along with an admission that center Patrice Bergeron is still working up the form he showed prior to last season’s concussion.

You retired in 1996 and then didn’t formally get back involved into the Bruins front office until 11 years later…what were you doing all that time? CN: I was getting away from the game. I’ve got to tell you, and I know you’ve heard this from other athletes — and not just hockey players — but when it’s not your decision to retire it’s very difficult to be around the game when you feel like you can still play. Once I finally got to an age where I felt like — even if I was healthy — I wouldn’t be able to play…it got easier.

How long did it take you to recover? CN: Ah…from not playing? It probably about five years anyways of having that feeling that you wanted to get back out on the ice and play. It was difficult to leave the game. But I’m thrilled now to be a part of the game again and especially back in Boston. 

Most people wouldn’t remember that you were drafted by Vancouver. When they think of you they think of the Boston Bruins. CN: Yeah, they really do. I was fortunate enough to have 10 fairly good years, although some of them were riddled with injuries. I certainly am remember as being a Bruin, no question.

What’s it like to be a part of the Boston sports scene that’s had so much success over the last few years? CN:It’s obviously been a lot of fun. You become a fans of a lot of the local teams — I’ve been living in Boston now for over 20 years — and you become friendly with some of the players on the teams and follow their success. It’s been great because you know, Boston, it’s a great sports city and the fans really support all the teams and hopefully we’re next, Gary.

Let’s talk about being next. The Bruins are having a tremendous amount of success for the first time in recent years. What do you attribute that to? CN: Well, a lot of his to do with our depth. We have great depth this year and the development of our young players have probably accelerated a little more quickly than we first anticipated. We have a fantastic coaching, and last year they came in and they really needed to shore up the defensive end of things and cut down the goals against. And they were really able to do that.

This year we needed to focus on how we were going to get more offense, and the growth of our young players has really helped. Also with implementing how to create more offense from defenseman, that’s helped as well. We have a pretty good plan in place, not just for this year but also for the foreseeable future.

Claude Julien as coach. What is the secret formula he’s using? CN:Well, the thing that I really like about Claude — and I look at this from a player’s perspective — is that there really is no gray area with him. As a player, you have to respect that it’s black and white and he demands a certain level of commitment and work ethic from each player. And it goes down from the top guy on the team to the 23rd player.

This is what he expects and this is what he demands, and if you don’t give it to him you’re going to hear about it. But if you do give it to him then you’re going to be rewarded. I think any player would respect that kind of coach.

Has Bergeron made the difference in coming back, or has it been a matter of everything really coming together for the Bruins? CN:I think it’s a combination of everything, Gary. Obviously Bergeron helps because he’s such a good two-way player, and he’s only going to get better. He hasn’t really found his stride yet, if you will, but what he does is really give us that much more strength down the middle. We’ve got four good centers in Savard, Bergeron, Krejci and Yelle on our forth line.

When you’re able to roll out four lines like Claude likes to do and three of those lines are gifted offensively — and the fourth can chip in offensively as well for us and they generally carry the play of other team’s fourth lines — we have four lines we can roll which is a nice luxury.

I think only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull have scored a better goals-per-game average over a season than you. Is there anybody on this Bruins team that reminds you of yourself? CN:Well, there’s been a number of comparisons with Milan, but I’m not a big fan of comparing one player to another. Everybody has got their own personality and skill set. I think the fact that Milan is a big, strong, tough young player and he’s playing right now with Savard and Kessel so he’s getting a lot of great opportunities. He can put the puck in the net. But he’s a guy that we really rely to play a physical game first and foremost, and he’s a guy that’s able to creat a lot of space for himself and a lot of time and space for his linemates.

I think we certainly expect him to continue to improve as its only his second year in the league, but there is some comparisons there. I wouldn’t really say it’s fair to Milan. 

Did you see much of a difference as a player as opposed to now being in management? CN: It’s certainly a much bigger difference in terms of perspective than it is in the game actually changing, although the game has changed even from 1996 until now. I know here in Boston we have some classic games on NESN and every once in a while I’ll tune in to them now and I’m just amazed at how many mistakes I made out there.

But the game is faster now, isn’t it?. CN:Yeah, the game is faster and the guys are certainly bigger and stronger. That goes with nutrition being thought about a lot more. When I was a player guys really worked out a great lot in the offseason like they do now, but a lot of it is nutrition.

There’s a lot of thought and emphasis put into what guys are eating with an emphasis on taking care of their bodies. Players are bigger coming into the game now for the most part. Even 18 or 19 year-old kids coming into the league are bigger now than they were 20 years ago.

So there’s some elements to the size of the players, and the game…the skating. The big emphasis on skating. We’ve got some big guys now — and not that there wasn’t a big emphasis on the skating before — but we’ve got some big guys that can really skate now. So the guys are improving not only at this level, but at all levels. I think a lot of it has to do with focusing on the sport much earlier to probably.

There have been a number of outstanding players recently that have become executives…really great players. Does this surprise you and do you all get together and talk about what you’re doing? CN: I’m not overly surprised, but I think it’s fantastic for the game.  I think it’s great that there are ex-players that are involved at the level that you’re talking about, Gary. I think it’s helpful for the owners to get a perspective that played at an elite level and get their perspective on the game. I think it’s only going to help the organization in having players around to pull their players aside and give them some pointers.

I think that’s only going to be beneficial. We certainly talk to each other. if you were to ask me 15 years ago if I could see myself doing this my answer would have been a quick “No.” But I’ve really enjoyed getting involved and I think it’s been a great learning experience for me so far. And I’ve had fun at the same time.

What do you do in a typical day? CN: Obviously we’ve got a lot of catch-up to do here in Boston with — not just our fan base — but also with the business side. So I get involved with a number of initiatives from the business side to reengage sponsorships and our fan base and work a great deal with Peter from the hockey operations standpoint. That’s obviously where I gravitate toward because I’m comfortable with that side of it, but I’m also enjoying learning the business side of it as well.

The Jacobs family, I think, are sometimes misunderstood in Boston. Can you talk about their passion for the Bruins and hockey because I don’t think they’re completed understood? CN

: Well, they’re probably not because not because I played here for 10 years and I wasn’t aware of it…and that’s the truth. One of the things that I have tried to do is to get Mr. Jacobs — when he is around — is to let people know that he’s in the building and that he’s around. I know it’s not his personality, but I’m surprised how much he’s involved and knows what’s going on from a day-to-day basis.

I certainly didn’t have that feeling or understanding during my time as a player, but I’ve seen it first hand and I never would have guessed it.

Sometimes when you’re quiet and behind the scenes [like Jacobs] people don’t know about you. CN: No, they don’t. And as I said earlier, I would like him to…it’s not in his makeup but I think it would be helpful and he knows how I feel about that. When you’re a player, there’s nothing better than knowing that your owner really cares about the team and winning. He does in a big way, like you said.

Did you have fond memories of doing Dumb and Dumber? CN: Well, I did enjoy it…I can tell you that. I don’t know if acting as a bit player and not knowing if you’re going to make the cut is for me. And I certainly didn’t pound down any doors trying to get any acting work. But I can tell you that it was a lot of fun…a lot of fun doing that.

Talk to people about the Can Neely Foundation and your work with the NEw England Medical Center and Neely House. CN: I lost both of my parents to cancer while I was playing hockey, and I did what most hockey players do in their situation: I decided to give back. When cancer struck my family I focused most of my time and effort toward cancer-related causes and I decided start my own charity organization so I could have a say on where the money was going to go.

What we wanted to do was help cancer patients and families. We started the Foundation in late 1994 and we’ve raised close to $17 million. We’ve averaged 91 cents out of every dollar goes directly toward the cause. We’re very passionate about trying to get as much money to the programs that we’re doing.

I don’t look at us as a bank and trying to accumulate a lot and put it toward the program. When we commit to doing a program we try to get the money as quickly as we can to that particular program. The Neely House was the first initiative that we worked on and that was opened in 1996. We’ve had over 4,000 families stay at the Neely House which is right inside the building at the Tufts Medical Center.

It shows what kind of a need there is for a facility like this and we just opened a new pediatric BMT Unit at the Floating Hospital for Children, which is a state of the art unit and facility. We’ve actually incorporated a mini-Neely House right inside the unit so that parents can be that much closer to their children. So we’re very fortunate with the support we’ve gotten over the years and — to be honest – the foundation was built on support from hockey fans in the early going.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Cam Neely, Gary Bettman, Milan Lucic

Warding off worry… B’s blue liner returns

12.09.08 at 3:08 pm ET
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While he didn’t take part in any contact drills on Tuesday, Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward felt good about returning to the ice after a left leg injury that has forced him to miss the last three games.

“That’s the approach now,” Ward said before joining the team on its sojourn to Washington for Wednesday’s game against the Capitals. “Only have taken seven days off, I can’t have lost a whole lot. To touch a puck and to play around with it rather than sit out three weeks and miss it, that’s why I’m taking the road trip, hopefully start skating a little bit more aggressively and hopefully go from there. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a need right now. I can take my time.

“It’s just the pace of the game, getting your head up and playing with the puck, especially this team, so much more demanded from a defenseman in terms of putting the puck in the right place and reading the play and understand where you’re supposed to be. That’s the essential part of it all,” he said.

While Ward is having fun watching the team continue to roll along, there is some tension knowing that other younger players are coming up and could make an even better impression.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ward said. “You don’t want to be supplanted from where you feel where you might add to the team.”

One of those younger players is Vladimir Sobotka, who was recalled on an emergency basis following Monday’s game after Stephane Yelle collided with a linesman and suffered a minor rib injury.


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“I was on the first line in Providence, playing on the power play some,” Sobotka explained Tuesday. “Here I’ll be on the fourth line. I admit I’ll be a little nervous before the game (on Wednesday).”

As for Ward, he said he doesn’t expect to return on Wednesday.

If I were a wagering man, I’d say no. But again, (Wednesday) is another step in the recovery process,” Ward said.

The always artful Ward also made the following observation about Sean Avery’s pending punishment from the NFL for his untoward remarks about a former girlfriend and his brotherhood of NHL skaters.

“How happy Plaxico Burress is that Avery shot his mouth off and now no one knows who Plaxico is,” Ward said.

And props to Matt Kalman of The Bruins Blog, who didn’t miss a beat responding, “Maybe in the hockey world, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the world (does).”

Don’t have to look very far for confirmation of that, Matt.

Read More: Aaron Ward, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Plaxico Burress

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
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