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Ladies and Gentlemen…your first place Bruins

11.08.08 at 9:26 pm ET
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A lot of good things to pick through in another solid 3-1 win for the Bruins over the Buffalo Sabres at the TD Banknorth Garden last night. The victory pulls the Black and Gold into a tie with the Sabres for first place in the Northeast Division and dusted off a clean three-game sweep on their own home ice.

“It shows that we’re doing something right,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “It’s very early in the season, but I’d rather be there than at the bottom. When you try and do something with a team you hope it continues to progress. I think the guys are understanding more and more. Last year was about creating a identity and our goal was definitely to make the playoffs.

“This year our goal remains the same, but we also know that we have to get better,” added Julien. “And to be better we’ve got to be more consistent and more dominant in all areas. Our team is making good strides in all those directions.”

The largest piece of news heading into the game was the return of talented right winger Chuck Kobasew to the B’s lineup after missing 12 games with a fractured right ankle. Kobasew didn’t waste much time getting into the middle of the action as he collected a secondary assist on Boston’s first goal of the night — a Dennis Wideman rocket from the right point made possible by a nifty play from center Stephane Yelle. The veteran pivot deked out a pair of Buffalo defenders and then shuffled the puck back to a wide open Wideman at the right point for the Big Blast.

Wideman’s strike tied the game at 1-1, and Kobasew again figured into the scoring in the second period when he was on the receiving end of a long entry pass from Shawn Thornton. Kobasew carried the puck up the right side and fired a long wrister that looked like it caught the boot portion of ageless Buffalo defenseman Teppo Numminen’s skate. The airborne rubber biscuit immediately changed trajectory and fluttered past Ryan Miller to give Kobasew his first score of the season and fourth overall point in only his second game.

The score early in the second period actually went a long way toward relaxing an antsy Kobasew, who had been skating for nearly two weeks before he was able to hop back into the lineup and was also badly in need of a chill pill.

“If felt good,” said Kobasew. “They keep it simple. Thorny made some big plays on the wall and Yeller really slows things down and made it an easy transition.

“[Scoring early] made it a little easier for me to relax out there and just start playing my game,” added Kobasew.

Putting the offensively gifted yet willing to be gritty Kobasew on a line with Thornton and Yelle really seems to give that trio the potential to be a bit more dangerous offensively on a regular basis – while also allowing the fourth liners to still bring the energy and noise they’ve given on a nightly basis.

Lucic in the Ten Commandments?

Okay, now that I’ve got you scratching your heads, here’s the connection. The monstrous power forward known in Boston simply — to me at least — as the Looch Ness Monster was at it again Saturday night, and registered a whopping eight hits through the first two periods. He had at least two more wallops in the third period, but the official statistics didn’t reflect his punishing play over the final 20 minutes of hockey. 

Milan Lucic was simply lining up and wallpapering anything with a Sabres sweater that moved on the Garden ice, and he had everyone with their head on a swivel. The Buffalo beatdown got so nasty that eventually the Sabres defensemen started consistently looking over their backs to see if the fire breathing Looch was ambling into the corner.  During one astounding moment of rink shrinkage in the second period 6-foot-3, 214-pound Henrik Tallender simply let Lucic get to what would have been an iced puck in Buffalo’s corner to avoid the jarring contact.

That, my friends, is physical intimidation and tone-setting in a hockey game between division rivals. So Aaron Ward recognized Lucic’s efforts after the game and revealed that his teammates are beginning to call him “Moses” — in tribute to the space his physical presence creates and its similarity to a certain Biblical body of water’s parting.

“[Lucic] was a pinball out there tonight,” said Ward. “Some nights, you know, I wish I had that youthful energy and at 35 I look at him with admiration. But you see what happens, I think the first five hits left a lasting impression on a few defenseman out there. We could call Milan Lucic ‘Moses’ because he parted the seas and the defenseman in front of the net, and we just took the puck from behind the net.

“Good for him,” said Ward. “If he’s creating a reputation for himself and guys think twice about going to get the puck, then it’s more time for his linemates.” 

Zdeno Chara, and Ward also both finished with three hits on the night, and said that the intimidating tone set by the Looch is one that’s embraced by the entire team and a bruisingly big part of the team’s fabric.

“That’s when he plays the best,” said Chara of Lucic’s mad checking rampage. “We all need him to play that way and certainly he’s enjoying playing that way. For him to be effective he needs to be involved physically and that’s great. We see him making a big statement over there that he’s not afraid. He’s going in there very hard and finishing checks and putting a lot of pressure on the opposition.

“It’s a plan for this team to play physical every night,” said Chara. “That’s the identity that we want to have and I think we’re establishing that. We need to play physical and play a high tempo skating game, move the puck and put a lot of pressure on other teams.” 

The whole team is playing physical, bruising hockey, but I think it’s high time for some industrious blogger to snag the www.milanlucicisabeast.com domain name before somebody else jumps all over it.

Manny Being Manny

Bruins coach Claude Julien raised some eyebrows when he opted to start Manny Fernandez in net against the Buffalo Sabres with Northeast Division bragging rights on the line, and the 34-year-old goaltender responded with his best game of the year.

“Did there have to be a big reason to start Manny?” asked Julien rhetorically after the game. “Tim had started five straight games and it’s a long year. We know that goaltenders — as others — get tired. Tonight he showed he can be just as good. We’ve got good goaltenders and we shouldn’t be picking, but more we should be looking at this as a position of strength and we should use it.”

Fernandez finished with 32 saves for the good night’s work and came up especially big while shutting down a pair of Jason Pominville bids during a key third period power play for the Sabres.

A moment of rust or weakness could have left the door ajar for a furious Buffalo comeback, but instead Fernandez rewarded Julien’s faith in his “other” backstop. Fernandez had been saying all the right things during the week in the midst of Tim Thomas starting five games in a row and seizing the starter’s role, but Boston’s backup netminder made his own statement last night.

“[Julien] had to put me in there eventually,” said Fernandez. “He wanted to run Timmy out there as much as he could and I don’t know if that would have ended. It might have lasted 82 games if he’d let it. No, he told me he was going to throw me in there eventually and Buffalo just happened to be the team.”

Ward gives to the Veterans

The Boston Bruins honored the local military members, veterans and their families at ‘€œMilitary Appreciation Night’€ tonight during the Bruins/Sabres game.

The Bruins hosted 1,500 members of local military families through their ‘€œSeats for Soldiers’€ program- an initiative where fans purchase tickets that are donated to military members and their families.  Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward purchased $15,000 worth of tickets to the program this year, giving 300 servicemen and women and their families the opportunity to watch Saturday’s game.

“It’s the least you can do,” said Ward. “I’m a Canadian, but I enjoy all the privileges of being an American. It also really nice to see the stands really full, and there’s no use getting them out here on a Saturday night and not putting on a show for them.

“I think we’re slowly cultivating [a home presence] and proving the old Field of Dreams adage that if you win, then they will come.” 

The soldiers and their families were honored throughout the game through photo montages on Garden HDX, Zamboni rides, and video messages while a select few were given the chance to shake hands with the team as they leave the locker room during intermissions. The B’s game management staff also put together a moving video presentation on the Jumbotron in between the second and third period.

Bruins fans can continue to donate to the Seats for Soldiers program by calling 617-624-1805, emailing smscott@bostonbruins.comor by going to BostonBruins.com. Fans can honor our local military families by donating tickets priced at $25.00 or $70.00. An additional donation will be made to the USO for every $70 ticket donation.

Savard off the schneid

The third goal that pretty much cinched the game came off a pretty give-and-go play with Phil Kessel and Marc Savard at the neutral zone that led to Kessel firing a wicked wrist shot at Miller. The Buffalo ‘tender kicked out the rebound to his right and directly onto the stick of Savard. Savard fired a blazing one-timer past a diving Miller for the playmaking centerman’s sixth goal of the season.

Savvy had five tallies in the first three games, but had been without a goal since that point. Julien felt it was just a matter of time before the B’s mover and shaker got it going again.

“I hope it helps his confidence and it settles him down a little bit,” said Julien. “You could see him forcing things at times and a little frustration because he didn’t have things going. But I talked to them as a line and told them that things were going to fall into place if they just play the game.

“I thought as the game went on they got better in that area,” added Julien.

 

Julien leaning toward playing Kobasew

11.07.08 at 1:58 pm ET
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Bruins head coach Claude Julien indicated after Friday morning’s practice that he’s “leaning toward” inserting winger Chuck Kobasew back into the Black and Gold’s lineup on Saturday. The B’s are set to host the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night and will be looking to capture their third straight victory on home ice this season.

 

 

 

“I’ll obviously make my final decision tomorrow, but I can tell you that much,” said Julien, who had previously said he wouldn’t return Kobasew to the fray until he felt like he could be a “difference-maker”. 

Kobasew has been skating with the team for the better part of two weeks, and said he’s passed every medical clearance hurdle before deeming himself ready to return to the ice. The former Boston College forward scored 22 goals and 17 assists in 73 games for the B’s last season and had formed with David Krejci and Blake Wheeler to create an extremely effective line during the preseason finale and opening night against the Colorado Avalanche.

“We’€™ve given the fourth line a lot of credit for being the type of line that they are and giving us the energy that we need ‘€“ but David Krejci’€™s line, whoever he played with,” said Julien. “[Blake] Wheeler and [Chuck] Kobasew that first game and even the last exhibition game…that line was dominant.”

Kobasew said he was “anxious” to get back on the ice and that he’d passed every hurdle in testing the full health of his right ankle. The additional practice he’s received this week has also allowed the the 6-foot, 193-pound mixture of skill and scrap to lock in his timing on the ice, and attempt to make a seamless transition back from the injured reserve list.

“I feel fine now and the last couple of days have been good,” said Kobasew. “They gave me a little extra time to practice with the guys and I’m feeling good. I’ve been skating for almost two weeks now. Now I’m just anxious to get out there and play.

“We’ll see what they want to do and go from there,” added Kobasew. “You want to play no matter what…even in the first couple of days after I got hurt. Now it’s nice to be out there skating with the guys and getting back into it. I’m looking forward to playing.”

It’s doubtful that Blake Wheeler — hot off the heels of a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs — will be removed from the top four lines, which would leave Petteri Nokelainen as the most logical player to be a healthy scratch if/when Kobasew makes his return Saturday night. It’s possible that a late injury could remove somebody else from the mix, but Julien said in some ways it’s a pleasant dilemma in making such difficult roster decisions.

“It’s a tough decision, but it’s a great position to be in,” said Julien. “I don’t like making those decisions because it’s not a lot of fun, but it’s a lot better than putting guys in that don’t necessarily deserve to be in the lineup. I’d rather be in this position than the other one.”

–Julien gave B’s center Patrice Bergeron the day off on Friday — an admission by the coach that his young center has been pushing hard since the first day of training camp in his recovery from last season’s nasty concussion. No injury or problems, just a simple day away from the frozen office.

–Good story by Puck Daddy at Yahoo! about success stories and failed attempts by athletes to change their uniform numbers a la Blake Wheeler last night.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Chuck Kobasew

Kessel, Wheeler presiding over military makeover

11.07.08 at 11:07 am ET
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On Friday, November 7 from 3:00-5:00 p.m. Boston Bruins forwards Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler are joining four US Servicemen for a ‘€œMilitary Makeover’€ at Barbershop Lounge on Newbury Street in Boston.  

Army Reserve Specialist Matthew Maguire ‘€“ one of the servicemen attending ‘€“ is getting married on Saturday, November 8 and the afternoon at Barbershop Lounge will help him prepare for his big day.  Joining Maguire, Kessel and Wheeler will be three fellow soldiers ‘€“ Private First Class Adam Stebbins, Senior Airman Douglas Freeman, and Sergeant Harold Cooper.

On Saturday, November 8 members of Maguire’s platoon will attend his wedding and then head to the TD Banknorth Garden for Military Appreciation Night where they, and over 1,000 members of local military
families, will be honored during the Bruins/ Sabres game at 7:00 p.m. at the TD Banknorth Garden.

The Bruins are hosting local military families through their ‘€œSeats for Soldiers’€ program: an initiative where fans purchase tickets that are donated to military members and their families.  Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward purchased $15,000 worth of tickets for the program this year, giving 300 servicemen and women and their families the opportunity to watch Saturday’€™s game.

Maguire, 28-years old from Boston, is set to deploy for Iraq in the coming weeks with the rest of his platoon.

Bruins fans can continue to donate to the Seats for Soldiers program by calling 617-624-1805, emailing smscott@bostonbruins.com or by going to BostonBruins.com. Fans can honor our local military families by donating tickets priced at $25.00 or $70.00. An additional donation will be made to the USO (United Service Organizations) for every $70 ticket donation.

The soldiers and their families will be honored throughout the game with photomontages on Garden HDX, Zamboni rides, and video messages, while a select few will have the chance to shake hands with the team as they leave the locker room during intermissions.

WHO: Boston Bruins Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler
          Specialist Matthew Maguire
          Private First Class, Adam Stebbins
          Senior Airman Douglas Freeman
          Sergeant Harold Cooper

WHAT: Receive treatments including haircut, shave and a shoeshine,
playing pool and watching television.

WHEN: Friday, November 7, from 3 p.m. ‘€“ 5 p.m.

WHERE: Barbershop Lounge, 245 Newbury Street
             Boston, MA 02116

Barbershop Lounge, Boston’€™s upscale men’s grooming lounge complete with plasma televisions and a pool table, is reminiscent of a private gentleman’s club catering exclusively to fine men’s grooming.

Sounds of the game… Bruins 5, Leafs 2

11.06.08 at 11:11 pm ET
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It might be time to start asking just who is Blake Wheeler.

He changed his uniform number before the game from 42 to 26. He scored his first career hat trick as the Bruins beat the Maple Leafs, 5-2, Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden.

Wheeler is now tied with Toronto’€™s Mikhail Grabovski for the NHL rookie goal lead with 6. ‘€¦ Dennis Wideman won $100 for scoring the goal on Andrew Ference‘€™s 100th career assist. Ference said before the game he would offer the reward to the lucky goal-scorer. Thursday marked Zdeno Chara‘€™s 700th career game.

Now for the stars of the game.

Blake Wheeler gives props to his line mates of Marco Sturm and David Krejci.

Wheeler on his number change.

Wheeler on bringing his A-game every night.

Tim Thomas said the 5-on-3 penalty kill in the third period was the key to the game since Boston led only, 3-1.

Andrew Ference collected his 100th career assist and explains why Thursday was such a big win.

Read More: Andrew Ference, Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Tim Thomas

Three Wheels equal a hat trick

11.06.08 at 9:24 pm ET
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The Bruins made it five wins in their last six games with a 5-2 win over the NHL’s version of the Red Sox — the Toronto Maple Leafs – last night at the TD Banknorth Garden.

The hats were once again cascading down onto the ice for the second time in three home games for the Bruins as 6-foot-4 rookie winger Blake Wheeler poured in three different types of scores [a tip-in, a nice one-on-one move to deke out the goalie in the slot and a good old-fashioned empty netter to ice things] for his first professional hat trick — including an empty net gift from blueliner Andrew Ference with 53 seconds left to go in the game.

It’s been a big week for Wheeler as Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli pulled the rookie aside on the plane home from Western Canada and told the strapping youngster a pair of pretty encouraging things: A) start looking for some permanent housing in Boston after setting up shop in a Boston hotel for the first six weeks of the season and B) the time had come for Wheeler to change sweaters from the number 42 he had been assigned in training camp to a more desired Black and Gold sweater with the number 26 on the back. Those were a couple of encouraging signs from Bruins management that the kid belongs in the Show, and the 22-year-old may just be in Boston for good.

“I always kind of knew all along that I wanted to change numbers, and I remember a lot of good guys at Minnesota wore #26 like Thomas Vanek when he played there. And [Phil Kessel] too, but that’s not why I switched it. It’s just always been a cool number,” said Wheeler, who said he briefly considered 27 and had been #17 for his entire life but wisely didn’t attempt to battle with the Looch for his jersey number. “I guess it’€™s whatever perspective you take on it. I think all along I’€™ve just wanted to be a part of this team and just a part of this locker room because they are so many great players in here and it’€™s such a great organization. I take a lot pride going into the room over there and adding two points to our team totals more than anything else. We’€™re working towards something a lot bigger than anyone’€™s personal stats and obviously it’€™s great to contribute but there are a lot of other ways to contribute other than just putting up points. I just try to come into every game and do what it takes to help the team win. If that means scoring, then that’€™s great, but there’€™s a lot of other ways to contribute.

“I think the guys really wanted to try and get me that third [goal], though,” added Wheeler.  “You get that feeling, we were out there for quite a bit of time and you could hear [Shawn] Thornton from the bench screaming ‘€˜stay out there.”

The big right winger now leads all NHL rookies with the six goals on the season and makes Chiarelli and Co. look extremely prescient for winning the battle to secure his free agent rights after he finished up his junior year with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Following that third college hockey season Wheeler came looking for a pro job, and nobody could have guessed he would have fit in this seamlessly. It also begs the question of what in the wide, wide world of sports the Phoenix Coyotes were thinking in letting the high first round draft pick skate away scot-free without signing him before the CBA-imposed deadline.

Perhaps that’s why the Bruins are becoming a player development machine for up-and-coming hockey players while competing in the competitive Northeast Division and the ole Phoenix Prarie Dogs are chilling in the basemen of the Pacific Divsion out west.

“Anything can happen. You could change your number and then stink it up for two weeks straight and get sent down [to Providence],” said Wheeler when asked if the uniform change meant he was a permanent member of the team this season. “It’s great to have that sense, but you can’t get too comfortable. There’s always somebody that could take your spot just as easily as you got it.”

After getting the word from the B’s to start looking for a permanent residence, Wheeler settled on a dwelling in the North End and is actually across the street from a unit shared by the Odd Couple of Milan Lucic and Mark Stuart, so he was looking forward to his first introduction to cannollis at Mike’s Pastry on Hanover Street.

“He’s the Real Deal and I’ve said that all along,” said Julien. “That’s why we kept him [after training camp].”

No word on whether Julien thinks that the chocolate chip cannollis from Mike’s are also the “Read Deal.”

–The Bruins “Peach Fuzz” power play, as inimitable NESN play-by-play guy Jack Edwards likes to call it, continues to rack up power play strikes and add to a growing competition between the two man advantage units. Bruins coach Claude Julien interchanged Milan Lucic and Wheeler on the second unit along with Dennis Wideman, Andrew Ference, David Krejci and Phil Kessel, and the PP squad piled up two more goals within the first eight minutes of the game. One with Looch screening in front of the net and another with Wheeler redirecting a Wideman feed.

The first was a Wideman bomb from the left point that was aided by Krejci and Lucic both criss-crossing in front of the net and screening Toronto netminder Vesa Toskala. The second was a Wheeler tip of another Wideman shot from the point. In all the Peach Fuzz Unit — a moniker given to the quintet because of the young ages of many of its talented members — has accounted for an impressive 8 of Boston’s 11 total power play strikes on the season.

“It’s great. I think our power play units are very different,” said Ference. “Obviously we have the young guys that are very active and it’s no secret that Savvy is the quarterback of the other one. Even within our own power play we have a couple of different looks that we’re comfortable with.

“Both units take a lot of pride being out on the ice,” added Ference. “We have young guys that are experiencing a huge increase in power play time as compared to last year. If you look at last year’s power play, the first unit would get the lions’ share of the time and this year it’s a lot more even. It’s a healthy competition for your own pride and the opportunity to stay out there.”

Ference credits Wideman’s offensive abilities at the point as being a key component to really making the second unit thrive — and it’s pretty self-evident during an evening when the gifted Widemanis right in the thick of both power play tallies.

“Dennis and I are comfortable on either side of the ice and we definitely keep the defense on their toes,” added Ference, who was also quick to add that Wideman is $100 richer after his first period goal resulted in the 100th assist of Ference’sNHL career. “It’s definitely nice to play with an offensive defenseman– not in the sense that he’s always up in the play but offensive in the sense that he sees lanes really well and he sees passing and shooting lanes extremely well. It’s hard to explain but it’s nice to be back there with him.”

–During five-on-five play, the line of Marco Sturm/David Krejci/Blake Wheeler acted as a dominant force all evening long, with Wheeler netting the three goal collection — an accomplishment that saw him entertain a horde of curious journalists postgame and also pose for a great scrapbook-style picture with team photog Steve Babineau. The photo featured a smiling Wheeler holding the three pucks from the game inside the Bruins’ dressing room — the kind of image that the player will hold on to for a lifetime. Both Sturm and Krejci likewise finished with a pair of assists each and a +1 rating for the night.

It would seem to the casual observer that just about anybody skating on a line with the puck magician known as the Great Krejci is watching their offensive game get elevated to another level this season. The kid from the Czech Republic is simply special with the puck on his stick and he’s perhaps the best slump buster for a scorer in need of an offensive transfusion.

“David Krejci’sline has been pretty good since Day One withwhoever he’s been with,” said Julien. “I think Marco Sturm found his game again playing on that line and Blake Wheeler has also had success on that line. Players have had success no matter who we put in there.” 

–There were some defensive breakdowns in the third period that accounted for both of Toronto’s scores, but Tim Thomas offered that the first two periods were some of the best and most cohesive defensive play of the season thus far. The Black and Gold were playing Julien’s box-and-one style to perfection and forcing the Maple Leafs into rifling all manner of perimeter shoots — a strategy that cleared a good deal of traffic away from the net and bestowed Thomas with a clean look at the puck as the shots sped toward the net.

“I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping them to the outside and limiting their scoring chances,” said Julien.

Add that to a big kill on a 5-on-3 two man advantage for the Leafs in the third period when it was still a 3-1 hockey game, and Thomas was very complimentary to his team defense after another All-Star worthy 34 save effort. 

“The number of quality scoring chances for at least the first two periods had to be less than five,” said Thomas. “By the end of the second period we had played two of the most solid periods of defense that we’ve played all year. Five-on-five Toronto was like a -2 and I think we were like a +10, so if we could keep the game five-on-five then on paper we felt like we had the advantage.”

Looking for a few good votes

11.06.08 at 12:31 pm ET
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The Official Bruins fan write-in campaign to send Tim Thomas to the NHL All-Star game has quickly kicked over at hubhockey.com — where they’ve taken a rather Patriotic view of Thomas’ run to make the All-Star festivities in Montreal during late January.

Big props to the Bruins blog site HubHockey.com for creating a little PhotoShop magic when they combined a poster of Good Old Reliable Uncle Sam with the B’s netminder. The actual voting doesn’t begin until Nov. 12 — and yes, there is a write-in campaign component for wronged puck players like Thomas — and fans can go to www.Vote.NHL.com to let their voices be heard.

No word on whether Tim the Goalie Man is going to start growing a white billy goat/Billy Koch beard to match with the poster. 

–Dallas coach Dave Tippett “addressed some things”with Sean Avery and Steve Ott in light of turning last Saturday night’s game against the Bruins at the TD Banknorth Garden into their own personal Romper Room. The Mike Modano comments about his team being “idiotic and stupid” are being downplayed by the coach, but for a team that I picked to win the Stanley Cup this year the Stars are making me look really, really bad.

–The Joy of playing in New York. If you’re a fan of the NHL then the Puck Daddy blog  at yahoo.com should be required reading – in addition to something I like to call Pucks with Haggs. The Daddy goes on a New York Rangers/media rant that sounds more than a little like something that could just as easily be scrawled on these pages as well. Here’s a good one that’s just as relevant in Boston as it is in the Big Apple: “2. When combined with the amplifier of sports talk radio, they can literally run an athlete or coach out of town if they all get behind the campaign. Or, at the very least, make even the most dedicated athlete look like a greedy bum. ”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

–Even-strength scoring is up 6 percent from what it was last season and a whopping 22 percent from the the final 2003-2004 season of hockey prior to the NHL lockout. Interesting story in USA Today about how the European influence — among other things — has opened up the game along with the change in rules following the lockout.

“I think puck movement…is at an all-time high,” said Anaheim GM Brian Burke in the story. “I think the European influence has really made a difference.”

Scoring is up, fighting is up…looks like the pieces are in place for the NHL to make a real comeback, doesn’t it?

Hockey Notes: Home is where the ‘B’ is

11.06.08 at 4:27 am ET
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It might seem strange to say after only 12 games of the season have passed, but the worst of the NHL season just might be over for the Boston Bruins.

The B’s have already treked out West (Colorado, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton) twice in the first dozen hockey games, and they won’t be heading any farther west than Chicago again this season. Amazingly, the Black and Gold will travel just one time zone over only four times (Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago) over the course of their remaining 70 games — and the Chicago tilt will be marked off their list after the next road trip.

Much of the remaining schedule consists of hockey games all along the Atlantic Coast complete with abbreviated plane rides and much less wear and tear on a group of hockey bodies that could use some R and R after being in a constant state of flux throughout the first six weeks of the hockey season.

“I think the key there is crossing the time zones, and that’s the most challenging part for teams is to have to adjust that and I think we’ve gone through the worst part of it,” said Bruins Claude Julien. “Now it becomes a matter of working withthe rest of the schedule and stretching our bench out to deal with the consecutive games that we have.

“We’ve been better this year in back-to-back games in a short time period and I think we’ve handled them better,” added Julien. “The schedule gets bombarded with some consecutive games, and stretching out your bench and having guys that are able to do that is going to help out in the long run.”

The Bruins have 9 of 13 games on their home ice at the TD BanknorthGarden during the monthof November, and seven of those baker’s dozen worth of hockey games will be against Northeast Divsion opponents that could go a long way toward cementing Boston’s playoff pole position in the Eastern Conference.

The biggest scheduling challenge still facing Boston: a series of 13 back-to-back games that Julien referenced and will test both the depth and resiliency of a hockey club hungry to move up the ladder in the Eastern Conference. So, what did the travel-heavy portion of the schedule right out of the gate signify to the players, and what does it mean to be at home now?

“The first thing I thought when I saw our schedule back in July is that somebody in the National Hockey League doesn’t like us,” joked Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward. “Seriously, you can take it two different ways: you can think that it’s going to be a challenge and build it up to be something that it’s not going to be, or you can take it as an opportunity to really come together and find out what your identity is going to be.

“You get plenty of opportunities on the road to be together,” added Ward. “It was good for us. Now we have to change our mentality and find our home presence. Saturday night’s game [against the Stars] was a good catalyst for that. I wouldn’t say that we’re playing at our maximum ability, and we have room to grow both systematically and individually. That’s a good thing.”

The Hockey Code

Interesting story in Forbes Magazine on fighting in the NHL with the Bruins’ own Shawn Thornton ranking as the third best valuefor the money in the Hockey Fight Club. Many players and keen hockey observers rightly gave a lot of credit to Thornton following the Stars/Bruins slugfest the other night, as the tough-as-nails, scrap-iron Thornton gives the rest of his teammates a certain degree more toughness and fearlessness merely by his presence in the lineup. That element was missing last season when Thornton went down for a time with a broken foot, and it’s been noticeable throughout this season.

Thornton has been part of a fourth line (along with Petteri Nokelainen and Stephane Yelle) that’s given the B’s a great deal of jump and grit through the season’s first 12 games, and the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder has surprised with his ability to sprinkle opportunistic offense in with his fist-first tendencies.

It was interesting to hear Thornton’s thoughts when asked, in light of the Sean Avery/Steve Ott three-ring circus last weekend, if the “Hockey Code” still exists. Here’s what Thornton had to say:

“It depends…not everybody is playing like that I suppose, but it definitely has been going the way [of martial law on the ice],” said Thornton. “I’m a big believer in policing the game ourselves and I’ve been doing it a long time. We always policed things out on the ice in the minors and it worked out well.”

What in particular gets the blood boiling for a guy doing the “enforcer” job in this day of age of the NHL?

“I think I have a little different belief with the head checks than the other guys,” said Thornton. “Some of the ones that have happened recently, if a guy is open then you finish him off. If I’m in that situation and somebody gets a chance to finish me then I’m expecting them to. Now if the elbow lifts up and goes into the head that’s a different story, but if it’s body–on-body? That’s a clean hit.

“The hits from behind, the knees, the elbows…I don’t think there’s any place for that in the game and I think it’s up to the players to take it upon themselves to not do it,” added Thornton. “I’m all for playing hard and I respect guys that play hard, but guys that try to take liberties on other people…well then they should be ready for one of us to come police it ourselves.”

The ghost of Glen Murray

It was clear watching Glen Murray last season that age and foot injuries had conspired to wipe away the winger’s ability to keep up in today’s NHL, and he simply wasn’t able to get himself into the spots needed to release his still-booming shot. Not surprisingly, Murray didn’t find anyone interested in his services once the Bruins cleared him off the decks this summer, and now “Muzz” is reportedly looking to recover the full amount from the Black and Gold’s buyout package.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli knew of one single letter  filed by Murray’s representation claiming that his client had a pre-existing ankle injury at the time of Boston’s buyout — a no-no according to the CBA rules for buyouts of NHL contracts –and that the forward was having surgery on the ankle this year.

Murray was set to make $4.1 million this season, and the B’s shaved $1.38 million off that figure by executing a buyout before the season started. The Bruins currently still have Murray’s $1.38 million cap hit on their salary cap for the next two seasons, however, and Chiarelli said it was unclear what the cap ramifications would be if Murray’s appeal was upheld.

Unsung Hockey Heroes

Great column by Michael Farber on SI.com about the “Stealth MVPs” in the NHL thus far this season, and Melrose’s own TIm Burke, the Director of Scouting for the San Jose Sharks, notched the No. 2 spot behind Blackhawks forward Tim Burke.

No Bruins were mentioned in the story, so my own suggestion for B’s Stealth MVP: Andrew Ference. He’s been a tone-setter with physical play when it’s been needed and he leads all defensemen in assists (five) and +/- (7) while logging the third most ice-time (22:30) on the team this season. 

Here’s what Farber had to say about the hard-working and talented Burke, who has been a huge part of the never-ending supply of young puck talent that courses through the Sharks organization and deserved any acclaim that comes his way:

Burke is every bit as perspicacious as the more celebrated David Conte, who pulls rabbits out of the hat for the New Jersey Devils. Burke continually unearths talent whether the Sharks are drafting high – Patrick Marleau, No. 2 in 1997 –or low — goalie Evgeni Nabokov, 219th in 1994. (Burke was in Russia to scout another player, saw an ad for the goalie, and drafted Nabokov in the ninth round, sight unseen.)

In 2001, the Sharks actually ran the table: all six players they drafted – Marcel Goc, Christian Ehrhoff,Dimitri Patzold, Tomas Plihal, Ryane Clowe and Tom Cavanagh – have played in the NHL. In 2005, general manager Doug Wilson raised some eyebrows when he traded up from the 12th pick to the 8th in order to draft Devin Setoguchi, a Burke recommendation who has blossomed into a top-line winger with Marleau and Joe Thornton this season. If you were going to start a franchise, Burke would be among the first people you would hire.

 

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