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Hockey Notes: Home is where the ‘B’ is

11.06.08 at 4:27 am ET

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 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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