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Three Wheels equal a hat trick

11.06.08 at 9:24 pm ET

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.”

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