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Wheeler putting the “blinders” on

From the time young athletes take their first learning steps in the world of the team sports, the mantra to be “unselfish” with the puck or ball is impressed straight into their impressionable minds. Everybody loves to play with a guy that passes the puck, or so we’ve been told umpteen times by the skilled guys lighting the lamps all over North American on a regular basis.

That preaching of unselfish play and keeping everybody involved is the ideal that all aspiring athletes should strive for, but in world of professional hockey a little “me generation” selfishness might not be such a bad thing. Big-wheeling winger Blake Wheeler [1] is having a tremendous rookie NHL [2] season and ranks among the fresh-faced best in the NHL [3] among a handful of scoring categories, but there’s still oodles of room for the 6-foot-4 forward to improve going forward.

One area that Bruins management and coaches clearly see as an easy one for Wheeler to correct: be a little more selfish when the moment calls for it. That’s right…you heard correctly. Wheeler has freely passed the puck around in a dizzying two-man game with center David Krejci [4] throughout the entire first 19 games of the season, and ranks 11th on the team in shots attempted despite ranking third on the team with his six goals scored (behind only Phil Kessel [5] and Marc Savard [6]).

To put in perspective, Wheeler (with 25 shots attempted in 19 games) has been outshot by rough-housing fourth liner Shawn Thornton [7] (30 shots in 19 games) during the first quarter of the hockey season, and is averaging little more than a single shot per hockey game. That’s a number he can certainly improve on, and it’s something both player and coaching staff have already taken note of.

“He’€™s got a lot of skill and he certainly is going to improve as time goes on. He’€™s somebody that personally I’€™d love to see shoot a little more at times,” admitted Bruins Vice-President Cam Neely [8] during a conversation with WEEI’s ‘The Big Show’ this week. “At times I see him looking for the pass and he’€™s not a very selfish player, but at times you have to be a selfish player in this game.”

There it is. Some good old-fashioned necessary selfishness in the game of pro hockey, though it’s hardly a self-centered puck philosophy when a team wants a skilled scorer like Wheeler to pull the trigger a little more often. The 22-year-old is scoring a whopping 24 percent of the time that he shoots, and that should mean more goals for a team that’s already third in the NHL in goals scored this season.

Wheeler, who is tied with Dallas Stars’ rookie Fabian Brunnstrom for fourth among NHL rookies with six goals on the season, is acutely aware of looking for his own shot a bit more often — particularly when he’s in around the net with his big and still-developing frame — and is actively developing a little more of a shoot-first instinct when he’s carrying the puck around the net.

“It’s always been my nature that I’ve always loved helping my linemates score and seeing them get on the score sheet,” said Wheeler. “It’s one of those things where maybe I shouldn’t be looking around so much around the net and instead I should just put the blinders on. There’s a few times probably in every single game where I have a good shot at the net, and if I can put it on net then we can have guys come crashing in afterward.

“It’s another part of the game that I can improve on,” said Wheeler. “It’s never been really pushed on me to play [unselfishly], but I’m trying to see the ice really well and I’m always looking for my linemates to help build chemistry. That’s when the game is the most fun. When you have a lot of chemistry and you’re moving the puck around. I think when I get into trouble is when I use my peripheral vision too much and I’ll see a guy open and try to force it to him. There are times when a shot is definitely the better play.”

Notes and One Timers

Marco Sturm [9] is expected to miss his second straight game with an “upper body injury”, and has been termed a day-to-day injury situation by Bruins head coach Claude Julien [10]. The Bruins will face-off against the Florida Panthers [11] at the TD Banknorth Garden [12] (7 PM) in a rare Friday night game. It’s the first Friday night game in Boston for the B’s in over 30 years, dating back to a Dec. 23, 1977 game against the Philadelphia Flyers [13].

Goaltender Tim Thomas [14] is expected to get the start for the Black and Gold. Thomas was on the Planet Mikey show last night, and you can hear that interview here [15]. Among other things, he discussed literally standing on his head and making saves against teammates at practice during his minor league days. Why am I not shocked by this?

Zdeno Chara [16], P.J. Axelsson, Michael Ryder [17] and Marc Savard all sat out Friday’s morning skate, but all are expected to be ready to go when the puck drops against the Florida Panthers.