Archive for November, 2008

Ference not making trip to New York, Toronto

Friday, November 14th, 2008

He’s been arguably their best defenseman on the ice for their first 16 games, and now the Bruins might have to survive without the services of Andrew Ference for a bit after he took an Andre Markov screaming shot off his foot in the closing moments of Thursday night’s second period.

According to Bruins coach Claude Juien, Ference was being examined while the Bruins held a loose practice on the ice of Ristuccia Arena Friday morning and he wouldn’t be making the next road trip through New York (Saturday night game) and Toronto (Monday night game). Young blueliner Matt Hunwick will again be called upon to step into the Bruins’ breach for the felled Ference, and the Bruins’ coach is still hopeful that the Ference injury isn’t a serious one.

“Guys, he’s not going to make the trip, and the minute we have something on his case we’ll let you know,” said Julien. “For sure he’s not making the trip, so [the doctors] are checking him out. Obviously he got the shot off the foot, and he’s in no condition right now to make this trip. Hopefully today or tomorrow we’ll let you guys know.

“Everybody knows he’s been one of our most consistent defenseman all year long,” added Julien. “When we lost Chucky early in the season that was a big loss too, and we survived it and I think we have to survive without the loss of Andrew this weekend. I think Hunwick has been getting better every game and it’s an opportunity for him to step up and do the job.”

Hunwick (a +1 without a point in four games played) has appeared much more comfortable in his second stint with the Bruins this season than he did as a wide-eyed rookie last year, and in many ways his stature and skill set — a puck-moving defenseman with good offensive instincts and an ability to kick start the Bruins attack – could allow him to really step up and flourish in Ference’s absence, whether it’s a short two game injury or a prolonged problem.

“It’s definitely an opportunity to go out and play well, and help the team continue on the path that they’ve been on,” said Hunwick. “If I do play it’s a chance to step in and be a positive player. [Ference] has been a really good player for us, so it’s a big loss for us. He’s on the power play and he kills penalties and plays a lot of minutes, so there will definitely be a void that I want to help fill.”

Let’s not forget, though, that the 29-year-old Ference is a team-best +9, has racked up seven assists and has been a key part of the “Peach Fuzz” second power play unit during Boston’s run to first place in the Northeast Division. This should be a major test for a team that’s climbed all the way to the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference behind the New York Rangers team they’ll face Saturday night at MSG.

–It was a pretty relaxed optional skate for the Bruins this morning after the brain-beating the team put on the Habs last night – with only Tim Thomas, Petteri Nokelainen, Shawn Thornton, Mark Stuart, Hunwick, Blake Wheeler, Manny Fernandez on the ice firing shots in the offensive zone with assistant coach Doug Houda.

Crushing the Canadiens

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Bruins goaltender Manny Fernandez perhaps put it best after getting the start and earning the best seat in the house to watch his team trounce a shellshocked Canadiens outfit by a commanding 6-1 score last night. The Habs have owned the Black and Gold’s number over the last few years — and in particular last season when they demoralized the B’s by taking all eight regular season games from a plucky Bruins club.

Thursday’s Hab-stomping was the most lopsided win for the Bruins over their Montreal rivals since they dropped a 5-0 butt-kicking on the Habs on Dec. 20, 2001 — a time when guys like Bill Guerin, Rob Zamuner and Marty LaPointe still roamed the Boston ice wearing the Spoked B on their sweater. The white-hot B’s have also won an impressive five games in a row. 

“It seems like it’s a different page this year,” said Manny Fernandez, a riff on the “Turn the Page” philosophy that another pro athlete named Manny used to employ in the Hub. “From just watching last year in the playoffs we broke the ice there just a little bit. We showed each other we could actually win against that team. Today was huge for us. Any time you can back them off a little and make them think about…that’s big.”

“The next time we play them we’re going to show up twice as hard as we played tonight, but still a win [is huge] against that team knowing the history — especially last year when it was tough,” added Fernandez, who made 27 saves on the night, but was at his best early in the contest when tested on a two-shot rush by Robert Lang.

Bruins coach Claude Julien said he opted for Fernandez to give his potentially fatigued team — after they arrived back in Boston a few minutes before 3 AM Thursday morning — any edge they could possibly find against a rested Montreal Canadiens group. After the game, the B’s coach beamed at the prospect of having two goalies playing as well as both Fernandez and Tim Thomas both are between the pipes.

“We had an opportunity to put in a fresh goaltender tonight in case we got in the situation that we had some tired guys.  We had to give ourselves an edge somewhere.  We’€™re so lucky to have two goaltenders right now that are at the top of their game,” said Julien. “Right now it’€™s important for me to try and handle it in a way where both of them maintain that standard of goaltending. 

“They both deserve to play, but we all know goaltenders like to play as much as they can, and right now they’€™re both responding.  Not only that, I think they’€™re both very supportive of each other, and that’€™s something that’€™s important.”

The Last Shall Become First

The fourth line of Stephane Yelle, Shawn Thornton and Petteri Nokelainen had been lauded from here to Moncton over the first six weeks of the season for the energy and sandpaper-style they brought to the B’s fold, but the addition of a healthy Chuck Kobasew — and the subtraction of the hard-working Nokelainen – has admittedly brought some added offensive punch to the trio.

During Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over Chicago the “energy line” was kept off the ice for long stretches of a penalty-filled game and Kobasew (9:34), Yelle (13:43 largely due to his duties on the PK unit) and Shawn Thornton (3:32) all played short minutes. In a strange way the idle moments at the United Center might have helped the trio find their legs quickly last night against the hated Habs,and given them some jump that started up the B’s attack.

The fourth line grinders popped in the first two goals of the game and set the Black and Gold off and running in what became a Boston hockey celebration with 16,816 invites to the TD Banknorth Garden. The first was a great hustle play by the usually rough-and-tumble Thornton as he busted right through Mike Komisarek and Mathieu Dandenault, stole the puck from the half-hearted Canadiens duo and then rifled a five-hole backhand bid through the pads of Montreal wunderkind goalie Carey Price.

Yelle followed with a pure hustle goal and popped in a loose puck rebound in front of Price’s net with three minutes to go in the period, and all of a sudden a snake-bitten line was lugging both energy and points to the table. The fourth line outburst is all the more impressive as it — on most nights — gives Claude Julien and Co. four different lines that can strike offensively and clearly raises the team’s overall offensive potential this season. The Law Firm of Thornton, Yelle and Kobasew collected a whopping seven total points on the night.

“Did you see [Yelle] look me off on that 2-on-1…he’s lucky he scored right there I tell ya,” said a tongue in cheek Thornton after the game. “He’s looking awfully dangerous out there, and we’re getting along really well on and off the ice. Chucky too. He’s easy to play with because he’s always in the right spot and half the I don’t have to look because I just know he’s going to be there. He’s been a treat, and Chucky has been on the second line on just about every team that he’s played. He works so hard and he’s such a skilled guy. I think it’s been a while coming for us, and we’ve been working, working, and working and it finally paid off for us.” 

Hey I’m just a simple Irish guy living in the city of Boston,” said Thornton, who is in possession of more offensive skill than traditionally given credit for given his usual role as Bruins’ enforcer. “I think the fact that all 20 guys are going hard and we didn’t have any passengers tonight — and we haven’t had any in a while — and that’s the way we have to be successful.”

The Looch finds his first victim

Bruins left wing Milan Lucic was again an emotional and physical catalyst for the Bruins, and gave everyone another Neely-esque taste of the tone-setting, skilled hockey player he continues to develop into. Looch may not be Cam redux, but he’s as close as the Bruins Nation could possibly hope for in the sanitized era of the NHL.

 Canadiens captain Saku Koivu finally put the Habs on the scoreboard with 6:26 to go in the second period and took back a bit of momentum, but the Looch seized it right back in the third.

During a 5-on-5 faceoff in the Canadiens zone, Phil Kessel popped a faceoff draw directly onto the stick of charging Lucic gone mad, and the brawling 20-year-old drilled a wrist shot past an unsuspecting Price to make it a 5-1 hockey game. The score marked his fifth goal of the season, and later in the period — with the game well in hand — Lucic finally dropped the gloves with longtime nemesis Mike Komisarek. It had been a long time coming for both combatants as they’ve doled out plenty of face-washes and tough talk to each other in the recent past, but the two had never actually engaged in “The Dance.”

Komisarek is probably still wishing that he hadn’t.

The Looch went Berserker-style on the Habs defenseman and hit him with a series of vicious rights before one final roundhouse punch dropped Komisarek to the ground, and a victorious Lucic raised his hand and started excitedly screaming to anyone and everyone in attendance. He then stopped and smacked on the boards by the penalty box before entering the sin bin, and then left midway through to get a bevy of cuts on his right knuckles treated before returning to the game.

“We could have made excuses coming into tonight’s game after coming in late last night, but we felt like we had a good jump to our step,” said Lucic. “We knew the importance of tonight’s game. It felt like before the game we were more calm and cool and we weren’t overexcited like we’ve been sometimes in the past.”

And as far as his first bout of the 2008-09 season?

“We’ve had our battles in the past, and it was just a matter of time before something like that happened,” added Lucic. “First off the fans have been great for the first part of the season, and they’ve really helped us be a tougher team to play against in the Garden. [The fans] appreciating that physical play is just guys from the past that created that identity of the Bruins. It’s lucky for me that I just fit into that.”

Stops and Starts

Defenseman Andrew Ference has arguably been Boston’s best blueliner this season for the first 15 games, but he went down at the end of the second period when he took an Andre Markov shot off the foot. Ference gamely stayed on the ice to help kill of a Canadiens power play after dragging himself from the ice in obvious pain, but he didn’t return for the third period.

Bruins coach Claude Julien was tight-lipped about Ference’s status following the game.

“He’€™s fine.  He’€™s being evaluated,” said Julien.  Honestly, we’€™ll probably have a little more on his situation tomorrow.  Nothing’€™s clear right now and hopefully it’€™s just something minor.”

Lucic had a priceless response after he informed reporters that he’d had a negative X-ray on his right hand to make sure it wasn’t broken after he used Mike Komisarek as a punching bag.

 “There’s so many broken bones in there from before that you can’t really tell,” said Lucic of his oft-battered right hand.

A few minutes with…Mike Komisarek

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Mike Komisarek is one of those guys that you worship for his hard hitting and “on the edge” play if he’s wearing your home team’s sweater, and you absolutely detest if he’s skating for the hated rivals. The 26-year-old Canadiens defenseman has been one of the main attraction pugilists during the most recent editions of “Puck Wars” between the Bruins and Habs, and he’s looking forward to another knock-down, drag-out battle between Northeast Division foes tonight.

–Speaking of the Northeast Division, Yahoo!’s top hockey dog, Puck Daddy, wonders this morning if the B’s division is shaping up to be the best in the NHL this season. I’d have to wholeheartedly agree.

–In other link news, hubhockey.com has created an excellent Facebook Page dedicated to an NHL All-Star write in campaign for Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas now that All-Star fan voting has begun. You can vote for Thomas here. The B’s netminder has had a strong showing thus far in the voting and currently ranks third, but is lagging way, way behind Habs goalie Carey Price. It seems that the Canadiens fans have cornered the market on cyber-ballot stuffing. The current vote would have Canadiens’ players at each of the six starting positions in the Eastern Conference All-Star starting lineup. I’m going to love watching how the NHL is planning on handling this one.

–A handful of Bruins players skated this morning in a brief workout including Shane Hnidy, Petteri Nokelainen, Stephane Yelle and Matt Hunwick.

Anyway, here’s a few minutes with Komisarek this morning, who looks like he’s already anticipating another round in his ongoing skirmish with Milan Lucic:

How do you feel like the team has been playing as of late? MK: The biggest thing is that the expectations have been so high. We haven’t accomplished or won anything yet. We’ve gotten off to a great start, but nothing has been accomplished yet, and I think we get ourselves in trouble when we rely strictly on our talent, speed and skill up front. What’s given us success, especially last year, was playing well without the puck and taking pride in our defense.

With the coach that we’ve had, that’s what he’s always stressed to us and our team identity has always been to play solid defensively. I think we got away from that a little bit in Toronto and started playing some run and gun hockey back and forth, and we’re not going to win many games like that.

What have been the year-to-year changes in Carey Price’s game? MK: Pricey is sort of in better shape and he’s gotten into better habits. His work ethic is unbelievable and he’s always working out and doing cardio now. He’s eating better now and he looks good and seems to have more energy back there, and he looks a little bit quicker.  Everyone saw last year what he can do with his talent and God-given ability, but he took it upon himself this summer to come into camp in the best shape possible and sort of maximize his potential. He wants to be the best and you can see that hunger and drive when he comes to the rink.

There’s a little more firepower with Tanguay and a little more punch with Laraque this season. How have those guys added and adjusted to the team identity? MK: I think those guys have fit in really well. They’re great guys. We’ve always had good chemistry and you try not to tweak too much. Those guys have come in and fit right in. Big George is that mean, tough, big physical guy on the ice, but off the ice you couldn’t have found a better teammate. The same with Langer and Tanguay.

There’s a lot of busting each others’ chops and getting on everybody’s case. I can’t think of one particular story, but those guys have fit in very well.

Is there any change to strategy when you’re playing a team like Boston that’s coming into their second game in back-to-back nights? MK: Not really. We know they got in late last night, but they’re playing really well and we got a chance to watch some of the [Blackhawks] game. It seems like they’re rolling three lines and it seems like they have a balanced attack and they have some guys that are really playing with confidence.

So I guess any time you play a team that’s on a back-to-back you want to jump on them early and stay on them and not back off. We should be the fresher team.

Has it surprised you at all how well the Bruins have started off after really gelling against your team in the playoffs last year? MK: They’re a talented team and I think with [Patrice] Bergeron back he’s really the heart and soul guy on their team. He’s helped them out tremendously. These are divisional games and there’s a lot of history going back with [the Bruins], especially over the last few years with the playoffs. These matchups are always very physical and you can almost see the hatred on the ice watching these games. 

Are you guys better this year? MK: I think we’ve made some adjustments this year with George, Alex and Lang. Those guys, we have three or four solid lines that can put the puck in the net and are a solid threat every time they step on the ice. I think on paper we’re definitely better, but it’s up to us to come together and peak at the right time.

Physical games and feeling hatred on the ice…are those your kind of games? MK: You’ve got to love it. Sometimes there are games during the year where teams aren’t very physical and they really back off. Then there’s other games when teams initiate [contact]. Being a big guy and a physical player, you’ve got to love those games.

Ward’s interview with Dale and Holley

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Hey, all you hockey pucks as my old middle school math teacher [and Hall of Fame High School hockey coach] Mr. Burns used to call us…Here’s the full transcript from the Aaron Ward interview during this afternoon’s Dale and Holley Program on WEEI. As usual, Ward seems to be polishing up his oratory skills for a long and lucrative post-career run in hockey broadcasting that seems to be his destiny once the 34-year-old hangs ‘em up.

I think there’s one line in the conversation that was classic “Aaron Ward” and it’s something that he managed to slip right in there without the need for anybody to stop and take notice. Just a really quick dry delivery of a throw-away line that used Claude Julien’s follicles as the unwitting foil for Ward’s rapier wit.

See if you can find it in among the Q and A, and then wonder if Julien plans on recreating the Herb Brooks scene from Miracle with the mischevous Ward during the next B’s practice. Here’s one of my favorite scenes in a sports movie followed by the Ward interview:

 

I was going to thank you anyway, but we got an email that said: “Guys, from a military family please thank Aaron Ward for his donation to veterans during Saturday night’s game. I went with my veteran brother and it was a special night. The Bruins and Aaron Ward did a great job.” You put your money where your mouth is and a lot of people appreciate it. AW: Oh, thank you very much. I make the US my home in the summers and just through my experiences with my wife – and I said it in the papers the other day – I think the most underpaid and underappreciated jobs in this world are the teachers and the military. Any time I can help I am glad to do it.

Where did you get the idea to do it? If there’s a story behind the story please tell us what it is. AW: Well, it’s a two-pronged story. Over the summer I thought about doing something like this, especially after signing the contract. I think you waste an opportunity as an athlete if you don’t have some kind of effect on the community. I think that was one of the things that was instilled in us at the University of Michigan and when I signed my contract I contacted [Bruins Media Relations Director] Matt Chmura about wanting to do something. 

Whether it was a a suite and we bring in an active duty military family for each game or recognizing them because it’s for their family as well. When we go on the road for six days my kids are miserable, so I can’t even imagine being deployed for a whole year. And the effect it has on your family and the struggle it puts your family in. I was in Vancouver on the last road trip and I had seen a CNN piece on the deployment of an infantry unit from Taunton, Mass. There was a little boy during the drills when they stand up – and they’re obviously getting ready to go — and a little boy held onto his dad’s leg for an hour straight and they just kind of let it happen even though it was outside of normal military standards.

So I called Matt right after that and said that we’ve got to do something, and ironically enough he said it was military night [last] Saturday. It’s only money. That’s the funny thing you come away with at the end of it is that it’s only money. But it obviously had an effect and gave some people an opportunity to put their interests and their problems aside and give them a good hockey game.

This team is a point behind first place. What have the keys to your success been so far? AW:I think unity. We got off on a road trip in Colorado and played all right in Colorado and not great in Minnesota. Even though we’re a pretty young team I think we figured out early that we had to right the ship. And we played pretty cohesive. It’s one of the things you figure out right now is that when things are going well — and you start to be analytical about the state of your team – one of the things that’s occurred is that winning has just happened. 

It’s just one of those things where you go into games where you’re thinking about what they’re going to do or you’re hoping for two points. You go in, you play the game and inevitably the results end up working out in your favor. That’s the kind of state that we’re in right now. We’re a good team. We know we’re very good. It’s not going to be perfect every night, but the fact that you overcome some of the hiccups and maintain some consistency…then things start working out in your favor.

In talking about the Bruins before the season started, I thought one of the big things is that there wouldn’t be a lot of talk about learning the system or figuring each other out. You went through it last year. Has that been a bonus this year? AW:Yeah, I think we only had a couple of guys that we had to assimilate into the system this year. Stephane Yelle, who is obviously a veteran player and a smart player that can pick it up. But it becomes second nature and when you’re all playing on the same page it’s very obvious.

You talked a little bit about the rebirth of Chicago. We watched some video and it seems like the same thing is happening with them where they’re all on the same page whether it’s line one or line four. They’re all contributing and all playing the same system. It’s easy to plug guys in and pull guys out. I’m sure it causes coaches to lose their hair when they have to keep reminding and going back to fix things. Maybe that might explain Claude’s hairline right now [because of] his past teams, but hopefully we can help him right now.

One of the things that has stuck out to me has been that the defense has been more involved this season. Is that just circumstance or has Claude loosened the reigns a little bit with the defenseman? AW:I don’t think he’s loosened the reigns, but he’s basically mandated that the defenseman have to get up in the play. So it’s a two-pronged philosophy there. You’re going to add to the offense or you’re going to cut down on the gaps between their forwards which is going to make it more of a pressure situation where you don’t give those players all that time and all room to maneuver and be creative. When you take time away from good players then it adds time for you affect the overall game.

You talked about jumping in offensively, but one of the things that I think has happened is that we’ve maintained our patience defensively and it opens up opportunities. You see [Dennis] Wideman going out and getting on the scoreboard, and we’re getting more contributions from out defenseman because we’re taking care of our responsibilities and everything is just flowing.

I know pro hockey players don’t like to talk about moral victories, but what did the loss to Montreal in the playoffs do for your team — if anything? AW:I think it quickly matured our team. You can’t discount the fact that we even had some veteran guys that have never gone through the playoffs. When you go through a pressure situation — especially if you through a series that’s gone seven games — you realize you can get a perspective on things where during the regular season there really isn’t all that much in terms of pressure.

You go out and play the games because you have the skill and you’re there for a reason, but you don’t think so much about the game and you don’t put too much into it. To get a guy like Looch, Kessel and Krejci and you get a chance to see what it’s like to be in the NHL playoffs…I think it’s priceless. So I think we’ve added that into our game where we can find a level of emotion or excitement and it’s self generated. We don’t feel as though we have to go around the rink and look in the stands, but hopefully derive some sort of motivation from that.

The NHL has become such a special teams league — maybe too much of a special teams league in my opinion — and the power play has been pretty good, but the penalty kill has been nowhere near good enough. What has to change there? AW: Well actually if you look at the stats — and unfortunately we can’t do this and it’s not available to us — but if we could forget the first two to three weeks of our penalty kill and you could just look at what we’re doing now, there’s been a philosophical change in our penalty kill.

We had played so tight on the penalty kill, and it was positionally sound but it just wasn’t working for us. So we made a philosophical change that the moment there’s a hiccup, or a turnover or a bobbling of the puck and one guy goes, then the other three guys go. So we are now providing more pressure and I think you can see our penalty kill starting to climb. I’d like to say that it’s obviously not good enough because I think the last time I looked we were 26th in the league, but we had been 30th. So you’ve got to look at the progress and hope the philosophical change has righted the ship at this point.

With the new rules in hockey you heard a lot about the rules making it hard to compete for defenseman, but you never hear about it anymore. Is it that the defenseman are tired of talking about it, or it that you’ve just adjusted to it? AW:I think it’s both. We’ve both evolved and adapted and it’s a war of attrition where those that haven’t kept up have fallen by the wayside. The defenseman we’re talking about were not really mobile and were usually filling the role of a tough guy position, and now it’s opened up to a skill position.

There is still that element of fear where as a defensman you could have a guy like Looch on your back and you saw it against Buffalo in the last game where [Tony] Lydman — rather than dealing with maybe a separated shoulder or a concussion from a hit he was going to throw — he just opted to go to the front of the net. Now I wouldn’t advise that for a defenseman from a morale standpoint on your team, but you see that players are adapting and figuring it out. And rule changes have also helped. On the touch icing there’s a penalty now if you’re going in without responsibility and trying to kill a defenseman because you know he’s going to be vulnerable going for the puck.

The game has evolved and the players have evolved and adapted sufficiently to make the game a better game.

You alluded earlier to fan support and what it means. When the stands are full at the Garden and the place is jumping, what does it mean for you guys? AW: You go back to the word priceless. We used to joke in the first two years when I got here that the fans dressed up as stadium seats because there were so many empties. But when you walk out for the first period and the National Anthem and you see it full, it’s an intimidating force. I know as an opponent when I go into other buildings — and I’ll use the example of Montreal — they’re irate. The fans are crazy and they get into the game and get behind their team 100 percent and it just provides an added boost.

In Boston as an athlete — and you want to talk about egos — it’s not that you want to matter as an athlete but you want your team matter. You want your team to matter to the city. It’s a big boost to know that when you get there that people are talking about you, people are there to support you and people are behind you 100 percent.

Versteeg is the one that got away

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Sometimes the deals that stand out like a blinking neon marquee in the minds of NHL executives across the NHL landscape are the ones that simply got away from them. A potentially successful deal that was passed over due to prohibitive cost or concerns about how much an older player still has in his career tank, or frittering away a young asset on the verge of development into a bone fide NHL maker of plays.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has stayed the course with the vast majority of young players that are now flourishing within a rising Boston Bruins organization, but Chicago Blackhawks right wing Kris Versteeg easily qualifies as “the one that got away” for a B’s GM that’s been coming up aces lately. The 22-year-old Versteeg was the Bruins prospect sacrificed in a forgettable deal — along with a draft pick – for minor league journeyman Brandon Bochenski, who totalled 11 goals and 17 assists in 51 games over two seasons for the Bruins before plummeting off the Black and Gold landscape. At the time of the trade, Versteeg — a B’s fifth round pick in the 2004 draft – had 22 goals and 27 assists in 41 games for the Baby B’s and was another in a long and winding line of bright light B’s talent that’s now filling up the roster in the Hub.

Ultimatelly Bochenski was spun off to the Anaheim Ducks for “Sheriff” Shane Hnidy and a sixth round draft pick last season, so currently Hnidy stands as the only remaining remnant from a trade that netted the Blackhawks one of the top rookies in the NHL this season.

Bochenski appears more and more like a career AHL player with each passing period while Versteeg enters Thursday night’s game among the NHL rookie scoring leaders with 3 goals and 9 assists through Chicago’s first 13 games — a stretch that’s also seen him earn PK minutes and impress the Chicago coaching staff with all-around game. 

“Kris has got a ton of skill and its always been National Hockey League level,” said Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Haviland between periods of Sunday night’s Blackhawks/Flames telecast. “The other parts of the game I really had to get through to him…turning pucks over and when not to turn pucks. He’s playing with some real skill guys and he’s a skill guy. He’s getting a chance to show what he can and he’s a competitive kid. I think he’s really matured on and off the ice.”

Former P-Bruins teammates Mark Stuart and David Krejci each remember Versteeg as a crafty, slick offensive playmaker that was among the youngest players in the AHL during his time in Providence, and he’s only grown more dangerous since getting paired with fellow “Young Guns” skaters Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago.

“He’s a good player and when I heard that he had a chance to play with Kane and Toews I knew he was going to make it,” said Krejci, who lit up the P-Bruins scoreboard in 2006-07 when they both skated on the same line together. “We had a good time. On the ice and off the ice he was a good guy. We played most of the year together.  He was actually kind of like me as a player: he can handle the puck and he was patient with it to make plays, and he could shoot it. He’s good.

“I guess it was good for him to be able to go out to Chicago and make the team,” added Versteeg.

Stuart qualifies as a willingly physical member of a B’s blueline corps that will be under a good deal of heavy pressure from a young, skilled Chicago attack. Its expected Stuart and Co. will up the physical ante against the young ‘Hawks to slow down the skating speedsters racing up and down the United Center ice before a packed house. 

“I’ve heard he’s doing pretty well,” said Stuart. “But I’m not very surprised at what he’s doing. He’s a really young guy and he’s skilled enough to play with anybody. They definitely have the talent there for him to play with some highly skilled guys.

“He’s able to find guys [out on the ice], he’s got really good hands and is good with the puck and he’s also very shifty,” added Stuart. “He’s good around the net too, so we’ll try to slow him down a little bit and shut him down. Off the ice he’s a nice kid. He was a young kid [during his time in Providence] and he still is…really fun to be around too.”

Apparently he’s also got a devastating singing voice somewhere between Fergie and Jesus…an ear-piercing gift that his teammates in Chicago recently discovered. Here’s the damning video evidence:

 

 –Shane Hnidy skated at practice on Tuesday morning for the first time since suffering a lower body injury against the Dallas Stars 10 days ago, but head coach Claude Julien cautioned that the veteran D-man likely wouldn’t return to the lineup until Thursday night’s much-anticipated home tilt with the Canadiens.

“I don’t think I’m going to dress him [Wednesday night] because it’s been a while, but is he a possibility for Thursday? Yeah,” said Julien.

Speaking of the Habs, Thursday night’s game against the Canadiens at the Garden represents the first of three different Habs/Bruins matchups this season taking place in the second game of back-to-back efforts for the B’s. Thursday night at the Garden is the first, a Nov. 22 Saturday night game at the Bell Centre after a Friday night game against the Florida Panthers is the second and a Feb. 1 Sunday matinee in Montreal following a Saturday afternoon game against the Rangers pulls off the scheduling hat trick.

For the consiracy theorists out there, the first two aforementioned games between the two Northeast Division rivals also allows the Habs to enjoy a full day off against a potentially weary B’s team fighting through back-to-back games.

Julien apparently doesn’t believe in the grassy knoll or Area 51, and definitely doesn’t believe that “The Truth is Out There.”

“I guess unfortunately we don’t have much control over the schedule and it’s ironic that its always [Montreal] waiting for us at home, but so be it,” said Julien. “I think the best way to handle it is to have all 19 of your guys going and being able to stretch your bench as much as you can to get the results you want. Then try to get home as quick as possible and get your rest for the following night.”

Wheeler pulls the bra trick

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Great little tidbit in SI.com hockey writer Michael Farber’s column this week about some of the wackier details from Blake Wheeler’s breakout hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. It’s been known for a while that a particularly exuberant female fan chucked a celebratory bra onto the ice during Thursday night’s hat trick festivities along with the stream of baseball-style hats, but the bra’s resting place is an instant classic: directly on the life-sized stuffed bear that the Bruins have stowed away in the trainer’s room.

Now Blake Wheeler leads all NHL rookies in goals scored this season and in bra tricks.

Here’s an excerpt of the full entry from Farber:

The Bruins always have had the most elaborate hat-trick ritual in the NHL. It involves a life-sized stuffed bear that once resided in a corner of the dressing room and is now tucked away in the trainer’s room. A Boston hat-trick scorer has been allowed to choose his favorite from all the hats on the ice and plop it on the bear’s head, where it stays until the next hat trick.

But the Bruins bear is in different duds now. In addition to the caps that greeted Wheeler’s accomplishment, a fan — let’s hope it was a woman — threw a bra onto the ice, which veteran defenseman Aaron Ward conceded was a first in his career. A sheepish Wheeler autographed it, and now, well, the bear has more support than it knows what to do with.

Boston probably won’t win the Stanley Cup this season, but it already has laid claim to the C Cup.

Fernandez playing the good goalie role

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Manny Fernandez finally got to throw on the pads and show what he could do between the pipes last weekend — a just and karmic hockey reward after biding his time watching goaltender partner Tim Thomas take the lead dog role. Thomas has been the protoypical hot ‘tender for the Bruins over their first 14 games with a 5-2-2 record, .944 save percentage and 1.85 goals against average.

Arms were justifiably raised and write-in campaigns were hatched when Thomas wasn’t listed among the top 10 goaltenders on the NHL’s Eastern Conference All-Star ballot, but part of the reason may have been Fernandez’s presence. 

The 34-year-old was expected to split time with Thomas out of the gate and executed a solid 32-save example of his graceful butterfly technique in Saturday night’s solid 3-1 win over Buffalo. It wasn’t easy like Sunday morning for Fernandez to sit back and watch Thomas ascend into a starring role for Boston’s hockey production, but he knew his opportunity wasn’t far away.

Instead he’s been supportive of Thomas at a time when some players might downward spiral in the wrong direction of selfishness and “me” attitude while spitting out questions about playing time or “roles” on a team headed in the right direction. But Fernandez rose above all that, and realizes — as many around the NHL have — that each team needs two quality goalies to survive an 82 game season and then have the their “chosen one” fresh and ready to go heading in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

His partner in the crease has greatly appreciated Fernandez’s patience.

“[Manny] has been great,” said Thomas. “For the last year-and-a-half he’s been nothing but a class act. A lot of times when you’re not playing you have a tendency to draw attention to yourself and he hasn’t been like that at all.

“He hasn’t been throwing out the negative vibes at all, and that’s been great,” added Thomas. [Not playing] is very hard…harder I think than the amount of happiness you have when you’re playing well, you know. It’s really hard to be selfless in those situations. 

Thus far Thomas and Fernandez’s playing time has broken down into roughly a 65/35 percentage split, but facing a stretch of 10 games between now and November 29 should mean enough ice time for both masked men.

“One guy gets to play and one guy doesn’t…that’s how it goes in the game of hockey,” said Fernandez, who is 3-1-1 with a .910 save percentage and 2.57 goals against average in five games thus far. “Things could go a million ways, so I don’t want to think too much [about it]. My wife always tells me, ‘€˜Try to keep things simple. Every day is a new day.’€™ So I just get by one day and look forward to the next.”

‘€œThat’€™s as simple as it gets now. I’€™ve just got to focus, take every day as a challenge and try to move forward. I want to be here for the team regardless of whether I’€™m playing or not playing,” added Fernandez. “I don’€™t want to be the guy that sits in the corner just miserable. I want to be the guy who brings laughter or whatever, who tries hard in practice to help make the guys better, and go from there.’€

A big factor in easng the situation for Fernandez was coach Claude Julien’s up-front attitude with both goaltenders and their split of the net duties when addressing it prior to the season’s start – a stance that allowed for both goalies to play until one skated forward, excelled and seized control of the job.

“I’ve never thought of Claude as a guy that [misleads],” said Fernandez. “He’s pretty straightforward and tells it how it is. He told us both at the beginning of the year that it was going to be this way and I didn’t expect anything less. I’ve always been one that’s said that Timmy was amazing last year, and he’s earned his spot and earned his playing time.

“This year he’s been tremendous for us and we all stick together,” added Fernandez. “So my job is to practice hard and be as ready as possible.” 
 

Day Off

Shawn Thornton, Shane Hnidy and Stehane Yelle were all missing from practice Monday afternoon, with Yelle nursing a minor issue and Hnidy still recovering from a lower body injury that’ caused him to miss two games. The bruising Thornton wasn’t with the team this afternoon, but was tending to funeral services for his grandmother in Ontario.

Quiet day otherwise at Bruins practice with the team working on four-on-four drills in anticipation of some overtime games potentially coming up against some stiff competition over the next three weeks – including the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers, the Red Wings and two each against the Sabres and Canadiens.

The biggest thing masquerading as news was the rave reviews that Aaron Ward gave the AC/DC concert at the TD Banknorth Garden last night. Ward, Milan Lucic, Stephane Yelle, Shane Hnidy, Marco Sturm, Mark Stuart, Dennis Wideman and Chuck Kobasew (quite ed. note to the Boston Herald’s intrepid Inside Track ladies, the man is French-Canadian but his name isn’t Stephanie Yelle) all took in the “Back in Black” band on Sunday night, and Ward was blown away by the Rock and Roll vets still running around the stage like teenagers.

I also took in the show Sunday night and can attest that Angus is still rocking out — even if my nitpicking girlfriend pointed out his “old man legs” while he hopped around like a rabid musician on stage and did the signature ‘Angus Shuffle’ while wielding a screaming guitar 30 feet above the stage. Good stuff. They didn’t play “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” or “It’s a Long Way to the Top”, but all in all a good show — and I can say that I saw AC/DC at least once in my lifetime.