Bruins back to basics for 10th straight win
|01.01.09 at 9:55 pm ET|
If the Boston Bruins aren’t too careful they’re going to start entering exalted hockey territory here in the city of Boston. With their tenth win in row last night, by a 4-2 score over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Boston Bruins have matched the 1971 Bobby Orr-led, Stanley Cup Champion-era B’s in terms of a regular season win streak. For nearly everyone involved with the team, it’s the most impressive regular season that they’ve enjoyed in the NHL and something they’re not at all taking for granted.
“I’d have to go all the way back to my last year of junior hockey, I think,” said B’s defenseman Dennis Wideman, when asked the last time he’s been on a team that won 10 games in a row. “I think I’ve been on some [NHL] teams that have lost 10 in a row, and this definitely feels a lot better.”
With the home-and-home sweep of the still-dangerous Pens, the Bruins have seized sole ownership of the point lead in the NHL while continuing to put distance between themselves and the wild packs of Rangers, Capitals and Canadiens roaming in the Eastern Conference.
Almost as amazing is the fact that the current 10-game stretch has A) taken place while the B’s were admittedly not playing as well as they have through much of the season B) transpired largely during a long road swing sandwiched around the holiday break and C) overshadowed a simultaneous 14-game home winning streak before burgeoning crowds at the Garden.
Dressing room leader Aaron Ward said that the B’s have realized the error of their ways during the tough stretches of the streaks, and corrected things to again get to the type of Bruins hockey that put them in first place to begin with.
“[We] preach in this locker room that the whole season is a marathon. You can play one month and you understand if you are going to lead long enough that there will be some highs and some lows; capitalize on your highs,” said Ward. “We started to fall off, the minute we step into this locker room we knew in the last five or six games that the effort wasn’t there. We were going into games and you start to get complacent and you figure that well your skill will just take care or it or it will just work itself out.
“The National Hockey League doesn’t work itself out. You got to match your opponents’ level of effort with level of emotions and we lacked both. Sometimes both, sometimes one, you just can’t have your nights off we had creeping into our game.
The B’s crowds traditionally become livelier and more plentiful after Jan. 1, and the Patriots’ rare regular season exit insures that the Garden will be rockin’ straight through the rest of the season. The love affair between the sellout crowds and the gritty, hard-hitting hockey team should only continue as Black and Gold skaters like vladimir Sobotka put third period exclamation points like this one last night.
With that mid-ice big boom in mind, here’ s a few things that stuck out from last night’s impressive victory over a motivated Penguins team:
Big Z in shutdown mode
One of the biggest observations/factors during the back-to-back wins over the Penguins was the outstanding defensive shutdown work executed by Zdeno Chara and Aaron Ward on Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin’s line over the course of two games. In the home-and-home matchup, the jumbo-sized and ridiculously-skilled Malkin was held to a -2 and managed only a single assist in last night’s loss after coach Claude Julien sicked a frothy Chara on the Penguins’ scorer as much as possible.
“I think [Chara] actually loves it,” said Julien. “He’s taken a lot of pride in doing it and I think he is being recognized, more and more, for being able to do those things. Not every team, and not too many teams, have those kind of defensemen and can match them against top players and be capable of shutting them down night after night.”
Chara has always prided himself on being the tall, tough, intimidating defensive stopper at the blue line and — after a slow first month — seems to have again reached that elite level of defenseman play that few can match around the NHL.
As impressive as Big Z was, however, perhaps Ward was even more so in his first two games back from an ankle injury that hampered him throughout December. Ward managed to keep himself in some semblance of shape while healing up and came up big last night with his specialty — a cringe-inducing, surely painful blocked shot in the waning minutes of the third period on Pittsburgh’s final power play — to help secure the big victory for the Bruins.
It was exactly the kind of thing that the B’s have missed while he was out, despite the best efforts of guys like Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick to step up.
“You have to give credit to Aaron Ward, who nobody talks about, he did a good job with Z back there and near the end there he made a big block, blocked a big shot,” said Julien. “Those kind of things can kind of go unnoticed.”
Extra bonus points to the aforementioned pairing of Hunwick and Wideman, who likewise managed to clamp down the defensive vice grips on Sidney Crosby’s line as well. Sid the Kid managed a single measly assist in Tuesday night’s loss at the Igloo, and was a -3 in the two-game sweep. There were many moments during last night’s win when the purported best hockey player in the world was invisible. Credit the Bruins’ defense for pulling off the nearly impossible NHL magic trick: making the two-man gang of both Crosby and Malkin disappear into the thin wintry air.
Back in the Scoresheet Saddle
It might be time for Bruins Nation to get used to the current line pairings that have P.J. Axelsson spending time on the first power play unit because Julien has liked what he’s seen over the last two games. Axelsson has helped spark the first line and scored his first non-empty net goal of the season — along with an assist –in last night’s win and totaled a pair of helpers in Tuesday night’s win in Pittsburgh.
“I was looking for a response from lines,” said Julien. “I know people keep asking about Lucic, well, yeah Lucic and Savard and Kessel, I thought weren’t playing as well as they could and neither was the Yelle, Axelsson and Kobasew line. And I was kind of talking about all six of those guys, three of them on units.”
“I didn’t think they were generating much, so with Looch, with that hard-working line, I think it certainly helped him find his identity again, as far as being a grinder and being a grinder doesn’t stop you from scoring as you could see tonight,” added Julien. “[Lucic and Axelsson] have brought something different to both those lines that, not just made them successful [as individuals], but also made those lines better, as well.”
Julien believes that Axelsson has added a certain Je Ne Cest Q’uoi to the games of both Marc Savard (2 goals, 3 assists and a +2 in two games) and Phil Kessel (1 goal and 13 shots on net in two games) while Milan Lucic has blended right in with the hard-working, lunch pail games of third liners Chuck Kobasew and Stephane Yelle. Looch has also potted a pair of goals since the much-publicized move down to the third line. Julien said that the swap wasn’t designed to simply get Lucic and Axelsson going as much as it was supposed to breath life in both lines.
“I think obviously things weren’t going my way,” said Lucic. “I just want to get back to doing simple things and it paid off today with the goal. Like I said we just have to keep getting better.
“I think everyone is comfortable playing with anyone. We are just going out there and focusing on what we have to do, sticking to the game plan,” added Lucic. “It is not by accident that we have won ten straight. The little things that we do we got away from a little bit. I think this home and home against the Penguins was good for us to get back to working hard and doing the simple things.”
So don’t expect any big line shake-ups in the near future with things again appearing to gel in Coach Julien’s neighborhood. Count me among the people that scratched their heads when Axelsson was moved to the top scoring line and the number one power play unit, but the B’s bench boss has once again proven he knows a lot more about the frozen puck game than yours truly.
The Beat Goes On
With all of the success that the Bruins have enjoyed thus far this season, there has been plenty of streaking that hasn’t involved Frank the Tank in the least. While the biggest slice of the attention pie is given to the current team winning streak or the 14-straight wins on the Garden’s frozen sheet, magic man center David Krejci is also riding a 10-game point streak after potting a goal in the first period of last night’s win.
Perhaps Krejci is a big Christmas fan because he’s gone supersonic with the puck over the last month, notching 7 goals and 15 assists in 14 games during the merry, merry month. While Julien has reconfigured each of the other two lines, the veteran coach has smartly left the trio of Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder together as they continue to produce offense and responsible defense on a nightly basis.