Archive for March, 2009

Bruins turn things around in “biggest game of the year”

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

In hindsight, the challenge of the New Jersey Devils was exactly what the Bruins pined for during their uninspired March hibernation.

To find their respective games, to prod each of the 2o individuals on board the same Bruins’ bus headed in the proper direction, to capture the elusive 60 minutes of focus in a hockey game, they needed two significant things to happen.

First they needed an on-ice challenge that would bring out the team’s best and recapture the winning combination of hard work and swagger the team exhibited all through the first half of the season — and will keep needing if the playoffs are expected to be anything more than tribute to “what might have been”.

Second, they needed a coaching staff that was both A) able to conjure up something to alleviate the pressure pulling away from the team’s preparation and chipping away at the team’s overall confidence levels and B) able to be bold in their game strategy.

Both things happened this week following a frustrating defeat against the Los Angeles Kings, and both things played directly into the B’s convincing 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at the TD Banknorth Garden on Sunday afternoon.

“We didn’t have any passengers at all,” said Marc Savard, who finished with a goal and an assist and nearly as much ice time (22:41) as both Zdeno Chara (23:21) and Dennis Wideman (22:43) on Sunday. “Everybody had a good game for us, and that’s what we need from here on in. We really wanted this game. We put this up there as the biggest game of the year for us.”

The first part was apparent the day following the Kings defeat, when Bruins’ coach Claude Julien — who had spent some late night postgame hours thinking about the next day’s practice — didn’t reach for the punitive “bag skate” or the fearsome Herbies (named after Herb Brooks and the grueling skating drills that became an unforgettable movie scene in Miracle) on Friday morning. Instead he had the team face each other in a passionate scrimmage and then engage in a breakaway contest that injected some fun back into the game.

Rather than playing the role of hard line taskmaster coach with whip in hand, Julien recognized a hockey club that was clearly pressing and fighting off the building pressure of expectation. He preached for his players to go out and enjoy themselves, and bring some plain old puck joy back into the game.

“I’m not in the habit of calling a coach a genius, but (Julien) surprised us two days ago when he said we’re going to go out and have some fun, play some hockey and — as long as you do it the right way — we’re going to get some fun back into this game,” said B’s defenseman Aaron Ward. “It was apparent in (Saturday’s) practice. Guys executed well and there was some pep in our step. It showed on the ice (Sunday).

“The message was pretty simple,” added Ward. “Everybody’s thinking deep, reaching deep for some momentous answer and, really, what it was was finding some fun in the game. We don’t want to start making proclamations that (the rough patch) is all over, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

All of it worked perfectly for a team squeezing the daylights out of their sticks. The Bruins skaters were gritting their teeth and attempting to slog their way out of the doldrums, but all that seemed to go away once Mark Recchi shoveled a puck off Paul Martin’s right skate and potted Boston’s first power-play strike of the game. Michael Ryder was credited with the goal when Recchi’s shot ticked off Ryder’s stick before hitting Martin’s skate and bouncing in the net.

The effort was remarkable in its similarity to so many solid, physical, concentrated 60-minute efforts during the first three months of the season, and should give assurances that this team is capable of great things. Losses to hockey lowlifes like the Coyotes and Kings can shake optimism and tarnish those December memories, but a late-season win against a motivated, experienced Devils unit — with home ice on the line – trumps them all.

The key now is to maximize the benefit of five days off, and then return with the very same famished intensity for the regular season’s final nine games.  

“Tonight was something that both teams were trying to make a statement,” said Zdeno Chara. “Both teams were playing really hard. We were really desperate. You could see it in the first minute, and the mindset was really unbelievable. You could see that everybody was on the same page. Those are the games that you really enjoy playing in when everybody is doing their job and sacrificing so that the team can win.

“We have nine games left and it’s going to be very important for us to continue to play very hard and very competitive like we did tonight going into the playoffs,” added Chara.

The Black and Gold Skating Co. played physical edgy hockey against a big, bruising Devils unit and a reconfigured power play — with the he-better-not-be-a-healthy-scratch-again-anytime-soon Matt Hunwick and Dennis Wideman manning the points on the top PP unit and Patrice Bergeron playing down low by the net — banged home a pair of power-play strikes in victory. 

A victory that clinched the Northeast Divsion title for the Bruins — their first since Jumbo Joe’s Bruins took home the crown back in 2003-04 — and also shoved away the doubters and naysayers that had been gaining in volume during a substandard month of March.

This time it was the Devils — winners of 8 of their previous 10 games coming into Sunday — that were answering postgame questions about too many men on the ice penalties in each of their last two games and a failure to play gritty, focused hockey for an entire 60 minutes. Instead the Bruins took advantage of a number of fortuitous bounces and an uncharacteristically off-night from goaltender Martin Brodeur, and put themselves back on course for a long, healthy, bountiful trip through Lord Stanley’s tourney.

All, it seems, would appear to be well again in the Land of the Spoked B.

Injury Ward: Byron Bitz, Steve Montador and Shane Hnidy were all healthy scratches for the Bruins, and it appeared that every player escaped the scrappy battle without injury.

Player of the Game: When Julien talks about “his best players not being his best players” on a given night, fair or unfair, people assume that he’s speaking about center Marc Savard. Well, Savvy was certainly one of Boston’s best players in a huge game. He collected a goal and an assist, and was a big part of the big power play unit revival that took place against the Devils. Credit Chara with also doing his shutdown act on Zach Parise during the game, and helping limit the Devils to one goal.

Goat Horns: Nobody in this one. Brodeur might have given up one that he’d like to have back, but this was as complete a game played by the Bruins as any in recent memory. As both Thornton and Savard said, there were no “passengers” in this one.

Turning Point: After a mediocre first 10 minutes of the game when the Bruins didn’t seem to have their legs under them, Michael Ryder was credited with a goal that appeared to be a Mark Recchi shot from the right faceoff circle. The shot caromed off New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin’s right skate and ended up in the back of Jersey’s net. The goal was one of several good bounces enjoyed by the Bruins — normally a smile and a nod from the hockey gods toward the team that’s working harder around the net.

Sounds of the game… Bruins 4, Devils 1

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

It was quite simply the biggest game of the regular season.

And the urgency that coach Claude Julien has been preaching and begging his players to show was on full display on Sunday time at the best time against the one of the best goalies in NHL history.

On this Sunday afternoon at the Garden, the Bruins made Martin Brodeur look human, while avoiding being tagged victim No. 554.

That’s called answering the bell – or in the Bruins’ case – the deafening foghorn that sounded four times in a win that clinched the Bruins first Northeast Divsion title since 2003-04. For those who don’t remember, that was the last season before the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out an entire season.

But listen to Julien and you get the sense there was much less excitement in clinching the division title than Garden P.A. announcer Jim Martin had in announcing it to the fans.

‘€œIt wasn’€™t even mentioned once,” Julien said. “I didn’€™t talk about it. I didn’€™t hear any players talk about it. Everything tonight was put on the way we needed to play. Nothing else was talked about. I didn’€™t talk about the division title, I didn’€™t talk about the importance of the win. I just talked about our play. To me, it just showed to me how important that is to me, to do the things you have to do to win.’€

“I didn’t even know about it until I heard it being announced to the crowd after the game,” Bruins goalie Tim Thomas added afterward.

Of course, in the bigger picture is the Eastern Conference, which the Bruins now lead Jersey by five points (102-97) with nine games remaining for Boston while Jersey has 10.

‘€œI think what happened tonight is something, definitely not everything,” Julien said. “It was certainly something where we took a step in the right direction. It was a big game for both teams. We found a way to win that. There’€™s still nine games left. Jersey has some games in hand and they’€™re playing extremely well.’€

The Bruins found a way to protect a 2-0 lead by making it 3-0, something they couldn’t do on Jan. 29 against these same Devils on the same Garden ice. They lost in overtime, 4-3.

Mark Recchi wasn’t in Boston then. He was on Sunday and he helped by assisting on the first two goals.

Recchi said the Bruins played the right way and didn’t let up.

Marc Savard called it the biggest game of the year.

Bruins withstand third period attack and take 4-1 victory

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

15:37: As expected, the Devils are coming at the B’s with everything they’ve got in the third, but so far the D and Tim Thomas are holding their end of the bargain up. Little extended shoving match between Andrew Ference and Jamie Langenbruner after the last whistle.

The Bruins keep piling it on in the third. Brian Gionta hit the side of the net with a snipe when Thomas lost sight of the puck on a Devils’ rush.

9:57: Zdeno Chara sent to the box for two minutes for a roughing penalty after throwing a quick punch at Bobby Holik behind the Bruins bench. Chara and Holik have been going at it all game long.

The Bruins survived a frantic Devils attack in the third period that saw them outshot by a 17-3 margin, and take a huge 4-1 win over New Jersey. The win clinches the Northeast Division crown for the Bruins, and pushes the Devils back to five points behind the Black and Gold.

Kobasew, Savard, Lucic goals give the Bruins a three-goal lead

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Scoring change: The Bruins media relations guru Eric Tosi just announced that the B’s goal has been changed from Mark Recchi to Michael Ryder. I’m a little mystifed considering Ryder never touched the puck, and the goal clearly went off Martin’s skate, so stay tuned on that one.

18:08: Great wheeling, backhanded bid by Chuck Kobasew from behind the net that slid past Brodeur to the far side of the post to give Boston a 2-0 lead. The 18th goal of the season for Kobasew.

13:41: Another power play score for the Bruins. Marc Savard gets a fortunate bounce of the puck from a left point shot by Matt Hunwick, collects the puck at the right faceoff and unloads a bullet into the open net to give the B’s a 3-0 lead. The B’s are doing everything right at this point, and turning hard work and hustle into good bounces. It’s Savard’s 23rd goal of the season.

9:42: Great glove save by Brodeur on a Dennis Wideman hot shot from the high point with Ryder and Recchi both bearing down on him. Superb puck movement by the Bruins on their power plays today.

7:16: Devils get one back on a nice tip by defenseman Andy Greene, who stormed down the middle of the ice and redirected a Jamie Langenbruner pass up and over Tim Thomas.

5:29: A pair of solid stops by Thomas on Zach Parise in close, as he blocked a shot from the high slot and then somehow absorbed the other shot between his legs while sitting down on the ice.

2:34: Milan Lucic strikes with a pretty backhanded bid, as he controlled the puck in the right corner and looked pass to Stephane Yelle storming down the slot. Instead he surprised Brodeur by flicking a nifty little backhander that may have hit Yelle or Zach Parise before going through the goaltender’s pads for Boston’s fourth goal.

The Bruins are beating the Devils by a 4-1 score after two complete periods at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Mark Recchi power play score puts Boston up in the first

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

18:00: Claude Julien opens the game up with a bit of a surprise and puts P.J. Axelsson on the top line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel, after Blake Wheeler had been most recently skating with Savard and Kessel. I will reiterate again that I’m not a big fan of PJ on the top line. This moves seems a bit conservative for my tastes, but maybe that’s just me.

16:45: Good little one-on-one move by P.J. Axelsson that Martin Brodeur makes the juggling save on.

13:57: Near miss by the Devils when Tim Thomas mishandled a dump in, and Brian Gionta picked the loose puck up and fed it to Brian Rolston in front as Thomas scrambled back into the net. Thomas made it back between the pipes in time, but Rolston missed wide right with the shot from the right faceoff circle.

9:03: Big glove save by Brodeur on a Phil Kessel bid from the slot from a nice Savard feed off the sideboards. Brodeur simply got a glove on it and deflected it near the corner.

8:04: Kessel with another good chance, misses wide left with a wrist shot coming down the slot. A lot of jump from Savard and Kessel in the early going today.

Good job by the Bruins defenseman of finding a seam and get their point shots through traffic toward the New Jersey net. Brodeur has looked pretty damned solid in the early going, however.

3:38: Mark Recchi continues to play dividends. The veteran winger took a shot from the right faceoff circle that bounced off defenseman Paul Martin’s right skate and went right on past Brodeur for a power play score. It’s Recchi’s fifth goal since coming to the B’s.

0:00: Slash by Bobby Holik on Aaron Ward behind the Bruins net as the horn expired in the first period. Ward tried to catch up to Holik and have a “word”, but the refs got in between the two and headed the veteran defenseman off at the pass.

The Bruins lead the Devils 1-0 after one full period at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Bruins need a Sunday rebound from past-Sharks hangover

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

I selfishly refuse to give WEEI flash guy — and puck enthusiast — Pete Sheppard any credit after swiping his “psychologically damaged” theory and applying it to the Bruins’ play over the last two months.

But I truly believe what I wrote about weeks ago and said again during a segment with Mike Giardi on NECN’s “Sports Late Night” Saturday night.

The Black and Gold haven’t been the same confident, brash, bad to the bone hockey bunch since the San Jose Sharks stormed into Boston for a nationally-hyped “Best vs. the Best” game in early February and simply dropped the Bruins in the dust during an eye-opening third period. The game certainly didn’t provide a blue print to beat the Bruins because A) there aren’t many other teams with the personnel that the Sharks employ to exploit a team like the Bruins and B) there isn’t a lot of credence in “figuring out” a team’s system and beating them because of it.

It’s not about the systems — as it might be in football — but it’s more about the players’ talent level, their willingness to buy into said system and their adherence to disciplined hockey while also utilizing the requisite amount of blood and guts passion. It’s something Bruins fans haven’t seen much of lately as the B’s were treading water in February (6-4-3) and have really stumbled in the merry month of March (3-5-1).

Following that Sharks tilt on Feb. 10, the Bruins have sputtered to a 6-8-3 record and haven’t been able to capture their past puck mojo for more than a game or two at a time. There were — at points — a couple of back-to-back blowout wins that seemed to signal the Big Bad B’s were back, but they haven’t been able to sustain it. 

Perhaps the stunning defeat to the Sharks caused some of the young players to start questioning their respective games, and caused them to wonder just how good this hockey team really is — a pair of questions that everyone will have much clearer answers to following this afternoon’s tilt vs. Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils.

The Bruins need to start putting the fear back into opponents looking to get the upper hand against a squad that Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton has called “team tough” throughout the hockey season — a fear and intimidation factor that’s now clearly missing when teams like the Coyotes and Kings are able to pull out victories during an…ahem…March playoff drive.

“I’ve said it all along that adversity is something we had to go through during the year, and it’s just a matter of how we get out of it,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We need to get our focus back by staying sharp and alert — and then we need to bring our passion back. (Sunday’s game against the Devils) is a game that everybody knows what is at stake, and how good they’re playing. It’s a challenge and we’ve been answering the bell all year. I think we’re ready for this one, and we know exactly what we’re up against.”

With your moment of hockey zen from Bergeron over with, here’s Saturday Night Hockey Talk with Mike Giardi. It’s not quite Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry, but I can go pick up some fabric from the curtain store, fashion myself a pin-striped zuit suit and try to channel Grapes again next time I’m on the air:

Tuukka Rask goes ballistic after losing shootout at Providence

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Fantastic meltdown by Providence Bruins goaltender, and 22-year-old wonderboy Bruins prospect, Tuukka Rask after losing a 1-0 shootout to the Albany River Rats at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence last night. Rask had an issue with a pair of goals during the shootout session, and proceeded to slam his paddle against the crossbar and the boards before tossing a crate in a fit of pique out onto the ice in exasperation.

The first appears to be a shot that he had saved and play had stopped before the Albany skater popped the puck into the net, and the second shot appeared to ring off the post — but was also called a goal by the AHL officials.

We’ve heard — and seen — strong evidence of Tim Thomas and famous competitive temper when things don’t go his way in the game of hockey, but Rask had seemed like a pretty mild-mannered netminder. Until last night, that is, courtesy of footage from www.abc6.comvia youtube.