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Blake Wheeler is a Bruins first-timer no more

04.18.09 at 1:37 pm ET
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Blake Wheeler is all smiles grinding it out on the fourth line in the Stanley Cup playoffs

Blake Wheeler is all smiles grinding it out on the fourth line in the Stanley Cup playoffs

WILMINGTON — Hockey players can take part in big-time high school rivalry games and college championship matches, but there’s really nothing quite like the first taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey for the first-timers in the Bruins’ dressing room.

Matt Hunwick, rushed from the B’s practice rink to a Boston hospital with a spleen ailment following a team meeting on Saturday morning, and Blake Wheeler both fall into the “first-timer” category for the Black and Gold, and the B’s rookie forward was in a bit of a different role in Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens — and potentially could be for the entire series.

Wheeler spent 10:19 of ice time largely skating on the fourth line with Stephane Yelle and Shawn Thornton, and was on the same PK unit with David Krejci that he’s manned for much of the hockey season. It’s a change in duties for a big rangy forward that scored 21 goals during the season, and now Wheeler has added a little more grit and physicality to his innate offensive instincts.

“I thought our young games were good and produced,” said Julien. “I thought Wheels played well even though he was on a different line than he’s played on before, but he also did well killing penalties with (David) Krejci. He was very focused and I was really happy with his game (in Game 1).

“(Krejci and Wheeler) have good chemistry together when it comes time to kill and they do a good job,” added Julien. “They might be awfully young pair, but they’re a pair that’s been together since the beginning of the year killing penalties. It’s part of our success in that area, and we’re not going to all of a sudden change things now just because we’re in the playoffs. Our guys that we’ve put in positions to do jobs this year, they’re going to remain in those positions. There’s no reason to change those kinds of things.”

So it looks as if — barring injury — Wheeler should get used to more of the role he played in Game 1. Here’s some thoughts from the 22-year-old following his first playoff experience Thursday night. After playing a full season of hockey that included highs and lows and placing that first playoff game squarely under his belt, Wheeler is a rookie no more. Here’s Wheeler:

How was that first game? BW: It was a great atmosphere. It was great to be out there and see the fans amp the level up a little. All of the yellow towels (waved by the fans) were awesome too. It was a great experience.

You threw a hit early in the game. Playing with Yelle and Thornton, were you cognizant that you had to play a little different like that? BW: Yeah, it’s just a little different mentality. A little different philosophy. The role is a little different, and you have to go out there and do the best with whichever role you’re given. I want to do whatever it takes to help this team. Whatever role you’re put into, you’ve got to flourish in that role and do your best to be the best player at that role you can be.

You talk to a lot of people and they tell you how much adrenaline is pumping in that very first playoff game. How did you deal with that? BW: You just have to stay with it and stay focused with that. The first 10 minutes or so the puck was kinda optional out there, and you’re getting some of the emotion out. For us, we got off to a great start and we’ve just got to keep that mentality and keep that focus going for an entire 60 minutes. You can’t die off. We kind of died off a little bit after we scored those two goals.

What do you have to do to improve in Game 2? BW:Improve? I think our forecheck could stand to be a little better. We dumped some pucks that got to the goalie a little too much, and if we can get them away from him and just try to stay up on our forecheck and continue to do the things we did well in the first game. Obviously you want to stay out of the box because they have a great power play. Those types of things made us successful and we just need to improve it a little bit.

Did that feel like the style of play was any more fast or intense than it was in the regular season? BW: It’s hard to say. We’ve played those guys six times and when you play a team over the course of six games you’re really not going to see a lot that’s different just because it’s a playoff game. We know what to expect when we play them, and they know what to expect when they play us. It’s about kind of exploiting their weaknesses and they’re trying to do the same to us. It’s the same game, but the intensity is greater with every play and every change of possession. Everything is magnified a little more, and that’s the difference maybe with our team and their team.

What about the crowd? BW: Oh, that was awesome. That’s what we were expecting, especially because it’s Montreal/Boston and we knew everyone was going to be into the historical series. It was great to see the yellow towels and how pumped up everyone in Boston was to have this here. The atmosphere in Boston was great.

You dealt with big-time games in Minnesota. How did that help you with this? BW: Oh it helps a lot. You know what to expect and that you can’t get too high or too low. You’ve got to stay on an even-keel and we did a great job of that (Thursday) night. We’ve just got to not let our down-swing get too low like we did and we’ll hopefully limit their chances. I think all of us have played on some pretty big stages before this, so that helps prepare you for that stage.

What did that stage on Thursday night rank with regard to some of the other big-stages that you’ve played on? BW: It’s the same feeling. It really is. I’ve played in a lot of hockey games. Obviously everything was going to be a little higher and a little faster and a little bit of everything, but I didn’t want to let it get into my head too much. I just wanted to play my game because I’ve been playing here all year. You’ve just got to have confidence and do your best. More often than not, when you do that things are going to bounce your way. You can’t let the moment or the situation be too glorified in your mind.

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