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Brett Connolly shows he can play in different spots, is ‘excited’ to finally contribute 04.05.15 at 12:15 am ET
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Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

Forget whether or not Brett Connolly has one of the best shots in the NHL. The most important thing is that the Bruins are a better team now that he’€™s in the lineup.

How much better remains to be seen. He’€™s not a superstar, but he’€™s an upgrade over Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, the Bruins’€™ two healthy scratches Saturday. He’€™s better at creating chances, he shoots more and he’€™s a better possession player.

Where Connolly settles into the lineup also remains to be seen. He has played two games so far since returning from a finger injury that delayed his Bruins debut, and he has played with pretty much everyone. He played on the fourth line with Max Talbot and Chris Kelly for most of Saturday’€™s 2-1 shootout win over Toronto, but he also got moved up a couple times to take some shifts with other lines.

“Obviously coach is trying to feel some things out. It was good,”€ Connolly said. “€œI thought that me, Max and Kells had a pretty good start to the third, kind of got better as the game went on, too. It was good. … I’€™ve played with pretty much everybody on the team so far, just trying to feel it out.”

The fourth line didn’€™t find the score sheet Saturday, but Connolly, Talbot and Kelly did combine for seven shots on goal and they all finished with a Corsi better than 70 percent (Connolly was on the ice for 12 five-on-five shot attempts for and five against).

“We had some pretty good chances,”€ Kelly said. “I think all three of us, our feet were moving and we weren’€™t in our end too often, so it was good. A bounce here, a bounce there, maybe we would’€™ve been able to get one.”

The thinking when the Bruins acquired Connolly on March 2 was that he could be a top-six forward, something the Bruins desperately needed at the time. He still might end up there, but David Krejci returning from injury and Ryan Spooner playing much better means there’€™s a little more competition for those spots.

Naturally, that means there’€™s also more competition for fourth-line spots now. Connolly doesn’€™t fit the mold of the old-school, grinding, checking fourth-liner, but the old school is just that — old. Fourth lines need to have some skill now, and the Bruins finally have the pieces they need to make that transition, one they seemed ready to make in the offseason when they let Shawn Thornton walk.

Saturday night offered a glimpse of what a more skilled fourth line can do, even if you factor in that it came against a terrible Maple Leafs team. For what it’€™s worth, Claude Julien said after the game that there could still be some rotation on the fourth line (and every other line, for that matter).

“I feel we’€™ve got a lot of players that can go in and out right now,”€ Julien said. “But at the same time I’€™m trying to create a little bit of competition here. I don’€™t want anybody comfortable, knowing that they’€™re automatics game in and game out.”

Regardless, it’€™s hard to imagine Connolly’€™s spot not being safe. He’€™s probably the top option to move into a top-nine role if someone struggles (Reilly Smith?), but he also makes the fourth line better if he stays there. For his part, Connolly says he’€™ll be happy wherever as long as he’€™s helping the team.

“Very excited to finally be out there and get a couple wins here in my first two games and to be able to contribute a little bit and help the team win,”€ Connolly said. “Again, the team’€™s playing well so far lately. It’€™s been a lot of fun to step in and be a part of it.”

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Bruins sign UMass forward Frank Vatrano 03.12.15 at 11:11 am ET
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The Bruins have signed UMass forward Frank Vatrano, an undrafted free agent who will forego his final two years of college eligibility.

Vatrano, a native of East Longmeadow who turns 21 on Saturday, led the Minutemen with 18 goals in 36 games this season and added 10 assists as well. His biggest strength is his shot, which he doesn’t hesitate to use. His 5.39 shots on goal per game rank first in Hockey East and second nationally. Vatrano is listed at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds. He’s a left shot and has played both wings at UMass.

UMass’ season ended Sunday night against Notre Dame in the opening round of the Hockey East tournament

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Bruins’ new-look third line with David Pastrnak has impressive showing vs. Kings 01.31.15 at 11:16 pm ET
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David Pastrnak

David Pastrnak

Midway through the second period of Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Kings, David Pastrnak found himself as the first forward back in the defensive zone. This is where an 18-year-old rookie forward could potentially be exposed. No one questions Pastrnak’s offensive ability, but his defensive play is still a work in progress, and that’s the part of his game that could determine how much he plays and how he’s used down the stretch.

In this case, Pastrnak passed his defensive test with flying colors. He recognized that there were no Kings immediately entering the zone that he needed to pick up, so he headed for the corner to help Dennis Seidenberg, who was engaged in a 1-on-1 battle for the puck.

Pastrnak swooped in, smoothly took control of the puck, circled behind his own net and then broke the puck out of the Bruins end with a nice rush up the middle of the ice. It didn’t lead to a scoring chance at the other end because Pastrnak wound up getting caught offsides after passing the puck off, but it was the kind of defensive-zone play that should help him gain more trust from Claude Julien.

“Tonight what I saw from him was that he wasn’t a liability,” Julien said. “When you’€™re stuck in your own end and he’s not getting pucks out or he’s getting out-muscled and stuff like that, and there’s some panic in the game, then you say, ‘OK, well maybe I’ve got to cut my bench down.’

“But tonight I thought he was solid along the walls and not only that, but he was patient — even instead of just chipping it out, he made some plays. So when you see a player do that — and that’s something that at the beginning of the year was a real issue for him when he went to Providence. So I give him so much credit for improving so quickly in that area.”

Pastrnak brings a different dynamic to any line he plays on because no other Bruins right wing has the raw offensive skill that he has. In the case of Kelly and Carl Soderberg’s line, where Pastrnak was for part of Thursday’s game and all of Saturday’s game, the line gains that speed and offensive spark, but it loses the consistently stellar two-way play of Loui Eriksson.

Julien has always been hesitant to break up Soderberg and Eriksson, and for good reason. Entering Saturday, Soderberg had a 53.3 percent Corsi playing with Eriksson this season and just a 45.8 percent Corsi without him (last year it was 55.7 percent with and 50.4 percent without).

Kelly, Soderberg and Pastrnak didn’t really do much in their two-plus periods together Thursday, but they started to hit their stride as Saturday’s game went along, especially in the third period. Pastrnak set up one good look midway through the third when he sidestepped a Matt Greene hit at the offensive blue line before sending a pass to the front that Soderberg couldn’t quite handle.

Then the line scored what proved to be the game-winning goal with 5:27 to go when Soderberg circled out to the point and sent a shot toward the net that Kelly redirected past Jonathan Quick. They had another decent look in the final minutes when Pastrnak held off a defender and sent a low shot to goal that produced a rebound that was cleared away just before Soderberg got to it.

Whether Pastrnak stays with Soderberg and Kelly or moves back up to David Krejci‘s line remains to be seen. If he does stay, we’ll need a bigger sample to see if the trio can possess the puck enough to consistently create scoring chances (Kelly’s Corsi, like Soderberg’s, also drops when he is not with Eriksson).

Regardless, Saturday was a step in the right direction, both for Pastrnak’s two-way play and for the new-look third line as a whole.

Claude Julien on loss to Blue Jackets: ‘Can’t afford to have those kind of outings’ 01.17.15 at 11:16 pm ET
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Normally a team wouldn’t be too disappointed with one loss after a five-game winning streak, but considering that the Bruins are still fighting for their playoff lives and the Blue Jackets are out of the playoff picture, Saturday’s 3-1 loss was pretty disappointing.

“I’m disappointed,” Claude Julien said after the game. “I don’t care, six wins in a row, whatever, we just can’t afford to have those kind of outings. Disappointed that we didn’t come to play harder than we did tonight and we wanted to take the easy way out. When we do that, we’re not successful.

“We’re a north-south type of team, we backcheck hard, we forecheck hard, and we make things happen by taking pucks to the net. Tonight we weren’t willing to do that. When we got into the battle you could tell they wanted it more than us. We’ve gotta accept the blame and the responsibility. We weren’t good enough tonight and we shouldn’t accept that.”

The Bruins did have 35 shots on goal in the game, but as multiple players pointed out, they didn’t do enough to make those saves tough ones for Columbus goalie Curtis McElhinney. There was a lot of settling for shots from the outside, not setting screens and not being in position to get rebounds. That lack of getting to the so-called dirty areas seemed to be more frustrating for Julien and the Bruins than the loss itself.

Technically, the Bruins can actually afford the loss. They’re still ahead of the Panthers, who suffered a shootout loss to Edmonton Saturday night, for the eighth and final playoff spot. In terms of points, the B’s have a four-point edge with the Panthers holding three games in hand. In terms of points percentage, it’s .587 for the B’s to .581 for the Panthers. The Bruins also hold a 22-15 edge in regulation and overtime wins, which could matter for tiebreak purposes if it comes to that.

The Bruins weren’t going to keep their winning streak going forever, but suffering a letdown and having it snapped against a non-playoff team doesn’t sit well. The Bruins will look to get back to playing the right way during a mini-road trip to Dallas and Colorado this week before heading into the all-star break.

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Columbus coach Todd Richards: Carl Soderberg hit on Matt Calvert ‘a shot right to his head’ 01.17.15 at 10:38 pm ET
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Another Bruin may be hearing from the NHL‘s Department of Player Safety. In the second period of Saturday night’s game against Columbus, Carl Soderberg caught Matt Calvert with a shoulder to the head as he tried to throw a hit, something Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards was quick to point out after the game.

“I thought the hit [Calvert] took in the second period was a shot right to his head,” Richards said.

Soderberg said he didn’t remember the play when asked about it after the game. Calvert was not made available to the media because he has been battling an illness.

Soderberg has no previous history with supplemental discipline.

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Zdeno Chara, Bruins not making excuses for poor play 12.13.14 at 6:10 pm ET
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The Bruins have had plenty of built-in excuses this season if they wanted to use them. They lost two of their best players from last season (Jarome Iginla in free agency and Johnny Boychuk via trade) and didn’t do anything to replace them. And they’ve had injuries pile up both at forward and on defense, with the prolonged absences of Zdeno Chara and David Krejci the most notable.

The Bruins aren’t using any of those as excuses, though. Despite all of that, they still expect to be a good team. For the first month or so of Chara’s absence, they were at least good enough to beat some bad teams and maintain control of a playoff spot.

Over the last few weeks, however, they’ve faced better teams, lost seven of nine and lost control of a playoff spot — while they are still eighth in the Eastern Conference in terms of point, they’re actually 10th in points percentage thanks to the fact they’ve played more games than the other bubble teams.

“We can look at all the excuses we want, but we haven’t been that type of a team and I don’t want it to be that type of a team,” Claude Julien said. “So instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, let’s get mad and let’s do something about it.”

Chara returned to the lineup Thursday night against the Blackhawks, but the Bruins have lost both games since then, erasing any dreams anyone had that his return would be some magical elixir.

Chara has looked OK at times — especially in the third period Thursday night — but it’s been obvious that he’s still not up to speed. He’s taken four penalties in two games, with his second penalty Saturday leading to an Ottawa power-play goal that tied the game at 2-2. Julien didn’t even use Chara in overtime Saturday, something that would be unheard of if Chara was playing like Chara.

With the rest of the team struggling as much as it is, the Bruins need Chara in top form as soon as possible. He knows that, and like the rest of the team, he’s not making excuses for why he isn’t there yet.

“The first guy, I’m looking at myself,” Chara said. “I’ve got to be better and I have to work to be at the top of my game. … I can be here and talking about how difficult it is, but that’s the way it is. My job is to get to that performance where I need to be as soon as I can, as quick as I can.”

Milan Lucic: Bruins ‘can’t wait too much longer to turn this thing around’ 12.13.14 at 5:20 pm ET
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With one point on Saturday, the Bruins technically moved back ahead of the Panthers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In reality, they remained 10th in the conference in terms of points percentage, as all the other bubble teams — the Panthers, Maple Leafs, Rangers and Capitals — have games in hand on the Bruins.

Throughout the Bruins’ early-season struggles and rash of injuries, there was always the sense that as long as the B’s remained in playoff position, there was no need to be too worried.

Well, it’s time to be worried. The Bruins have lost seven of their last nine, and they’re not in playoff position anymore.

Zdeno Chara is back, but he’s still getting up to speed. David Krejci is still out, meaning three of the four forward lines are still in flux. A month ago, it might have been OK to say “Just wait until Chara is back to being himself” or “Just wait until Krejci returns.”

But the Bruins don’t have the luxury of waiting now, and they know it.

“We can’t wait too much longer to turn this thing around,” said Milan Lucic. ” We have to do it now. We can’t wait much longer. We have five games before Christmas break. We should be hungry on wanting to get as many points as we can get.”

It’s not going to be easy for the Bruins to turn it around in the next week, as they hit the road for games in Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg against three pretty solid teams. But somehow, they’re going to have to find a way to do it.

It can be tempting to look at those other bubble teams and say, “Well none of them are all that good. Maybe they’ll start losing more.” And maybe they will. But the Bruins aren’t all that good right now either, and having to rely on others to lose in order to make the playoffs is a dangerous way to go.

It’s still a little early for full-blown panic mode, but it’s definitely time for concern. And for the Bruins players, it needs to be time for a lot more urgency.

“No one is going to do it for us,” Lucic said. “We can’t bank on other teams to lose and other teams to do us favors. We have to start bringing it on the ice and start getting wins.”

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