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Sloppy officiating crew for Bruins-Sabres endangered Adam McQuaid 12.30.16 at 5:25 am ET
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The officiating crew did not have a good night Thursday. (Timothy Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

A nonsensical refusal by the referees to let Adam McQuaid fight put the B’s defenseman in harm’s way Thursday night. (Timothy Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

I’ve never seen a bank robbery live in person. If I were to see one though, I imagine that it’d look a little bit like what I watched the officiating crew do to Thursday’s head-to-head between the Bruins and Sabres in what might honestly be the biggest heist of an NHL paycheck since the days of Colin Campbell’s paydays as chief disciplinarian.

In the third of four 2016-17 meetings between these fierce division rivals of over four decades, the officiating crew led by referees Ghislain Hebert and TJ Luxmore and linesmen Greg Devorski and Mark Shewchyk did everything they could to absolutely neuter this contest and unnecessarily put a player in harm’s way in the process.

Get the obvious out of the way and call it like you see it: these two teams hate each other; The Sabres entered play a desperate mess and in need of a win to make things interesting their pursuit of third place in the Atlantic. The Bruins, with wins in just three of their last 11 games, were equally desperate. Factor desperation with hate and familiarity, and this kind of head-to-head was guaranteed to look closer to the old days of the Adams Division.

And the animosity between these foes resumed from where it last left off as the Sabres’ William Carried cheapshotted B’s forward David Backes with an illegal check to the head long after Backes had ditched the puck.

Backes, who has concussion history to his name, was eventually helped off the ice by the B’s training staff and did not return to action with what’s been called an upper-body injury, and the Black and Gold wanted to even the score if given the chance.

That chance came on an offside whistle that prompted Adam McQuaid, who was denied a fight in the B’s last game, to go after Carrier. The referees did not want to see McQuaid drop the gloves (which seems to be a theme any time the 6-foot-5 defender is involved in some nastiness), so they decided to get involved. What they did to get involved, however, was a terrible decision.

With McQuaid and Carrier throwing punches, both officials were so focused on keeping McQuaid tethered that they pinned both of his arms down and back, and allowed Carrier to just deliver blow after blow to McQuaid’s face much to the delight of the Buffalo crowd. McQuaid, bloodied after perhaps the seventh or eighth defenseless fist to the noggin, was irate.

(Does No. 92 in stripes look familiar? He should. He’s one of the bozos that kept McQuaid from fighting Josh Anderson on Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena.)

You can clearly see McQuaid express his frustration with the situation, as he was incapable of defending himself thanks to an assist from the referees. Fighting is dangerous, we all agree. Carrier may have broken the oft-forgotten code of fighting, too, with some punches with referees in the way. But you know what’s even more dangerous than both those things? When the fighter is unable to protect himself because the referees do not want him to fight when a fight is very much already happening. And when the player is endangered because of the referees? Woof, talk about the complete opposite of doing your job.

Again, as we said after Tuesday’s game, fighting is still a part of this game, and there’s no reason why guys like McQuaid should not be allowed to fight (Evander Kane, whose brutal TKO of Matt Cooke has racked up nearly one million views on YouTube, was allowed to fight the Red Wings’ Brendan Smith just two nights ago and that video of the Cooke knockout would tell you that he’s just as dangerous as McQuaid). So to put an apparent ban (I don’t know what else to call something so obvious) on No. 54 tussling is stupid to begin with, but when you’re actually pinning his arms down in the middle of a fight, you become ridiculous.

What followed was a hypersensitive crew that just didn’t know what to let slide. That showed itself when Brian Gionta chased Colin Miller almost the full length of the rink to respond to a hit he didn’t like almost 30 seconds prior after the whistle, and when Miller was assessed a matching roughing for defending himself as he shoved Gionta back. They were just two of the eight penalties that followed in the 31-minute span of hockey after the initial Carrier-McQuaid incident.

In an effort to ‘control’ the game, the referees lost control and became a flatout joke.

Something that would not have happened had they just let the self-policing way of the NHL work itself out with a scrap that both McQuaid and Carrier had undoubtedly agreed to with the mutual decision to ditch their gloves.

Bruins winger David Backes leaves game with upper-body injury 12.29.16 at 10:51 pm ET
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David Backes exited Thursday's game with an upper-body injury. (Timothy Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

David Backes exited Thursday’s game with an upper-body injury. (Timothy Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

David Backes has never had a shift he didn’t want to skate.

The first time the Bruins’ big ticket offseason pickup (Backes was signed to a five-year, $30 million contract on July 1) was hit up high by a Sabres player, early in November, he got up — bloody and all — and didn’t miss a single shift. Because of course he didn’t. Backes prides himself on his scars and workmanlike approach to the game, and it’s a big reason why the Bruins targeted him in the first place.

But when Backes was once again dropped by a Sabre, this time on a high hit by William Carrier in the first period of Thursday’s 4-2 win, he not only required help up and off the ice but did not return to action.

Down Backes, Claude Julien rotated wingers in his spot on the second line with David Krejci and Ryan Spooner, namely David Pastrnak and Frank Vatrano, and his spot as the net-front presence on the B’s top power-play unit was occupied by Tim Schaller. The line continued to chug along for the third straight game, even in Backes’ absence, too, as Spooner scored two goals in the third period, including the game-winner, while Krejci added the power-play goal that brought the B’s and Sabres even.

Penalized as an illegal check to the head, the Bruins targeted Carrier upon his exit from the box, and got their licks in (in a way) as Adam McQuaid tried getting Carrier to fight but had his arms restrained by the linesmen while Carrier pounded away on his face.

The dreaded C-word (no, not that one) is the obvious concern for Backes, who does have some slight concussion history to his name, although not fully documented, with one concussion on record in Nov. 14 but big hits in Apr. 2014  and a vague sitout last spring in which Backes watched as a verbal cheerleader for the Sharks after a big collision with the Sharks’ Brent Burns.

Backes, who has missed five games this season with an elbow injury, has nine goals and 19 points in 33 games this season.

Bruins finally mount successful comeback, beat Sabres 12.29.16 at 10:12 pm ET
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The Bruins overcame a two-goal deficit. (Timothy Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins overcame a two-goal deficit en route to a 4-2 victory over the Sabres. (Timothy Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

Two nights after they were outworked into an 0-3 deficit in what finished as a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets, the Bruins improved — albeit slightly — when they waited until they were down 0-2 against the Sabres tonight at KeyBank Arena before their comeback began.

And this time, they finished the job, behind a 4-2 win in a knockdown, straight-up hateful meeting with the emotional engagement of a must-win contest from both benches. (Which might not have been too far from the truth, as weird as that may sound on Dec. 29.)

Patrice Bergeron’s one-timer for his sixth goal of the season brought the Bruins within one early in the second period, and for the second time in as many games it was David Krejci that tallied the game-tying goal before the second period came to an end.

Like they did on Tuesday, the Bruins somehow regained the momentum that should have been gutpunched out of them entirely after a sluggish 20 minutes and drew back even through 40 minutes of action. And like they did against the Jackets, the Bruins really seemed to control the pace of play, and come at chances — be it even strength, on the power play, or even shorthanded on Dominic Moore’s breakaway — but still, the go-ahead goal did not follow.

It was the same story, just on a different day.

At a certain point, you just felt that the Bruins needed to bail their goaltender and their penalty kill out with a tally. Their goaltender, Tuukka Rask, was sharp after the early goals against (and nobody in this world was stopping that Kyle Okposo top-shelf snipe), with stops on 31 of 33 shots. And the B’s penalty kill was great, with successful kills on five of six times shorthanded.

The longer the game went on, though, the more you thought that it would not come, just like it did not in Columbus.

But it was at the 16:07 mark of the third period that Ryan Spooner rifled home a puck for his sixth goal of the season.

The goal? Gigantic. The win, finished off by a second Spooner goal, an empty-netter? Even more gigantic (Giganticer? Most gigantic?) given the storm that’s surrounding this Bruins team. On top of entering play with wins in just three of their last 11 games, the Bruins, at 40 points, have the Lightning (39 points and one game in hand) and Leafs (37 points and three games in hand) breathing down their neck. That’s without even considering the fact that the Sabres are not a great hockey team.

Coming back but losing to a Jackets club that’s rattled off a month of wins? You can deal with that. Coming back but losing to a Sabres club that’s been straight-up bad for prolonged stretches this year and without Ryan O’Reilly? Yeah, that wouldn’t work. It was established before the game that the Black and Gold simply wanted a win tonight. It didn’t have to be pretty — and it wasn’t, believe me — but it needed to end with two points banked in the tight-as-hell Atlantic Division standings by the Bruins.

The best part about the win? It started with the B’s top talents. Bergeron, whose sticks have been cursed all year long, got back on the board with a goal. Krejci extended his run, and has now tallied five points in his last three games (and has points in five of his last eight games played). The Bruins had at least four shots on goal from six different forwards.

And, of course and most importantly, a win.

 

Brad Marchand, Bruins begin crucial home-and-home vs. Sabres 12.29.16 at 5:21 pm ET
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The Bruins are 2-0-0 against the Sabres this season. (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins are 2-0-0 against the Sabres this season. (Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

A three-day holiday break from the ice brought about a noticeable uptick in the pace of play from some of the Bruins’ best in their Tuesday head-to-head with the white-hot Blue Jackets.

The game brought everything but the most important thing: a win.

Although the Bruins overcame an 0-3 deficit for the second time this year, the B’s were ultimately dropped when they were unable to counterpunch a Nick Foligno power-play goal scored midway through the third period, and finished as a 4-3 loser in spite of a 40-to-22 shot advantage and massive domination of the Blue Jackets almost immediately after the goal that made it 3-0 in the first period.

The Bruins had dominant puck possession from each line and the David Krejci line with Ryan Spooner and David Backes on the wings shined with goals from Backes and Krejci. They also had solid contributions from another solid game from Colin Miller on the backend, and their third line rolled with some noticeable chemistry redeveloped with Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano. Still, it wasn’t enough.

With the defeat, the Bruins dropped to 3-4-3 in their last 11 games, and have almost officially run out of breathing room in regards to their grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, with the Lightning knocking on their door and just one point away from the Bruins (and with one game in hand) and the Leafs just three points behind and with three games in hand.

“We’re gaining some points,” B’s coach Claude Julien said this morning, “but we’re not gaining enough.”

A Bruins loss coupled with a Lightning win over the Maple Leafs tonight would be enough to bump the club from the playoff structure for the time being, and that’s more than enough for the Bruins to stress the importance of a win in the first game of a home-and-home with a hapless Sabres club that’s dropped 10 of 17 home games this year.

“Right now it’s about winning hockey games,” Julien said of their lone home-and-home on this season. “I’m not dissecting this thing unnecessarily more than we have to win a hockey game here and that starts tonight.”‘

Bruins winger Brad Marchand has been a factor in both of the prior meetings between the Atlantic Division rivals this year, with the game-winning goal in the first meeting and an assist on the game-winner in their last head-to-head, and enters play with 16 goals and 26 points in 33 career games against the Sabres.

“We’ve got to control this guy,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, whose team is without do-it-all forward Ryan O’Reilly for this game, said of Marchand. “We’ve got to get after this guy and make sure he’s not the storyline in the game.”

Marchand is currently leading the Bruins with 29 points, and the B’s are 5-1-3 when he scores a goal.

Tuukka Rask is expected in net for the Bruins. The 29-year-old Rask stopped 18-of-22 in Tuesday’s loss to the Blue Jackets, but has been a nightmare for the Sabres this year, with two wins and stops on 67-of-68 shots thrown his way. Overall, Rask has 11 wins and a .933 save percentage in 18 career starts against the Sabres.

The Sabres counter with Robin Lehner. A winner in his last game behind a 40-of-43 night in the crease, Lehner enters action with eight wins and a .922 save percentage in 24 games this season. Lehner has just three wins in 14 career starts against the Bruins.

Injured defenseman John-Michael Liles was once again skating with the Bruins, but is not any closer to a return to action, according to Julien. The 36-year-old Liles has missed the last 15 games with a concussion.

Forwards Noel Acciari and Tim Schaller, along with defenseman Joe Morrow, are the expected healthy scratches for the Bruins.

The Bruins have not lost in Buffalo since Feb. 26, 2014.

Here are the expected lines and pairings for the Bruins tonight…

Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak

Ryan Spooner – David Krejci – David Backes

Frank Vatrano – Austin Czarnik – Riley Nash

Anton Blidh – Dominic Moore – Jimmy Hayes

Zdeno Chara – Brandon Carlo

Torey Krug – Adam McQuaid

Kevan Miller – Colin Miller

Tuukka Rask

Let ’em go: Refs should not have stopped Josh Anderson and Adam McQuaid from fighting 12.28.16 at 3:58 pm ET
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Adam McQuaid

Adam McQuaid

Who doesn’t love a good hockey fight? David Brisebois and Mark Shewchyk, the linesmen in Tuesday’s game between the Bruins and Blue Jackets, apparently do not.

Tempers flared between the B’s and Jackets, two teams that play just three times a year but two teams known their physical presences (the preferred styles of both Claude Julien and John Tortorella, their respective head coaches), after Scott Hartnell dumped Brad Marchand with a huge hit. There was carryover into the B’s end as Adam McQuaid and Jackets forward Josh Anderson started shoving.

The two were both willing, dropped their gloves, squared up, and were immediately stopped by the referees. No big deal, this has happened before, and plenty of times this season. They’d just skate around the referees. Nope. They were stonewalled out of a bout, and on numerous occasions.

Instead of a player, both Anderson and McQuaid were sent to the box with roughing minors.

 

Lame. As. Hell.

The Does Fighting Belong in the NHL debate has become an incredibly polarizing one, of course, and it hasn’t become any easier, especially with the amount of NHL enforcers that have died entirely too young over these last few years and their links to CTE. Human brains are not meant to play hockey or football to begin with, and adding in an element of getting punched in the head and face repeatedly — sometimes 50-plus times a year (look at some of the old stat lines of minor league enforcers that tried to fight and tangle their way into a big league call up) — only makes it worse. The NHL has done their part to curb some of the impacts (read as: dangers) of fighting — you’re no longer allowed to take your helmet off before a fight begins and most guys in the league now wear visors, which at times limits your ability to pop a dude in the face, unless you want to smash your hand up on some glass — while the AHL has imposed a new 10-fight limit and banned fighting right off a faceoff.

But as far as everybody knows, the NHL technically speaking still does allow fighting in their game (the Bruins have 11 fighting majors to their name this season, the 16th-most in the NHL). On what terms, however, remains vague at best.

Was there a reason why two eager-to-go fighters were denied last night? Of course not. It was not as if this was a late-game situation that would have come with a match penalty or allow animosity between the two teams to explode. In fact, it may have have had the opposite effect if they were allowed to go, as a finality of sorts to the building resentment between the two teams.

And at the risk of sounding like a neanderthal, I do believe there is still a place in the game for fighting. It’s still a way to either settle tempers (which is again what I think you saw both Anderson and McQuaid doing, in a weird way) and draw the line in the sand that things started — be it scrums, late hits, snow-showers on goalies, etc. — will have to be answered. It might not be the ideal way of responding to something, but you’ll take it over the alternative of dudes getting elbowed into next week and onto a stretcher. “But that doesn’t happen in the first place!” the people against fighting will counter. Yeah, you’re more often than not right, though John Scott concussing Loui Eriksson in Oct. 2013 — something he did because nobody else could beat up Milan Lucic for his hit on Ryan Miller two years before, y’know, when Eriksson was skating with the Stars — kinda goes against that.

But if there’s a leaguewide phase out of fighting, doesn’t an equally hard and/or dangerous hit on the other player become the solution? As a whole, coaches and players have become a bit better when it comes to turning the other cheek and trying to make them pay on the scoreboard instead, but if you touch any star player or young gun in this league, you’ll still have somebody guaranteed to be coming after you, be it directly after or later in the game when it’s score-settling time. The NHL is still very much an eye-for-eye, teeth-for-teeth kind of league in that regard, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

That said, I’m all for banning muggings. I don’t need to see Scott try to obliterate Phil Kessel. I don’t need to see Ray Emery beat Braden Holtby back into the Twilight series. That’s not why people go to games, nor should it be. That’s the lowbrow stuff that the league doesn’t need, especially when it involves a star player getting his head kicked in by some plug.

But if two combatants are willing to go, as both Anderson and McQuaid were last night, let them go.

Unless that’s been banned, too.

David Krejci coming through with stronger efforts for Bruins 12.28.16 at 1:37 am ET
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David Krejci had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

David Krejci had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

Tangible four-line efforts from the Bruins, a former staple of Boston Hockey during their since departed Stanley Cup window from 2009 to 2013, have been few and far between this season.

Much of the team’s scoring has been carried by the B’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

Actually, that’s better said as just Pastrnak, who has accounted for 19 of the 79 goals scored by Bruins forwards this season (nearly 25%), compared to the 15 combined goals between Bergeron (five) and Marchand (10). The third line has — at times — been a factor for the Bruins, too, mostly due to the hot streaks of Austin Czarnik, be it at center or on the wing. There’s also the outlier known as fourth-line center Dominic Moore’s offensive resurgence, with his eight goals currently sitting as the fourth-most on the team.

One that’s struggled to get going on a consistent basis? The B’s second line featuring David Krejci and David Backes at center and on the right, and with a rotating cast of characters to their left. Just off the top of my head, that left side has been occupied by Ryan Spooner the most, then Danton Heinen, Matt Beleskey, Tim Schaller, and even Frank Vatrano, who skated in just his third game of the season in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets, for a quick minute. As weird as it may sound, too, the left side (and the right side) of the line is irrelevant if the centerpiece of that line — literally and figuratively — Krejci, remained quiet.

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Bruins have fight, but not enough in 4-3 loss to Blue Jackets 12.27.16 at 10:00 pm ET
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The Bruins overcame an 0-3 hole for the second time this year, but still lost, 4-3 to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

The Bruins overcame an 0-3 hole for the second time this year, but still lost, 4-3 to the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

As maddening as they are and will surely continue to be, this time after a 4-3 loss to the NHL-best Blue Jackets for the Jackets’ 13th win in a row, you can’t say that these Bruins don’t have fight in them.

It’s just a matter of how long they can hang in said fight.

Back from their three-day holiday break and matched up with the best team in the league (the Blue Jackets entered play without a loss this month, with wins in 12 straight games and the league’s best goal differential, at plus-45), the Bruins looked like it was a three-month break from play as the Jackets quickly grabbed a 3-0 lead.

An irate Claude Julien yelled at his club after the first Jackets goal. Understandably so, too, as the B’s just simply forgot about Scott Hartnell in the attacking zone and let the veteran net-front nuisance score on Tuukka Rask without a Bruin within 20 feet of him. He toyed with the idea of changing some things after the second. But before he could even do that he stared at the jumbotron in near-disbelief it appeared, as the Jackets’ cannon fired once again on their third goal on Rask, just 52 seconds after the second, and their third in a 6:37 stretch in the first period.

But Julien did not panic. Rask stayed in the crease. And the Bruins answered with the desperation they needed.

David Backes and Austin Czarnik scored 55 seconds apart to cut the Jackets’ lead to one through 20 minutes of play, and David Krejci’s seventh goal of the season, scored 18:26 into the second period, drew the game back even through two periods of play. Not only did the Bruins find the tallies they needed, but they straight-up dominated the puck, too, with a shot advantage that at one point favored the Bruins by a 29-to-11 mark since the Matt Calvert goal against. And the Bruins likely would have found the go-ahead goal had it not been for some otherworldly goaltending from Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky.

But they couldn’t, and when the Jackets were gifted a late-game power play in the third period, it was Nick Foligno that finally answered with the fourth Jackets goal of the night, and enough for the Jackets’ 13th win in a row.

Foligno’s goal — a product of an inability to clear the front of the net, with Zdeno Chara and Adam McQuaid caught between awkward spacing and puck-watching for a second-chance look from the Columbus captain — the Bruins were left to score a fourth goal on Bobrovsky, a goaltender with a .947 save percentage in his last 10 games, with 9:14 in the third period.

The Bruins gave it their best shot, too, but it didn’t happen. Bobrovsky instead stood tall for a season-high 37 stops.

You could see it coming from a mile away, too. For all the things that the Black and Gold have done well this year, there are two areas of the clock that have stuck out as year-long killers for the club, and it’s been their starts and finishes.

In an 0-3 deficit for the sixth time this season, the Bruins have too often been left with the task of battling their way out of a near insurmountable hole. (The last time the Bruins overcame a three-goal deficit? Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Maple Leafs, so no, it’s not all that easy.) And even when they have — they clawed back to make it 3-3 against both the Capitals and again tonight against the Blue Jackets, but dropped both games — the team has lacked the killer instinct or snipe needed to jump ahead and make the comeback actually worth something with a lead and/or a win.

“It all goes back to that [first] 10 minutes,” Krejci said.

And when that fails to happen, as it has countless times this season, you know the answer the other way is coming.

It’s become the story of the Bruins’ season, too. The Bruins have to work almost twice as hard as their opposite to score the same amount goals (the Bruins put 40 shots on goal compared to just 22 from the Jackets), and when math like that is constantly against you, it’s going to be especially tough to skate off as victors, especially as the season gets deeper and fatigue rears its head.

At least in Washington — when the Bruins last sorta-but-not-really overcame a three-goal hole — they nabbed a point with an overtime loss, but tonight, a loss is a loss is a loss. Even if it comes at the hands of a team that’s just on fire.

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