|Hockey Notes: Hunwick earning his spot||12.07.08 at 12:27 pm ET|
Members of the Bruins brain trust correctly predicted that — after playing 10 games in 18 days through a brutal November stretch of hockey – the Black and Gold would begin incurring some injuries that would challenge the team’s overall depth. The Bruins flew through that stretch with a bevy of W’s and continue building a burgeoning lead in the Eastern Conference’s top spot, but bumps and bruised began cropping at a position where Boston could seemingly least afford them: the blue line.
First it was Andrew Ference going down with a broken right tibia and then Aaron Ward followed with a left leg injury, likely a sprained ankle that wasn’t going to keep a tough-as-nails customer like Ward out for a long stretch. But then Dennis Wideman missed a game with the dreaded “middle body injury” and things really began to stretch out in an area that Boston wasn’t especially deep.
But a funny thing happened along the way to Boston succumbing to their defenseman injury woes: they discovered a host of other young guys that have stepped up and filled in along the vacant spots. Matt Lashoff and Johnny Boychuk, who was send back down to the AHL this afternoon, have both arrived fresh off the AHL bus ride circuit to step up and provide steady D-man coverage — with a hint of offensive potential from each young colt — and 23-year-old Matt Hunwick has been an absolute revelation for the Spoked B.
Hunwick was the last defenseman returned to Providence when cuts came down at the end of training camp, and he was handed marching orders to continue raising his competitive levels during one-on-one battles for the puck while gaining physical strength to shake off the hurtling bodycheckers abundant in the NHL.
Hunwick kept his solid D-zone responsibilities and puck-moving ways sharp in two games with the P-Bruins between two different call-ups to Boston, and the 23-year-old was the first one called up to “The Show” when Ference was lost for an extended period.
Young forwards Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel are rightfully getting much of the credit for the puck renaissance that’s currently taking place in the Hub, but Hunwick has similarly emerged as a force within Claude Julien’s defense-first system. The 5-foot-10, 187-pound rookie is behind only Wideman and Zdeno Chara when it comes to defenseman scoring for the B’s with three goals and six assists in 14 games, and he boasts the second-best +/- along the blueline with a sterling +12 mark. More importantly, he’s given the Bruins an average of 21 minutes of ice time per night over the last five games, which has softened the sting of the injury bug along the blue line.
The game of hockey is – in many ways — a game of dopplegangers, where any observant player can scout out another skater with the same skill set, physical attributes and on-ice temperament and begin absorbing valuable puck lessons. Prior to the iron man hockey act he’s pulled over the last handful of games, there were a glut of contests early in the season that Hunwick didn’t dress for. Hunwick instead opted spent his time watching his fellow defensemen — with a discerning eye toward Wideman and Ference. Ference, in particular, is a good match for the relatively undersized Hunwick and offensively-skilled defenseman.
“I’ve tried to be more aggressive in the play and I’m trying to get more of an edge out there,” said Hunwick. “[Ference] is the same size as me and he’s definitely a guy that I paid attention to when I was up in the press box watching the game. Not only is it the size thing, but the way he’s able to be physically involved at his size too. How hard and intensely he plays, how smart he plays and how good he is on special teams. He’s been around playing this game for a long time, and there’s a lot I’ve learned from him.”
Hunwick’s elevation within the eyes of the Bruins’ coaching staff was never more apparent than their highly successful two-game swing through Florida. During the third period a tight, one-goal effort against Tampa Bay, Hunwick (a career-high 23:27 of ice time), Shane Hnidy (who also elevated his game to another level during a serious time of need for the B’s) and Chara were all playing yeoman’s minutes with a depleted corps, and they still managed to hold down a group of individual offensive talents to one goal. Down three D-men, it was just another night for the NHL’s best defensive crew ( one of only three teams that have allowed less than 60 goals this season along with the Ottawa Senators and the notoriously defense-minded Minnesota Wild) and another rookie quickly learning the new-and-improved Bruins Way of doing things.
“The more he plays and the better he’s going to get, and that’s really just the normal cycle of experience,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. “He’s been put through game situations and so there’s improvement through game experience and there’s a real raising of his confidence levels.
“Every game we keep a close eye on him and gauge how things are going, and if he’s playing well then we’ve got to make sure we find him some ice and if he’s having a tough night then we make sure he doesn’t lose his confidence,” added Julien. “We keep a close eye on him, but he’s playing very good hockey right now.”
For Hunwick, watching Wideman and Ference — before he went down — was like attending a Defenseman Master Class. The young defenseman, who displayed outstanding leadership abilities first skating for the US National Team Development Program and then along to the Michigan Wolverines and the minor leagues, is beginning to look like a steal out of a productive 2004 entry draft for the Bruins that also churned out Krejci and high-scoring Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg. While Krejci and Versteeg were both taken in the first few rounds, Hunwick was a seventh round selection that’s already begun making inroads toward a full time job in the NHL.
“It’s a big opportunity to play good minutes and be a big part of this defensive corps,” said Hunwick. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this squad, and also show the coaching staff that I’m capable of playing at this level.”
|Cherry calling out Looch, or just Don Being Don?||11.30.08 at 12:25 pm ET|
Don Cherry is always nothing if not outspoken, but did he step over the line and invite the ire of a top-of-the-world Bruins Nation after his weekly edition of Coach’s Corner yesterday evening on Hockey Night in Canada? Grapes was doing his usual eight minutes of hockey bluster thing and going through his observations for the week, and then he stopped to applaud rugged New York Islanders defenseman Brendan Witt.
Cherry gave Witt an attaboy and called him a warrior for taking on “Lucy” when the Isles played the Bruins last weekend. Grapes was pointing out that Witt was showing courage in dancing with Milan Lucic during a blowout loss before a frenzied Garden crowd last Friday, but there seemed to also be a potential dig at Lucic.
Co-Host Ron MacLean quickly corrected Cherry and said Lucic, but it caused me to wonder whether Cherry was purposely mispronouncing Looch after the “L’Affaire Laraque” in Montreal last week. Grapes can sometimes be at a loss for names and bungle anything that doesn’t sound like a name out of the Mississauga phone book, so pure Grapes error is more likely. In fact, Dandy Don butchers at least a couple of names in the Coach’s Corner segment before even getting to Lucic. Cherry has always been complimentary of Looch in the past, and just last week he had a few bon mots for both Marc Savard and Andrew Ference.
All that being said, one has to wonder if there’s any possibility Lucic was using his heightened platform as CBC’s High Priest of Hockey to take a veiled shot at the Big, Bad Looch.
Here’s the video, and you decide whether Cherry’s gaffe was purposeful, or simply his always motoring mouth moving faster than his brain. It should be noted that Cherry later goes on to call Looch a monster, which he most certainly is when he laces up the skates. The Lucic/Witt portion begins around the 6:15 mark of the youtube video:
|‘Grapes’ gives B’s some love||11.23.08 at 7:53 pm ET|
Everybody knows that Don Cherry has always harbored a soft spot in his heart for the Spoked B of the Boston Bruins — the team that gave him his first shot behind an NHL bench — and the inimitable Grapes gave the Big, Bad B’s a couple of screaming one-timers during the must-see Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada last weekend.
First Dandy Don — decked out in a Looney Toons tie in honor of the Grey Cup held in Montreal last weekend – tosses a few deserved attaboys at Marc Savard for potting his 600th career point last week, and then praised the B’s center for the all-around game he continues to play for Coach Claude Julien in Boston this season. He’s built on last year’s All-Star worthy season with a campaign that currently has him ranked second in the NHL in assists (19), third in points (27) and third with a sterling +13 mark for the season. This from an undeniably gifted skater/playmaker that was a minus player in all but one season before coming to Boston, and is currently still a -61 for his career. Three more years of a Julien/Savard combo might just see him break into positive territory.
The Savard kudos continues a growing back-and-forth mutual admiration society between the crafty center and the God Father of blustery hockey talk in the Great White North.
A little later on Cherry also ladles some puck love for the “great Canadian spirit” that defenseman Andrew Ference displayed when he powered right through the pain of a broken tibia in his right leg to still clear the puck during a PK situation against the Canadiens. As B’s fans will remember, Ference was hit in the right leg with an Andre Markov slapper, dropped to the ice in obvious pain, and then battled several times to regain his footing. The felled blueliner then cleared the puck from Boston’s zone once he got back on his skates. Ference was diagnosed with fractured tibia several days later, but — even after repeated viewings – it simply doesn’t get any less compelling watching the blueliner battle to get to his feet and do his job before gingerly skating off the ice.
Courtesy of the wonderful world of youtube, Cherry’s bon mots on Savard start at about roughly the four minute mark and Ference is at roughly the 5:50 mark…enjoy.
|Crushing the Canadiens||11.13.08 at 9:45 pm ET|
Bruins goaltender Manny Fernandez perhaps put it best after getting the start and earning the best seat in the house to watch his team trounce a shellshocked Canadiens outfit by a commanding 6-1 score last night. The Habs have owned the Black and Gold’s number over the last few years — and in particular last season when they demoralized the B’s by taking all eight regular season games from a plucky Bruins club.
Thursday’s Hab-stomping was the most lopsided win for the Bruins over their Montreal rivals since they dropped a 5-0 butt-kicking on the Habs on Dec. 20, 2001 — a time when guys like Bill Guerin, Rob Zamuner and Marty LaPointe still roamed the Boston ice wearing the Spoked B on their sweater. The white-hot B’s have also won an impressive five games in a row.
“It seems like it’s a different page this year,” said Manny Fernandez, a riff on the “Turn the Page” philosophy that another pro athlete named Manny used to employ in the Hub. “From just watching last year in the playoffs we broke the ice there just a little bit. We showed each other we could actually win against that team. Today was huge for us. Any time you can back them off a little and make them think about…that’s big.”
“The next time we play them we’re going to show up twice as hard as we played tonight, but still a win [is huge] against that team knowing the history — especially last year when it was tough,” added Fernandez, who made 27 saves on the night, but was at his best early in the contest when tested on a two-shot rush by Robert Lang.
Bruins coach Claude Julien said he opted for Fernandez to give his potentially fatigued team — after they arrived back in Boston a few minutes before 3 AM Thursday morning — any edge they could possibly find against a rested Montreal Canadiens group. After the game, the B’s coach beamed at the prospect of having two goalies playing as well as both Fernandez and Tim Thomas both are between the pipes.
“We had an opportunity to put in a fresh goaltender tonight in case we got in the situation that we had some tired guys. We had to give ourselves an edge somewhere. We’re so lucky to have two goaltenders right now that are at the top of their game,” said Julien. “Right now it’s important for me to try and handle it in a way where both of them maintain that standard of goaltending.
“They both deserve to play, but we all know goaltenders like to play as much as they can, and right now they’re both responding. Not only that, I think they’re both very supportive of each other, and that’s something that’s important.”
The Last Shall Become First
The fourth line of Stephane Yelle, Shawn Thornton and Petteri Nokelainen had been lauded from here to Moncton over the first six weeks of the season for the energy and sandpaper-style they brought to the B’s fold, but the addition of a healthy Chuck Kobasew — and the subtraction of the hard-working Nokelainen – has admittedly brought some added offensive punch to the trio.
During Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over Chicago the “energy line” was kept off the ice for long stretches of a penalty-filled game and Kobasew (9:34), Yelle (13:43 largely due to his duties on the PK unit) and Shawn Thornton (3:32) all played short minutes. In a strange way the idle moments at the United Center might have helped the trio find their legs quickly last night against the hated Habs,and given them some jump that started up the B’s attack.
The fourth line grinders popped in the first two goals of the game and set the Black and Gold off and running in what became a Boston hockey celebration with 16,816 invites to the TD Banknorth Garden. The first was a great hustle play by the usually rough-and-tumble Thornton as he busted right through Mike Komisarek and Mathieu Dandenault, stole the puck from the half-hearted Canadiens duo and then rifled a five-hole backhand bid through the pads of Montreal wunderkind goalie Carey Price.
Yelle followed with a pure hustle goal and popped in a loose puck rebound in front of Price’s net with three minutes to go in the period, and all of a sudden a snake-bitten line was lugging both energy and points to the table. The fourth line outburst is all the more impressive as it — on most nights — gives Claude Julien and Co. four different lines that can strike offensively and clearly raises the team’s overall offensive potential this season. The Law Firm of Thornton, Yelle and Kobasew collected a whopping seven total points on the night.
“Did you see [Yelle] look me off on that 2-on-1…he’s lucky he scored right there I tell ya,” said a tongue in cheek Thornton after the game. “He’s looking awfully dangerous out there, and we’re getting along really well on and off the ice. Chucky too. He’s easy to play with because he’s always in the right spot and half the I don’t have to look because I just know he’s going to be there. He’s been a treat, and Chucky has been on the second line on just about every team that he’s played. He works so hard and he’s such a skilled guy. I think it’s been a while coming for us, and we’ve been working, working, and working and it finally paid off for us.”
Hey I’m just a simple Irish guy living in the city of Boston,” said Thornton, who is in possession of more offensive skill than traditionally given credit for given his usual role as Bruins’ enforcer. “I think the fact that all 20 guys are going hard and we didn’t have any passengers tonight — and we haven’t had any in a while — and that’s the way we have to be successful.”
The Looch finds his first victim
Bruins left wing Milan Lucic was again an emotional and physical catalyst for the Bruins, and gave everyone another Neely-esque taste of the tone-setting, skilled hockey player he continues to develop into. Looch may not be Cam redux, but he’s as close as the Bruins Nation could possibly hope for in the sanitized era of the NHL.
Canadiens captain Saku Koivu finally put the Habs on the scoreboard with 6:26 to go in the second period and took back a bit of momentum, but the Looch seized it right back in the third.
During a 5-on-5 faceoff in the Canadiens zone, Phil Kessel popped a faceoff draw directly onto the stick of charging Lucic gone mad, and the brawling 20-year-old drilled a wrist shot past an unsuspecting Price to make it a 5-1 hockey game. The score marked his fifth goal of the season, and later in the period — with the game well in hand — Lucic finally dropped the gloves with longtime nemesis Mike Komisarek. It had been a long time coming for both combatants as they’ve doled out plenty of face-washes and tough talk to each other in the recent past, but the two had never actually engaged in “The Dance.”
Komisarek is probably still wishing that he hadn’t.
The Looch went Berserker-style on the Habs defenseman and hit him with a series of vicious rights before one final roundhouse punch dropped Komisarek to the ground, and a victorious Lucic raised his hand and started excitedly screaming to anyone and everyone in attendance. He then stopped and smacked on the boards by the penalty box before entering the sin bin, and then left midway through to get a bevy of cuts on his right knuckles treated before returning to the game.
“We could have made excuses coming into tonight’s game after coming in late last night, but we felt like we had a good jump to our step,” said Lucic. “We knew the importance of tonight’s game. It felt like before the game we were more calm and cool and we weren’t overexcited like we’ve been sometimes in the past.”
And as far as his first bout of the 2008-09 season?
“We’ve had our battles in the past, and it was just a matter of time before something like that happened,” added Lucic. “First off the fans have been great for the first part of the season, and they’ve really helped us be a tougher team to play against in the Garden. [The fans] appreciating that physical play is just guys from the past that created that identity of the Bruins. It’s lucky for me that I just fit into that.”
Stops and Starts
Defenseman Andrew Ference has arguably been Boston’s best blueliner this season for the first 15 games, but he went down at the end of the second period when he took an Andre Markov shot off the foot. Ference gamely stayed on the ice to help kill of a Canadiens power play after dragging himself from the ice in obvious pain, but he didn’t return for the third period.
Bruins coach Claude Julien was tight-lipped about Ference’s status following the game.
“He’s fine. He’s being evaluated,” said Julien. Honestly, we’ll probably have a little more on his situation tomorrow. Nothing’s clear right now and hopefully it’s just something minor.”
Lucic had a priceless response after he informed reporters that he’d had a negative X-ray on his right hand to make sure it wasn’t broken after he used Mike Komisarek as a punching bag.
“There’s so many broken bones in there from before that you can’t really tell,” said Lucic of his oft-battered right hand.
|Sounds of the game… Bruins 5, Leafs 2||11.06.08 at 11:11 pm ET|
It might be time to start asking just who is Blake Wheeler.
He changed his uniform number before the game from 42 to 26. He scored his first career hat trick as the Bruins beat the Maple Leafs, 5-2, Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden.
Wheeler is now tied with Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski for the NHL rookie goal lead with 6. … Dennis Wideman won $100 for scoring the goal on Andrew Ference’s 100th career assist. Ference said before the game he would offer the reward to the lucky goal-scorer. Thursday marked Zdeno Chara’s 700th career game.
Now for the stars of the game.
|Looch seeing clearly now||10.25.08 at 8:39 pm ET|
Good times all-around for the Bruins following a 5-4 win over the Thrashers Saturday night at the TD Banknorth Garden before an announced crowd of 16,044 — a rowdy bunch that booed the B’s off the ice when they were down 2-0 following the first period and then easily tossed 50 hats on the ice following Milan Lucic’s game-winning third goal of the night with 1:41 to go in the third period.
It was the B’s first hat trick since Phil Kessel pulled it off early last season against the LA Kings on Oct. 12, 2007.
The big hero on the evening was the same punishing guy that utilized brute strength to shatter the glass around the boards while checking a Maple Leafs defenseman just two days earlier. This time the Looch used his strength and skill to camp out in front of the net and notch the first multiple goal game of his career, a performance that might have been aided by a recent decision to use contact lenses on the ice.
Lucic started using contacts while playing the Leafs on Thursday night — after just wearing glasses when he was watching TV at night for the last three years or so — and things have appropriately taken off for the hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pounder.
“This is my second game wearing contacts out there, so it’s a lot easier to see the puck when your vision is clear. [Wearing contacts] is like going from a regular, old TV to a High-Definition TV, so that’s the perspective that I have now,” said Lucic, who last collected le trick de chapeau (that’s only a strict Haggs French translation right there, so don’t go parading that little bon mot down St. Catherine Street. “[The hat trick] was nice, but one goal, two goals, no goals…it doesn’t matter to me as long as we get the win.”
B’s head coach Claude Julien says that he still sees Lucic squinting and wincing on the ice out of habit, but will take whatever aid is helping Looch perform out on the frozen sheet — while also pointing out that the good and fearless work habits exhibited by the brawny forward are a good example for the rest of the team. Lucic fights to keep his position in the offensive zone with ferocious intent, and brandishes a fearless willingness to brave into the violent areas of the ice where both goals are made and blood is spilled on occasion.
“Looch got rewarded tonight for being willing to [go to the front of the net] and paying the price. He’s got the physique to do it, and if he keeps doing it he’s going to keep scoring goals,” said Julien. “This is the Boston Bruins and it’s about heart and soul and working hard, and Looch is the perfect example of that. He won us a hockey game tonight with the game that he played and the identity that we’re talking about.”
–Just before face-off with Atlanta, the Bruins announced that the third period in tonight’s game would be split, with the teams switching ends at the first stoppage in play after the 10-minute mark of the period.
The change in format is occurred due to incorrect markings on the West End (visitors bench side) of the TD Banknorth Garden Ice. In the West End, the two face-off dots are 24 feet from the goal line – four feet longer than NHL specifications — a discrepancy that was first noticed by New Bedford Standard Times hockey reporter Mick Colageo. The corresponding face-off circles are also four feet further away from the goal line.
The Bruins and Thrashera began the third period in the same ends that they finished the second period. Following the first stoppage after the 10-minute mark of the third period, the teams switched ends, and the face-off took place on the opposite side of where play ended.
The current sheet of ice was installed on September 9, 2008, and the error was not noticed by the Bruins until this morning. Due to the error, the NHL mandated the changes to tonight’s game format.
“Of the many logistical tasks the Garden operations team is called upon to perform each season, painting and marking the ice sheet is one of the more routine and straight-forward. Therefore, this oversight is simply an inexcusable and disappointing error for which we apologize to the Boston Bruins and the NHL at-large,” said TD Banknorth Garden President John Wentzell.
–Aside from the Lucic on-ice heroics, the game also featured a Julien-fueled tongue-lashing between the first and the second period when the B’s found themselves down by two goals while playing a pretty uninspired brand of hockey.
Let’s let Julien tell the story:
“To put it mildly [the effort] was unacceptable by individuals and as a group. Right now I think it’s pretty obvious that we’ve got a lot of our good players that aren’t at the top of their games. We can stand here and pretend and sugarcoat it. But maybe it’s encouraging because it means that we can be that much better when everybody finds their games and starts playing the way they can.”
–One thing to look for going forward is increased ice time and responsibility — and a bump up to the first unit — for the former second power play unit of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Dennis Wideman, Andrew Ference and Phil Kessel.
That quintet provided a pair of power play strikes in Saturday night’s win and have been dangerous with the man advantage while mixing responsible play with Lucic’s toughness, Kessel’s sniper-like abilities and Krejci’s playmaking skills with the puck. The second-teamers were the first one’s out on the man advantage a handful of times on Saturday night, and that may be the case in the B’s foreseeable future — per the orders of their coach.
“They’ve been going first because they’ve been our best power play [unit],” said Julien. “They’re the ones that have given us the most goals, and — hey — why not have a little competition between the two power play [teams]? If you want to be first, then go out there and earn it.”
“It’s important right now that players don’t take it as a position of status and think they’re automatically going to get that ice time,” said Julien. “[The second power play unit]” has earned the right to start as we speak.”
|Sounds of the game… Bruins 5, Atlanta 4||at 8:16 pm ET|
In the words of colleague Joe Haggerty, the Thrashers felt the power of the Looch on Saturday night at TD Banknorth Garden as the Bruins erased an early 2-0 hole and beat the Atlanta Thrashers, 5-4, for their first home win of the season.
It was a night of firsts as Milan Lucic collected his first career hat trick. In fact, it was the first multiple goal game in the league.
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