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Handicapping the race for Boston’s next opponent 04.27.09 at 10:01 am ET
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After an action-packed weekend of playoff hockey, nothing has been decided about the opponent that the Boston Bruins await after dispatching the Montreal Canadiens in a cool four games last week. The Black and Gold will have had more than a week of off-time before the next round begins (I keep hearing that Friday and Sunday will be the days for Game 1 and Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the TD Banknorth Garden), and there could be a real dangerous scenario that a sharp hockey team — fresh off a Game 7 – might steal a Game 1 from the idle B’s when things get going again. With the reseeding in effect, it won’t be the New Jersey Devils or the Washington Capitals until the Eastern Conference finals — which leaves three potential teams for Boston to tangle with in the semifinals.

“You try to pick up on certain things if you’re playing certain teams, but right now we’re talking about the possibility of three teams,” said B’s Claude Julien. “It’s hard to pinpoint one team and say ‘This is what we’ve got to do’ because obviously each style is totally different from the other (teams).”

With that in mind, let’s take each squad still alive by the order of likelihood that they’ll be Boston’s final opponent when the ice chips settle on a pair of Game 7′s scheduled for Tuesday night:

Pittsburgh Penguins (2 to 1 odds that it’s the Pens): This is the team that the Bruins would least like to see in a second round series after watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (four goals apiece in the first round vs. Philadelphia) alternate taking over portions of their opening round series against a tough Philadelphia Flyers squad. The Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Bill Guerin line has been electric since both wingers were brought in at the NHL trade deadline, and — truth be told — the Pens have been a different team since the trades and a healthy Sergei Gonchar fortified the blueline half-way through the season. There’s still a chance that it won’t be Pittsburgh if a road team can come through with a Game 7 upset, but this could potentially be the toughest conference series that the Black and Gold will face in their run for the Cup. Counting the playoffs, the Penguins are a red-hot 18-4-3 since the beginning of March.

Bonus points to any NHL conspiracy theorists out there that already assume the NHL is trying to maneuver for a Sid the Kid vs Alex the Great conference finals, and that the Bruins will have a wake of questionable calls in their path through Pittsburgh. Not saying that it’s going to happen, but the greatest wishes of the hockey networks and league have got to be in the back of anybody’s minds going forward.

Carolina Hurricanes (5 to 1 odds that it’s the Hurricanes):The ‘Canes are 3-0 in Game 7′s since shipping down from Hartford, so don’t underestimate their ability to take down the New Jersey Devils in Tuesday night’s in Newark. Carolina has plenty of players with Cup experience and Cam Ward is very capable of rising to the occasion as attested by the one goal that the Devils have scored in the last two playoff games against the Hurricanes. Carolina put Ray Whitney and Erik Staal on the same line prior to Game 6 and that seemed to spark a team that — to be truthful — couldn’t beat the Bruins during the regular season in four attempts. David Krejci led all B’s scorers with 7 points in those four games against the ‘Canes, but most of those games came in the first half of the season — and this Carolina team is a much better version of that hockey squad.

New York Rangers (50 to 1 that it’s the Rangers):This is the opponent that the Bruins wanted to host, but it doesn’t appear that it’s going to happen after everyone assumed it to be manifest puck destiny. Concord native John Tortorella made the egregious mistake of trying to be “The Show” as head coach and benched Sean Avery for disciplinary infractions with the team firmly in control of the series and up 3-1 after Game 4. The Rangers got spanked in the next game which again proved the “If it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” theory to full effect, and then Tortorella compounded his blunder by engaging in the ultimate undisciplined action: throwing a water bottle at unruly Washington Capitals fans behind the Rangers bench. Tortorella ended up with a one-game suspension for his actions in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday where the Blueshirts should have been closing out the Caps. Instead hockey fans were treated to a this cockamamie excuse for the “disciplinarian” tossing a water bottle off a woman’s forehead. Can you imagine Claude Julien using this as a reason for losing his mind on the Boston bench? The mess that is the New York Rangers is exactly why Boston wanted the Rags in the next round, but it appears that their shot has gone by the board after they had two golden opportunities to go for the kill against the Capitals.

‘€œAccording to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay, one patron was screaming at the team, in graphic language, about whether defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have a sexual relationship,’€ Sather wrote in his letter to Bettman. ‘€œThis was within earshot of several children seated nearby. Several other fans also made repeated homophobic remarks’€¦ Washington’€™s failure to respond to what its personnel knew’€”and were specifically warned’€”was a potentially dangerous situation contributed significantly to this unfortunate incident.’€

It should have been the Rangers vs. Bruins in the second round, but I give them a zero percent chance of beating the Capitals in DC on Monday night. Blame it on “Torts” when the Penguins come to town for a surefire seven game series at the end of this week.

For those that missed it, here’s a pretty clear look at Tortorella gunning the water bottle off a fan’s head behind the New York bench before it bounces away and hits another woman sitting to the right of the unruly fan.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby,
Zdeno Chara among finalists for the Norris Trophy 04.23.09 at 5:19 pm ET
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In a move that surprised absolutely nobody, the NHL announced today that Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is one of three finalists competing for the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, which is awarded “to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.’€ Chara joins Mike Green from the Washington Capitals and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings as this year’€™s three finalists. This is the second consecutive year Chara has been a finalist, and third time overall in his hockey career (2004 with Ottawa).

In full PWWA (Professional Hockey Writers’ Association) disclosure, I voted Chara as my top choice for both the Norris Trophy and Hart Trophy (hockey’s MVP) and think the big defenseman should have a legitimate shot to win both of hockey’s prestigious awards. Chara is clearly the best defensive defenseman in the game right now, and some have equated his abilities to that of a shutdown cornerback in football. He’s that effective at neutralizing whichever offensive stars he’s matched up against in a particular game. Add to that some of the best offensive numbers in his All-Star career, and this is the season that Chara should come from the NHL Awards Show with plenty of hardware. 

My ballot for the Norris:

1. Zdeno Chara Boston Bruins
2. Mike Green Washington Capitals
3. Nicklas Lidstrom Detroit Red Wings
4. Dan Boyle San Jose Sharks
5. Shea Weber Nashville Predators

Chara anchored a Bruins blue line that allowed the lowest goals per game figure in the NHL this season (2.29). He led the Bruins and ranked sixth overall in the league in average ice time (26:04) and finished the regular season with a career-high 19 goals, 31 assists and a +23 rating. His 19 goals ranked fourth in the league amongst all defensemen, while his 11 power play strikes ranked third.

Chara’€™s average ice time (26:04), hits (169) and blocked shots (123) are the highest amongst the other two Norris finalists.

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’€™ Association submitted ballots for the Norris Trophy at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters designated as finalists. The winner will be announced Thursday, June 18, during the 2009 NHL Awards show that will be broadcast live from the Pearl Concert Theater inside the Palms Hotel Las Vegas on VERSUS in the United States and on CBC in Canada

Read More: Boston Bruins, Mike Green, Zdeno Chara,
The Sheriff to the Rescue 04.18.09 at 11:38 pm ET
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The moment that the Boston Bruins found out that Matt Hunwick had his spleen removed on Saturday afternoon, Shane Hnidy knew his time had come to provide the best kind of boost.

And that’s what he did when he fired a shot from the high slot past an unsuspecting Carey Price. The second period goal was arguably the biggest of the game since it came five minutes after Alex Kovalev brought the Canadiens within one goal, 2-1.

“I went in for a screen and was just trying to get the puck off and it went in the net,” Hnidy said following Boston’s 5-1 win at the Garden that but the B’s up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

“Shane Hnidy has been a good player for us all year,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Coming into our lineup and doing the job he did is to his credit because he’s worked hard in practice and kept himself sharp. And the minute he’s had the opportunity, he’s come in and played well.

“The fact he was rewarded with a goal,  I was really happy for him, and that’s the kind of team we have right now,” Julien said. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Boston Bruins, Matt Hunwick, NHL, Shane Hnidy
Five things we learned from a victory in Game One 04.16.09 at 10:57 pm ET
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There was a great deal of talk about discipline, crossing the line and the one-dimensional merits of tossing Big Georges Laraque into the Montreal Canadiens lineup for the Stanley Cup playoffs prior to Thursday night’s Game One.

Zdeno Chara’s shutdown defensive abilities and nuclear missile slap shot combo and Phil Kessel’s game-breaking scoring abilities were virtually ignored amid the hue and cry over bad blood between the B’s and the Habs, but there was no ignoring the Spoked B duo in Boston’s 4-2 victory over the Canadiens in Game One.

Chara took plenty of ice time on both Bruins PP units in the second period, led the Black and Gold with 24:55 on the ice and had Marc Savard thinking he was playing Iron Man Hockey in that middle 20 minutes of the game. Z also played the role of sheriff in and around the Boston cage each time Laraque came looking to start trouble, and he managed to do all of this while steering clear of the penalty box and staying on the ice where he was needed most.

“He’s our heart and soul,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “I think it’s pretty obvious he’s such a valuable player for us. He’s done a great job in all areas, so I can’t say enough about him. The fact that he was disciplined and didn’t get sucked into penalties, which could have been easy for him to do. I like the way he led our team tonight, and it was quite appropriate he scored the winner.”

Chara should be a favorite for the Norris Trophy following a stunning all-around season reminiscent of Chris Pronger’s Hart Trophy-worthy season with the St. Louis Blues. He patrolled the backlines for the B’s, and clearly deserved the No. 1 star when the “Three Stars” were announced following the game. Most nights, his defensive, physical game of intimidation can be mistakenly overlooked by goal-scorers and whirling dervish passes that draw “oohs” and “aahs,” so it was appropriate the “heart and soul” of the Bruins brought home the glory in drawing first blood against the sore loser Habs.

Chara has always been the captain of the Bruins in name and stature since his arrival on Causeway Street prior to the 2006-07 season, but he looked every bit the spiritual leader of Boston’s hockey club in making every right move in Game One — including the game-winner that carried a wee bit of importance.

1) The Kids are All Right.

There were lulls during the regular season for many of Boston’s young star players, but Boston’s young guns were correctly looked at as game-changers entering this series against the Habs. Kessel dazzled all night with game-breaking speed and lethal wrist shots from spots in tight toward the net, and enjoyed particularly strong periods in both the first and third when the Bruins dictated the action. Last night’s game firmly illustrates  just how far the 21-year-old Kessel has come from an erratic, immature skater Julien scratched for three games during last season’s playoff series.

Savard also dropped a rather large hint following the game that he’s hoping to ride shotgun with the young sniper as a dynamic scoring duo wearing Spoked B sweaters for a long, long time. The playmaking center must hope that B’s GM Peter Chiarelli is reading this.

“Kess has come on in leaps and bounds. It’s been a pleasure playing with him all season, and he really brings that dynamic that not too many players have with that speed and that shot,” said Savard. “I love playing with him. Hopefully I can stay around for another six years and maybe hang out with him. He’s ready to take that torch. He’s a great hockey player.”

The B’s are still an undefeated 20-0-2 when David Krejci scores a goal for them this season. The boy wonder center roofed a backhanded bid to put the Bruins up by a 2-0 lead in the first period, and set up Kessel’s first goal with a heady shuffle pass away from the net-front mass of bodies and directly toward the wide open sniper rushing toward the right post.

Don’t believe in the power of the youngsters?

Then just look at the stat sheet. Kessel, Krejci and Milan Lucic were the only three skaters with multiple point efforts for the game, and all three led the B’s with +2 marks for the evening. Lucic also finished with a game-high six hits — including a couple of devastating body blows in the corner — and continues to impress with the way he raises his game on the big stage.

2) The Bruins intend to “Stay Hungry.”

Following the game several Bruins players were wearing gear that featured a big Flintstones-style steak as the logo with the words “Stay Hungry” prominently featured across the front of the cap and the leg of the shorts. Savard was wearing  the hat and shorts during his post-game press briefing, and said that injured forward Marco Sturm came up with the design/logo idea while rehabbing from knee surgery.

“The energetic German came up with this,” said Savard, and then he pointed toward the shorts that he was wearing. “He made these too.”

It’s a good team mantra for the Black and Gold skaters to keep in mind after finishing off a solid Game One victory in front of the frenzied fans. The Habs tried to stir things up when the game was firmly in hand, and it was tight all the way through in a contest that could have gone either way in the third. It would behoove the B’s to buy into Sturm’s hat slogan and “Stay Hungry” despite accomplishing everything they set out to in the opening scene of this B’s/Habs playoff opera.

It has got to be difficult for an injured player like Sturm to sit idly by and watch his teammates enter the fray of the playoffs against the Canadiens, particularly after playing such a big role in last year’s epic Game 6 victory that’s been replayed about 1,000 times on NESN – and rightfully so — over the last week or so.

3) Cooler heads prevail when it comes to playoff hockey.

Laraque and Mike Komisarek did their level-best to incite the Bruins, and they really turned on the agitator after-burners in the closing seconds of the game. Montreal Public Enemy No. 1 scrubbed Matt Hunwick’s eye with such a vicious facewash that the B’s rookie was cut open around his eye following the victory. Several times Laraque and Komisarek had words with the Bruins big boys — Chara, Lucic and Shawn Thornton — but in each instance the Bruins played the discipline card and refused to retaliate.

It was something the Bruins had talked about ad nauseum before the game. The “Take It Like A Man” playoff philosophy then played out in perfection during the win. It’s no accident that — despite their reputation — the Bruins were well into the bottom third of NHL teams this season season in terms of penalty minutes. The B’s players have had each other’s backs during times of duress, but they’ve seemingly sworn off the fits of frustration that would land them in the penalty box and ultimately hurt the squad. That is heady playoff hockey.

One thing to watch: the NHL has already warned all of the playoff coaches about “message sending” at the end of games that have already been decided, and suspended Flyers enforcer Daniel Carcillo for his actions in Game One of the Flyers/Penguins series. So there may be possible suspensions for Lapierre, Komisarek or Tom Kostoupolos for some flagrant activity after watching this video. According to the TSN report, Matt Hunwick’s eye is said to be “a mess” following the pro wrestling style eye rake on the Bruins rookie defenseman.

It may be just a little tougher to “turn the other cheek” for the Bruins in Game Two. 

4) Apparently, big Georges Laraque is the secret weapon.

Laraque revealed a little of Habs coach Bob Gainey’s strategy in placing the giant, fight-happy forward on his top line with Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu in the latter two periods of Thursday’s game. Apparently BGL is there to make himself a nuisance in and around Tim Thomas at all times, and force Chara’s attention away from containing Montreal’s snipers.

“That was the plan. I knew for a while we were trying to get more room for our skill guys,” said Laraque following the game. “We knew they were going to use Chara against our top skill guys. That is way to kind of neutralize him. It is a big body against him. He has to tie me up and that will free up two other guys. I knew we were going to do that and it worked fine. We had a lot of chances tonight. It can only get better with time.”

Not to quibble with BGL, but it really only worked “fine” if the Habs escaped the Garden Thursday night with a bigger number on their side of the scoreboard than the victorious Bruins. Just saying.

5) Aaron Ward has earned himself a Bud Light after notching a win in Game One.

Ward, like any good Irishman worth his salt, has a good story to tell or a joke to break up the monotony of a pre or postgame locker room, and he passed along a pretty solid anecdote on how his playoffs began this week. The veteran B’s defenseman received an anonymous package at his door. Let’s let him tell the story.

“Yesterday, I had 16 beers delivered to my apartment, and I turned around and said to my wife, ‘See it’s better here than in Detroit where they give you an octopus.’ There was a note attached with it that said, ‘Drink one after every win on your way to the Cup.’ Now that’s why I love this town. I don’t know who sent it. It was anonymous and now they’re at home on ice. Last night I got a series out of the way already and drank four of them, though.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Phil Kessel, Zdeno Chara,
Canadiens clearly ‘mean’ business at 10:28 pm ET
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Long before they took exception to Milan Lucic passing to a wide open Phil Kessel for an empty net goal, Kessel’s second of the night, the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens showed they were not going to be a pushover in this opening round best-of-7 series, despite losing 4-2 to the Bruins at TD Banknorth Garden.

“That’s the playoffs,” said Marc Savard, who set-up Zdeno Chara’s go-ahead strike midway through the third. “There’s going to be some bad blood. Obviously, throughout the game, we tried to get away from that. There’s some bad blood but that’s the way playoffs are. We’re going to have to be ready Saturday night.”

Saturday night at 8 o’clock there figures to be more tension when the two rivals take the ice for Game 2 at the Garden.

“Obviously, Looch makes a great play like he does and then he’ s unselfish and decides to go to Kess like that, maybe there’s a little animosity on the other side,” Savard said.

The animosity, and hard-hitting, began early in the first period when Montreal enforcer Georges Laraque drilled Zdeno Chara along the corner boards in the Boston defensive zone followed up by a neutral zone hit on Milan Lucic. But it was the one against Chara that made the most noise.

“I want to play hard minutes,” Laraque said. “That’s what you do with every shift. You have to do this for the first couple of games and eventually it will turn around and make it easier for our skilled guys to play against him.”

Those two hits were no mistake. The Canadiens were clearly targeting the two toughest and biggest Bruins in an effort to show that they are not intimidated by the top-seeded Bruins, even on their home ice.

The hard hitting continued in the second period when the Canadiens managed to wipe out what was once a two-goal Boston lead when Alex Kovalev scored. The goal with 2:23 remaining in the middle frame reinforced to the Bruins that these Canadiens, even without Andrei Markhov and a limited Mathieu Schneider, mean business. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, NHL,
Chara blast gives the B’s a 4-2 win in Game One at 8:17 pm ET
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Big apologies for the moderate-to-serious Internet difficulties taking place here at the TD Banknorth Garden, but it took until the beginning of the third period to actually land a signal. I’m calling it “JJ Strikes Back” until I can fine a more appropriate term for the wireless outage.

It’s been a pretty entertaining game through two periods, and has played out as so many hockey games have before it. The B’s stormed out to a 2-0 lead midway through the first period and it appeared the Black and Gold were going to sweep the Canadiens right off the ice. David Krejci scored one of the two goals on a nifty roofed backhander, and the B’s were 19-0-2 during the regular season when the young center light the lamp. So all seemed well in the world.

But the Habs fought back in the following two periods and tied it with less than three minutes to go when Russian sniper Alex Kovalev roofed a short-side wrist shot past Tim Thomas‘ left shoulder.

10:12: Cross-checking call on Josh Gorges. PP for the Bruins.

9:04: Near miss for the B’s as a Mark Recchi tip hit the cross bar and then nearly trickled into the net before Carey Price pounced on it.

8:45: Goal. Big Z from the point. Power play score and the yellow towels are flying proud everywhere.

7:05: Things just got a nasty in front of the net with Mathieu Schneider taking a big right-handed swipe at Chuck Kobasew after the whistle had blown in front of the Montreal cage. The crowd is chanting “Carey, Carey, Carey” in the familiar sing-song mocking tone.

2:40: Great recovery by Tim Thomas after playing a puck behind the net and then scrambling when Maxim Lapierre gained possession and attempted a wraparound from the right post. Thomas deflected the puck and averted any further damage. Thomas has been very solid here in Game One.

00:31: Great Thomas save on Andrei Kostitsyn during a scramble in front of the Boston net.

13.4: Empty net score for Boston’s Phil Kessel, and the pushing and shoving between these two hated rivals continues. Saku Koivu and Marc Savard were really getting into it in the corner. Habs players went straight for Kessel after he scored. Milan Lucic made a nice little saucer pass to Kessel at the right faceoff circle with Carey Price vacated from the net.

The B’s beat the Habs by a 4-2 score in a Game One that Boston really needed to win if they didn’t want “The Questions” to start popping up.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Mark Recchi, Zdeno Chara,
Bear beware 04.15.09 at 1:44 pm ET
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As colleague Joe Haggerty pointed out Tuesday in his five-point plan for taking down the Habs, Bruins netminder Tim Thomas will definitely play a big role in the upcoming Bruins-Canadiens series.

Thomas heads into this series knowing full well all eyes will be on him and how he handles the anticipated traffic in front as Montreal tries to disrupt him. He also knows the the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs when a No. 1 can go down in flames when a No. 8 team gets hot — like last year, when the Bruins nearly pulled it off against the Habs.

It happened in 1982 when Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were beaten by the Los Angeles Kings in round 1 in the Miracle on Manchester. And it happened in 2000 when the St. Louis Blues, with 114 points, were ousted by San Jose. And while the Bruins were a No. 2 seed in 2004, they lost to the underdog Canadiens in seven games.

“A lot of it is because teams are so close,” Thomas said in offering his explanation. “The difference between one and eight in this league isn’t very much. The difference between five and 11 isn’t very much. There are no easy teams on any given night, depending on how teams are playing and how the momentum has been going for that team, any team can beat any other team and I think that’s why you see the results you see.”

What’s even more intriguing is listening to Thomas talk about the intensity level of this series, and what he learned from last year’s seven-game battle that ended in heartbreak for the B’s in Montreal.

“I had the NHL playoffs described to me before the playoffs last year and I was thinking to myself, ‘Okay, I’ve been to the (Frozen) Four in college, I’ve won a championship in Finland, I’ve been to the World Championships, it can’t be that much different than anything I’ve experienced.’ And I was wrong. It was all more emotional and adrenaline-rushed than anything I could have imagined,” said Thomas, who played at Vermont and went to the Frozen Four in 1996, losing in double-OT to Colorado College.

Thomas doesn’t have to go back that far to remember last week’s hour-long second period, where the Bruins-Canadiens resembled a UFC steel-cage death match.

“I think it’ll increase, if anything,” Thomas said of the intensity. “I’m expecting both teams to obviously be more disciplined. But as far as that type of game, with all-out competing, every man competing up and down the bench, yeah, that’s what I expect.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, NHL, Tim Thomas
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