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Bruins 4, Thrashers 2, Final 12.13.08 at 5:26 pm ET
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Best battle of the night with 3:46 left in the third when 6’9″ Zdeno Chara went up against Atlanta’s Boris Valabik, who stands 6’7″, with Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting roaring over the loudspeakers. Valabik grew up in Chara’s homeland of Slovakia, styling his game after Chara.

Fighting was alright for Chara Saturday night.

Fighting was alright for Chara Saturday night.

Full disclosure, neither pugilist landed any significant blows.

But Dennis Wideman did when he connected for his second power play goal of the night, beating Johan Hedberg at 18:16 of the second period.

Phil Kessel collected his own rebound on a power play shot on Atlanta’s Johan Hedberg. The Thrashers goalie stopped the first but not the second at 6:00 of the first as Kessel lit the lamp for the 19th time this season.

Taking aim on the NHL.

Taking aim on the NHL.

Not only does that figure far and away lead the team, it already matches his career best set last season and extends his point streak to 15 games.

Michael Ryder added his ninth of the season at 13:43 even strength, a weak backhand that was mishandled by Hedberg.

The Bruins had a golden chance to break open the game but Hedberg came up big on a five-on-three Boston power play for one minute, 37 seconds.

The Thrashers turned that momentum into a goal when Nathan Oystrick fired a slap shot from the left point through a mass of bodies infront of Manny Fernandez, cutting Boston’s lead in half.

Some notes at the end of one…

The Bruins are 9-2-1 when they lead after one this season.

The Thrashers are 1-10-1 when they trail after one.

The Bruins have outscored their opponents 66-37 in the second and third periods this season.

Martins Karsums is playing his first NHL game tonight and is on the fourth line with Vladimir Sobotka and Shawn Thornton.

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Neely with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman 12.12.08 at 9:14 pm ET
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Neely in a Bruins sweater that was destined for oblivion...

Neely in a Bruins sweater that was destined for oblivion...

The resurgence of the Bruins has led to plenty of attention from the national media, and Boston Bruins Vice-President Cam Neely has been one of the up-front-and-center voices and faces helping to promote the team. Neely was the guest of Bill Clement and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during the “NHL Hour” on XM Radio and NHL.com this week. Here’s some thoughts from Neely about a host of different Bruins and NHL-related issues along with an admission that center Patrice Bergeron is still working up the form he showed prior to last season’s concussion.

You retired in 1996 and then didn’t formally get back involved into the Bruins front office until 11 years later…what were you doing all that time? CN: I was getting away from the game. I’ve got to tell you, and I know you’ve heard this from other athletes — and not just hockey players — but when it’s not your decision to retire it’s very difficult to be around the game when you feel like you can still play. Once I finally got to an age where I felt like — even if I was healthy — I wouldn’t be able to play…it got easier.

How long did it take you to recover? CN: Ah…from not playing? It probably about five years anyways of having that feeling that you wanted to get back out on the ice and play. It was difficult to leave the game. But I’m thrilled now to be a part of the game again and especially back in Boston. 

Most people wouldn’t remember that you were drafted by Vancouver. When they think of you they think of the Boston Bruins. CN: Yeah, they really do. I was fortunate enough to have 10 fairly good years, although some of them were riddled with injuries. I certainly am remember as being a Bruin, no question.

What’s it like to be a part of the Boston sports scene that’s had so much success over the last few years? CN:It’s obviously been a lot of fun. You become a fans of a lot of the local teams — I’ve been living in Boston now for over 20 years — and you become friendly with some of the players on the teams and follow their success. It’s been great because you know, Boston, it’s a great sports city and the fans really support all the teams and hopefully we’re next, Gary.

Let’s talk about being next. The Bruins are having a tremendous amount of success for the first time in recent years. What do you attribute that to? CN: Well, a lot of his to do with our depth. We have great depth this year and the development of our young players have probably accelerated a little more quickly than we first anticipated. We have a fantastic coaching, and last year they came in and they really needed to shore up the defensive end of things and cut down the goals against. And they were really able to do that.

This year we needed to focus on how we were going to get more offense, and the growth of our young players has really helped. Also with implementing how to create more offense from defenseman, that’s helped as well. We have a pretty good plan in place, not just for this year but also for the foreseeable future.

Claude Julien as coach. What is the secret formula he’s using? CN:Well, the thing that I really like about Claude — and I look at this from a player’s perspective — is that there really is no gray area with him. As a player, you have to respect that it’s black and white and he demands a certain level of commitment and work ethic from each player. And it goes down from the top guy on the team to the 23rd player.

This is what he expects and this is what he demands, and if you don’t give it to him you’re going to hear about it. But if you do give it to him then you’re going to be rewarded. I think any player would respect that kind of coach.

Has Bergeron made the difference in coming back, or has it been a matter of everything really coming together for the Bruins? CN:I think it’s a combination of everything, Gary. Obviously Bergeron helps because he’s such a good two-way player, and he’s only going to get better. He hasn’t really found his stride yet, if you will, but what he does is really give us that much more strength down the middle. We’ve got four good centers in Savard, Bergeron, Krejci and Yelle on our forth line.

When you’re able to roll out four lines like Claude likes to do and three of those lines are gifted offensively — and the fourth can chip in offensively as well for us and they generally carry the play of other team’s fourth lines — we have four lines we can roll which is a nice luxury.

I think only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull have scored a better goals-per-game average over a season than you. Is there anybody on this Bruins team that reminds you of yourself? CN:Well, there’s been a number of comparisons with Milan, but I’m not a big fan of comparing one player to another. Everybody has got their own personality and skill set. I think the fact that Milan is a big, strong, tough young player and he’s playing right now with Savard and Kessel so he’s getting a lot of great opportunities. He can put the puck in the net. But he’s a guy that we really rely to play a physical game first and foremost, and he’s a guy that’s able to creat a lot of space for himself and a lot of time and space for his linemates.

I think we certainly expect him to continue to improve as its only his second year in the league, but there is some comparisons there. I wouldn’t really say it’s fair to Milan. 

Did you see much of a difference as a player as opposed to now being in management? CN: It’s certainly a much bigger difference in terms of perspective than it is in the game actually changing, although the game has changed even from 1996 until now. I know here in Boston we have some classic games on NESN and every once in a while I’ll tune in to them now and I’m just amazed at how many mistakes I made out there.

But the game is faster now, isn’t it?. CN:Yeah, the game is faster and the guys are certainly bigger and stronger. That goes with nutrition being thought about a lot more. When I was a player guys really worked out a great lot in the offseason like they do now, but a lot of it is nutrition.

There’s a lot of thought and emphasis put into what guys are eating with an emphasis on taking care of their bodies. Players are bigger coming into the game now for the most part. Even 18 or 19 year-old kids coming into the league are bigger now than they were 20 years ago.

So there’s some elements to the size of the players, and the game…the skating. The big emphasis on skating. We’ve got some big guys now — and not that there wasn’t a big emphasis on the skating before — but we’ve got some big guys that can really skate now. So the guys are improving not only at this level, but at all levels. I think a lot of it has to do with focusing on the sport much earlier to probably.

There have been a number of outstanding players recently that have become executives…really great players. Does this surprise you and do you all get together and talk about what you’re doing? CN: I’m not overly surprised, but I think it’s fantastic for the game.  I think it’s great that there are ex-players that are involved at the level that you’re talking about, Gary. I think it’s helpful for the owners to get a perspective that played at an elite level and get their perspective on the game. I think it’s only going to help the organization in having players around to pull their players aside and give them some pointers.

I think that’s only going to be beneficial. We certainly talk to each other. if you were to ask me 15 years ago if I could see myself doing this my answer would have been a quick “No.” But I’ve really enjoyed getting involved and I think it’s been a great learning experience for me so far. And I’ve had fun at the same time.

What do you do in a typical day? CN: Obviously we’ve got a lot of catch-up to do here in Boston with — not just our fan base — but also with the business side. So I get involved with a number of initiatives from the business side to reengage sponsorships and our fan base and work a great deal with Peter from the hockey operations standpoint. That’s obviously where I gravitate toward because I’m comfortable with that side of it, but I’m also enjoying learning the business side of it as well.

I am an incendiary ball of hockey intensity just waiting to blaze!

I am an incendiary ball of hockey intensity just waiting to blaze!

The Jacobs family, I think, are sometimes misunderstood in Boston. Can you talk about their passion for the Bruins and hockey because I don’t think they’re completed understood? CN

: Well, they’re probably not because not because I played here for 10 years and I wasn’t aware of it…and that’s the truth. One of the things that I have tried to do is to get Mr. Jacobs — when he is around — is to let people know that he’s in the building and that he’s around. I know it’s not his personality, but I’m surprised how much he’s involved and knows what’s going on from a day-to-day basis.

I certainly didn’t have that feeling or understanding during my time as a player, but I’ve seen it first hand and I never would have guessed it.

Sometimes when you’re quiet and behind the scenes [like Jacobs] people don’t know about you. CN: No, they don’t. And as I said earlier, I would like him to…it’s not in his makeup but I think it would be helpful and he knows how I feel about that. When you’re a player, there’s nothing better than knowing that your owner really cares about the team and winning. He does in a big way, like you said.

Did you have fond memories of doing Dumb and Dumber? CN: Well, I did enjoy it…I can tell you that. I don’t know if acting as a bit player and not knowing if you’re going to make the cut is for me. And I certainly didn’t pound down any doors trying to get any acting work. But I can tell you that it was a lot of fun…a lot of fun doing that.

Talk to people about the Can Neely Foundation and your work with the NEw England Medical Center and Neely House. CN: I lost both of my parents to cancer while I was playing hockey, and I did what most hockey players do in their situation: I decided to give back. When cancer struck my family I focused most of my time and effort toward cancer-related causes and I decided start my own charity organization so I could have a say on where the money was going to go.

What we wanted to do was help cancer patients and families. We started the Foundation in late 1994 and we’ve raised close to $17 million. We’ve averaged 91 cents out of every dollar goes directly toward the cause. We’re very passionate about trying to get as much money to the programs that we’re doing.

I don’t look at us as a bank and trying to accumulate a lot and put it toward the program. When we commit to doing a program we try to get the money as quickly as we can to that particular program. The Neely House was the first initiative that we worked on and that was opened in 1996. We’ve had over 4,000 families stay at the Neely House which is right inside the building at the Tufts Medical Center.

It shows what kind of a need there is for a facility like this and we just opened a new pediatric BMT Unit at the Floating Hospital for Children, which is a state of the art unit and facility. We’ve actually incorporated a mini-Neely House right inside the unit so that parents can be that much closer to their children. So we’re very fortunate with the support we’ve gotten over the years and — to be honest – the foundation was built on support from hockey fans in the early going.

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Warding off worry… B’s blue liner returns 12.09.08 at 3:08 pm ET
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While he didn’t take part in any contact drills on Tuesday, Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward felt good about returning to the ice after a left leg injury that has forced him to miss the last three games.

“That’s the approach now,” Ward said before joining the team on its sojourn to Washington for Wednesday’s game against the Capitals. “Only have taken seven days off, I can’t have lost a whole lot. To touch a puck and to play around with it rather than sit out three weeks and miss it, that’s why I’m taking the road trip, hopefully start skating a little bit more aggressively and hopefully go from there. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a need right now. I can take my time.

“It’s just the pace of the game, getting your head up and playing with the puck, especially this team, so much more demanded from a defenseman in terms of putting the puck in the right place and reading the play and understand where you’re supposed to be. That’s the essential part of it all,” he said.

While Ward is having fun watching the team continue to roll along, there is some tension knowing that other younger players are coming up and could make an even better impression.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ward said. “You don’t want to be supplanted from where you feel where you might add to the team.”

One of those younger players is Vladimir Sobotka, who was recalled on an emergency basis following Monday’s game after Stephane Yelle collided with a linesman and suffered a minor rib injury.


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“I was on the first line in Providence, playing on the power play some,” Sobotka explained Tuesday. “Here I’ll be on the fourth line. I admit I’ll be a little nervous before the game (on Wednesday).”

As for Ward, he said he doesn’t expect to return on Wednesday.

If I were a wagering man, I’d say no. But again, (Wednesday) is another step in the recovery process,” Ward said.

The always artful Ward also made the following observation about Sean Avery’s pending punishment from the NFL for his untoward remarks about a former girlfriend and his brotherhood of NHL skaters.

“How happy Plaxico Burress is that Avery shot his mouth off and now no one knows who Plaxico is,” Ward said.

And props to Matt Kalman of The Bruins Blog, who didn’t miss a beat responding, “Maybe in the hockey world, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the world (does).”

Don’t have to look very far for confirmation of that, Matt.

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It’s all good… Bruins ready for two-city trip at 12:40 pm ET
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Bruins coach Claude Julien worked his team through an energetic practice this morning at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, with the emphasis being on how to handle success… namely don’t get cute when you have the lead.

The Bruins led after one period Monday night, 3-0, but allowed Tampa Bay to make a charge at them, closing to within 4-3 with 19.0 seconds remaining before P.J. Axelsson salted the game away with an empty netter.

Some other morsels from Tuesday morning’s skate.

X-rays on Stephane Yelle’s ribs were negative after he collided with linesman Mark Shewchyk on Monday night.

Aaron Ward skated at center ice while the team worked on drills. But don’t expect him to rush back to action for Wednesday in Washington.  “If I were a betting man, I’d say ‘no’ (to playing),” Ward said.

Marco Sturm is making progress and is getting closer to a return from concussion-like symptoms.

All three made the trip to Washington and are considered day-to-day by coach Julien. “All encouraging news,” Juilen said.

Put ‘em up… Manny Fernandez, not to be confused with Stan Jonathan, joked with tough guy Milan Lucic about a pugilistic battle on the ice should the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.

The 19-4-4 Bruins play the Capitals on Wednesday in Washington and the Thrashers in Atlanta on Friday before returning home for a date with Atlanta on Saturday at the Garden.

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Sounds of the game… Bruins 5, Lightning 3 at 7:32 am ET
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You know you’re a good hockey team when your coach says, “We’re getting used to wins, and that’s nice. But we’re at the stage now where we’re really looking at how we’re winning hockey games.” Claude Julien didn’t have to say anything to his team following its 5-3 dispatching of the woebegone Tampa Bay Lightning at the Garden. He left them to think about how a 3-0 first period lead turned into a nail-biter in the final minute of regulation. All of which leads to this, when you are a good team you learn from your wins just as much as your losses and that was the case last night. The Bruins are still in phenomenal shape at 19-4-4, with 42 points and atop the Eastern Conference. Only the unconscious San Jose Sharks have more points in the NHL.

Bruins coach Claude Julien said his team got away with playing with fire.

Julien said he doesn’t want to see his team get cute with leads.

Captain Zdeno Chara said the team came out hot in the first.

Dennis Wideman said the Monday night Garden crowd pumped him up.

Michael Ryder said the Bruins learned their lesson Monday night.

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Hockey Notes: Hunwick earning his spot 12.07.08 at 12:27 pm ET
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Matt Hunwick has upped the wattage on his physical play for the Bruins this season...and the points and statistics have followed

Matt Hunwick has upped the wattage on his physical play for the Bruins this season...and the points and statistics have followed

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.

Next on Hunwick's To Do List: drop the gloves with the poster boy for the NHL

Next on Hunwick's To Do List: drop the gloves with the poster boy for the NHL

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.”

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Yelle getting comfortable in the East 12.04.08 at 10:52 am ET
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Stephane Yelle drops the veteran's elbow on an unsuspecting Maple Leaf whippersnapper...

Stephane Yelle drops the veteran's elbow on an unsuspecting Maple Leaf whippersnapper...

It would have been pretty easy to assume Father Time had simply come calling a bit prematurely for veteran center Stephane Yelle when the thirtysomething pivot was slow-moving out of the gate this season. The 34-year-old seemed to be having trouble getting into the flow of the game and the faceoff specialist — targeted by the Black and Gold in the offseason for his ability to win draws along the dot and specialize in the little things needed to kill penalties – was uncharacteristically struggling in the faceoff circle while hovering around a 40 percent success rate.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s probably understandable that there was a healthy period of adjustment for Yelle, who has always been a Western Conference denizen and carries around hockey skill set that doesn’t exactly jump out and grab the unsuspecting fan.

In many ways Yelle is similar to P.J. Axelsson in his ability to go long periods of ice time doing all the little things without screaming out for attention with a teeth-chattering body check or a one-man dangle-fest through a host of defenders before scoring. Off the ice, he’s similarly quiet and reserved while also holding the respect of younger players that probably spent an ample amount of time playing Yelle in Sega Genesis or Playstation video game hockey. 

The 34-year-old simply had to make an adjustment to the Eastern Conference-style and tinker with his hockey dial to something with a great deal more aggressive physicality and dump-and-chase puck philosophy, and that adjustment seems to now be complete. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder was scoreless through his first seven games and sat at a -2 through that time period, but things finally started to slow down for the seasoned vet just as the Bruins team caught fire. 

 Yelle is back up to winning 49.7 percent of his faceoffs, and has quickly learned the habits and tricks of the trade employed by his new Eastern Conference draw adversaries. Opposing centers basked in the element of surprise during Yelle’s first time around the division, but the Old Rebel Yelle Dog has caught on to the new tricks.

“Yeah, there’s definitely always a transition period to a new team, but I feel like I’ve been around long enough to really be comfortable with the guys now,” said Yelle. “I’m comfortable with the systems and stuff. Usually you don’t want to get off to a bad start [with the faceoffs] because it’s a long climb up, but I’ve been working hard, doing different things and not being predictable. There are different little strategies you can implement to keep guys guessing.”

No. 1 fan of the Stephane "Rebel" Yelle Fan Club...and also a big fan of dancing with himself

No. 1 member of the Stephane "Rebel" Yelle Fan Club...and also a big fan of dancing with himself

Yelle will switch things up on opponents that feel like they’ve got Yelle pegged. The former Avalanche and Flames skater will take some draws with his backhand and go after others with his forehand – or just tie a guy up and attempt winning a one-on-one battle for the free puck — that all fits under the heading of the cat-and-mouse game played with the opposing centers that he’s customarily lining up with.

“Coming from the Western Conference, you play the same guys a lot and you don’t know the Eastern guys as much,” added Yelle. “You don’t know their tendencies and sometimes it becomes a guessing game. Now that I’ve played them a couple of times I’m getting an idea of what they intend to do, and hopefully it can help me out down the road.”

Yelle has 3 goals and 5 assists and sits at a +2 in his last 17 games and the Bruins coaching staff has taken note of him reaching his water level – even if his contributions aren’t easily pinpointed by a casual perusal of the postgame stat sheet. He’s on a pace for 10 goals and 17 assists this season, which would be perfectly acceptable numbers out of the middle man on the energy line.

“Our young guys have been getting better in the faceoff circle and Yelle really brings that experience when he gets in there,” said Julien. “We knew when we brought Stephane in here that he would have a veteran presence and a lot of experience along with his penalty kill and faceoff skills. He’s been a very good fit for this team.”

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