|Byron Bitz playing big for the Bruins in victory||02.24.09 at 11:10 pm ET|
Even the most accomplished puck soothsayer might have had a difficult time predicting the Garden crowd of 16,781 would be chanting a chorus of “We Want Bitz” in the waning minutes of last night’s Bruins/Panthers tilt.
But that’s exactly what happened in the strange but true world of the Boston Bruins.
The brawny rookie winger from Saskatchewan banged home a pair of lamp-lighters but couldn’t snare the elusive third for the natural hat trick in Boston’s 6-1 triumph over a cagey Panthers crew at the TD Banknorth Garden last night.
“It was amazing,” said Bitz, who clearly didn’t bask in the adulation of 17,000 chanting fans when he was skating for Cornell. “It meant a lot. Everyone on the bench (was chanting along) and it was a lot of fun. It was just one of those nights.”
The evening was a bit of microcosm for the no holds barred, physical nature that the 24-year-old has brought to the table since getting called up Boston on Jan. 10. While flashier puck talents like Vladimir Sobotka, Martins Karsums and Matt Lashoff have bounced up and down the “Lou Merloni Turnpike” between the Providence Baby B’s and Boston, Bitz has found a way to stick and carved out a pretty hefty-sized niche for himself on Boston’s fourth line.
“We were getting to the net very well,” said Bitz. “Shots were getting through. With my size, it’s to my advantage to get (to the net). (To be) a big body in front. To get in front of the goalie and take his vision away is a big part of my game.”
Last night, the B’s were holding on to a one-goal lead in the second period, and hadn’t really pulled away from a Panthers team that looks like they could be a handful for higher-seeded teams come Stanley Cup playoff time. The Black and Gold were clearly seeking a spark, and that’s exactly what they received from the energetic Bitz when he redirected a puck thrown in front of the net by heady veteran Stephane Yelle.
The under-the-radar Yelle simply threw the puck straight at the net from the left sideboards, and Bitz tipped the biscuit straight up past the crossbar and clean off the netting. The puck hit the twine and shot right back outside of the goal, but it was immediately ruled a score without any need to consult with the Great NHL Wizard Behind the Curtain in Toronto.
With less than five minutes to go in the second period, the energy restoration following Bitz’s second goal of the season was palpable. The B’s were buzzing with a little more room to operate courtesy of the two-goal advantage, and the floodgates opened for three more third period goals.
Fourth-liners Yelle, Bitz and Shawn Thornton have been playing consistently solid, responsible, blue-collar hockey over the last few weeks, and actually logged more respective ice time minutes (43 minutes, 15 seconds) last night than the newly reunited trio of David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder ( 42 minutes, 17 seconds).
It’s obvious that Bitz has been welcomed as a bruising part of the Bruins team and isn’t likely to be going anywhere, any time soon, and coach Claude Julien even hints that there may be some untapped scoring potential in Big Bitzy’s power game.
“Not only does he bring his size and strength along the boards, he’s been solid. But I think he’s a guy that with confidence and with experience you are going to see him probably score more goals. That’s what he demonstrated a little bit of that tonight,” said Julien. “But he’s still here because he deserves to be here and’¦ we haven’t gotten away from what we’ve been saying all along.
“If you deserve to be here, it doesn’t matter if you are a free agent, first round or seventh round pick, you’re going to play here and right now he’s shown us that he belongs in our lineup and as long as he does that, he is going to stay there.”
So what was Bitz planning on doing last night after hearing his name screamed in adulation by Bruins Nation, and subsequently basking in the glow of his first two-goal game in the NHL? Bitz was going to Shawn Thornton’s house in Charlestown, naturally, and planning on enjoying some of Thornton’s wife’s cooking.
Not quite DisneyWorld, but certainly something that’s been a key to the big lug’s success.
Injury Ward: No major injuries to speak of. But on a completely unrelated topic, there was a decent middleweight bout between Chuck Kobasew and Keith Ballard. It would have been even better if both players were without the visors that pretty much defeat the purpose of scrapping in the first place. The fight was certainly more passion than premeditation.
Player of the Game: Without question, Bitz was the man of the hour last night. In a time during the B’s season when both Julien and GM Peter Chiarelli have been preaching for players to get more involved around the dirty areas of the ice, Bitz picked up a grimy tip in front of the net and banged home a long rebound of a Yelle shot on a nice hustle play in the third period.
Goat Horns: Krejci has been very inconsistent as of late, and was banged around pretty hard by the Panthers defense last night. The high-end talent skated 17 shifts, didn’t register a point or a shot on net, lost 7 of his 11 faceoff draws and his line was shut down for the most part last night. The effort seems to be there with Krejci, but a few good bounces would take some of the pressure off.
Turning Point: Bitz was obviously the turning point in the game, but Michael Ryder’s return to the lineup offers what could be a quasi-turning point for Boston’s stretch run over the last quarter of the season. Ryder cashed in on a power-play goal, and immediately gives the PP unit a finisher around the net that makes them all kinds of dangerous. He adjusted well to the face shield, and definitely had a little extra hop in his step. Ryder also helped set up Mark Stuart’s first period goal that built Boston their 2-1 lead after the first period.
“I think when you are ready for so long and you come back, you always are a little more pumped up for the first game,” said Ryder, who finished with a goal and an assist and two shots on net. “I think this game and last week helped a lot. After a couple of shifts, I felt good out there.”
|Bruins and Flyers locked in 3-3 tie||02.07.09 at 2:23 pm ET|
With Manny Fernandez between the pipes for his first game since Jan. 8, scores by Marc Savard, Byron Bitz, Chuck Kobasew in the first twenty minutes have the Bruins and Flyers tied at 3-3 in the second period. Bitz scored Boston’s second goal on a juicy rebound right at the goal mouth after Mark Stuart’s slap shot from the high point rattled around the Philadelphia cage.
The goal was the first career NHL score for the 24-year-old rookie from Saskatoon. The B’s and Flyers are tied 3-3 after two full periods of play following Philly agitator Scott Hartnell’s game-tying goal in the second period.
|Shawn Thornton puts imprint on final win in Montreal||02.01.09 at 6:45 pm ET|
MONTREAL — The life of an NHL enforcer certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, and it’s definitely not a destination spot for those seeking to bathe in glory or blanket themselves in warm, comforting plaudits.
Underrated Shawn Thornton, one of the biggest yet least talked about pieces of this flashy, rugged, dominant Bruins hockey machine, came up one assist short of the Gordie Howe hat trick on Sunday afternoon.
But he still made an unmistakable imprint on the B’s 3-1 win over the sagging Canadiens at the Bell Centre, and showed once again why his personality on and off the ice are such a big part of the Big Bad Bruins resurgence in Boston.
Thornton bagged the game-winner, dropped the gloves for some fisticuffs after getting the invite to dance from AHL journeyman Alex Henry and unloaded a game-high four shots against Habs goaltender Carey Price during yet another playoff-style victory.
Not bad for a night’s work from a hard-nosed guy that’s been bringing it every night — and setting the ultimate example — all season long for the Spoked B.
“He’s been a big part of (the team) for us this year,” said Dennis Wideman, who essentially ripped the Habs’ heart out when he notched a game-tying marker with just 0.6 seconds left in the first period. “He’s obviously a very good fighter. I think the best part about him is he knows when to fight. He knows the right time to do it.
“He’s been around a long time and he knows how a fight can really swing the momentum in a game,” added Wideman. “He’s invaluable to us and he’s scored some really big goals for us this year too. It’s huge for us when you put the so-called fourth line out there and they just have an offensive shift in the other team’s zone the whole time.”
As is always the case with a lionhearted and modestly-skilled pugilist like Thornton, however, he’s nowhere to be found when the mighty Montreal media doles out their Three Stars for the game as they did Sunday afternoon. Thornton’s fingerprints were smeared all over the B’s winning blueprint, but instead Tim Thomas (a solid 27 save game) and Wideman garnered Boston’s two stars.
Once again, no glorified back slaps for Thornton.
Instead he’s off somewhere dipping his right punching hand into ice and jacking down from skating before a raucous Bell Centre crowd of 21, 273 — many of whom didn’t stick around much after Marc Savard picked Andrei Kostitsyn’spocket and snared the empty net insurance marker with 57 seconds remaining in the game.
Thornton’s game-winner snapped a 1-1 tie 8:02 into the second period during a typically relentless blue collar shift skating along with big Byron Bitz and crafty Stephane Yelle. Bitz, playing strong and stout along the wall and the boards, held on to the puck behind the Canadiens net and found Thornton buzzing around at Price’s doorstep.
“Bitzy is just a big moose,” said Thornton of his linemate after the game. “He makes a lot of smart plays with the puck, and it’s just been a treat since he’s been here.”
The B’s coaching staff has also been rightly impressed with the work done by the 6-foot-5 Cornell graduate, who might have a bright future in the stock market or a law firm someday but is currently serving a valuable role as a big-bodied grinder on a hard-working Bruins team.
“He’s that type of player I guess with size and strength and everything else; he just seems to fit the billing for that line right now,” said Julien. “There’s probably more guys in Providence that have higher skill level, but they wouldn’t be the right fit. He’s just fit right in. I don’t see a guy that’s been intimidated at all by the speed (of the NHL).
“(Bitz) just plays his game with everybody he’s up against. He finishes his checks and he wins his battles. He’s been pretty impressive,” added Julien. “He’s been one of our better guys along the walls. If somebody is pinching then he’s eating that puck and he isn’t throwing the puck around. Very, very seldom do you see him turn the puck over.”
After collecting Bitz’s nifty pass, Thornton unloaded a forehand bid with as much force as possible through a sea of bodies and goaltending equipment. Somehow, some way the puck found a path through Price’s pads for his fifth goal of the season. The play confirmed two things: Bitz seems to be finding a role for himself on this hockey club and Thornton keeps building brick-by-brick on what’s turning into his best season in the NHL.
“I’ve been talking about (Thornton) for a while now and even that line: Yelle, Bitz and Thornton,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “I think it’s only fitting that Thorny gets the game-winner — and that line — because of the way that they’ve been playing. I played them right to the end. There was no reason to pull them back because they were doing such a great job. In their own end, getting pucks out, and doing such a great job of keeping it in (Montreal’s) end when they got their puck down there.”
In the fighting arena, Thornton got things out of the way earlier with the knowledge that an AHL call-up named Alex Henry, who he had dropped the gloves with years ago in the minors, was seeking out a hockey scrap. Thornton obliged just 1:06 into the game and gave up both size and reach to a taller, bigger opponent in Henry. Both got their shots in during a back-and-forth brawl that lasted well over a minute, and then both retired to the penalty box for five minutes of rest and relaxation.
It’s the only way of life for Thornton in the fighting game, and it’s another undervalued facet of a quietly effective hockey skill set.
“He asked (for the fight),” said Thornton of the scrap. “He’s a tough kid and he wants to create a spot for himself on their team. So good for him. I knew it was going to be somebody, so I figured I’d take care of it all at once.”
Even the candy cane-style “barber pole” pajamas worn by the Canadiens — a tribute to the red, white and blue sweater donned by the 1912-13 edition of the Habs during their 100th Anniversary season — couldn’t throw Thornton off track for the win. Though he did wonder if he was having some kind of frozen sheet mirage during the pregame skate.
“It wasn’t as bad during the game when there were only five guys out on the ice, but when I looked down during warmups and there were 23 guys skating around … I was dizzy,” said Thornton. “It wasn’t as bad when the numbers went down, but I was really concerned about it during warmups. I didn’t know if I hadn’t had enough sleep or what.”
After Thornton’s day at the office, it might be the Canadiens who have a little trouble sleeping tonight after yet another loss to the Black and Gold Sunday afternoon.
“Put Him in Prison Stripes”
Here’s a little bit of youtube goodness featuring the fight between Thornton and Henry along with a great diatribe tying together Henry’s place in the hockey world along with the “Keystone Kops and Robbers” sweaters donned by the Habs. I call the fight a draw, but give a clear victory to Jack Edwards in the verbal lambasting.