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Don Cherry giving Byron Bitz some props 03.03.09 at 12:40 am ET
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A big smile quickly appeared on big Byron Bitz as he worked his way through the Bruins dressing room Monday morning at their practice facility in Wilmington, and rightfully so. The fourth-line grinder has made quite the healthy impression with his hockey smarts — something the Bruins scouting staff prides themselves on being able to spot — and gritty big man’s game, and those skills led the 6-foot-5 rookie to be featured during Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner on TSN Saturday night.

Canada’s favorite hockey mouthpiece, dandy Don Cherry, started out in fine Grapes form by calling him “Byron Blitz” and then praised him as a good Saskatoon boy while showing some of the highlights from his successful two months in Black and Gold. The big-boned winger started out as a welcome banger with ideal size and strength along Boston’s fourth line, but Bitz has begun flashing some offensive skills over the last few weeks and has something that the B’s could always use: size, strength and steely fearlessness when it comes to throwing his big body into the areas of peril around the ice.

“At first he’s playing not to make mistakes when he gets here, and once he gets his confidence level and some games under his belt, he starts showcasing a little bit more of what he has, and that’s what I’ve been saying the last little while,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien of his big forward. “I think once this guy gets more experienced and more confidence under his belt, he’s going to score us some goals here and there, and he’s starting to show that right now.”

Bitz has three goals in his last three games, and has found lamp-lighting glory with tips and strong stick work in front of the net,  a dogged willingness to chase loose pucks and rebounds around the net and an opportunistic approach when a crashing lane toward the net materializes before him. The 24-year-old has been the perfect big-bodied compliment to bare knuckles winger Shawn Thornton and center Stephane Yelle on Boston’s fourth line, but a little Coach’s Corner love had to be the – pun completely intended – cherry on top for “a good Saskatoon boy”.

It certainly looks as if Big Byron has carved himself a man-sized niche on this Bruins roster.

Here’s the full Coach’s Corner segment from Saturday, and stick around to watch Cherry’s ridiculous pro-Canada, anti-Russia rant about Alex Ovechkin’s boisterous celebrations following the goals that he scores. Hate to break it Don, but oversized personalities like Ovechkin and, yes, even Sean Avery are exactly what this game needs more of if it hopes to keep growing worldwide. Aside from that, the obvious Don Cherry bromance with Sidney Crosby is a little disturbing.

Enjoy.

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Lucic a “possibility” for Tuesday night vs. the Flyers 03.02.09 at 12:55 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — With the trade deadline approaching on Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., much of the discussion at practice this morning centered around the Bruins names bandied about in trade rumors and purported proposals.

More on that later, but B’s coach Claude Julien did announce after practice that Milan Lucic, out with an “upper body injury” suffered against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night, is a possibility for Tuesday night’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers at the TD Banknorth Garden.  Speculation has been pushed out there that Lucic either injured his right hand pounding the living daylights of Ducks forward Mike Brown’s helmet, or perhaps suffered a jaw injury/minor concussion when Brown snuck in a quick first punch on the chin of the Big Looch.

Lucic was wearing the red non-contact jersey at practice, but did take part in some pretty rigorous skating drills designed to get the heart rate up — a sign that the injury might not be related to his banged up right hand.

Matt Hunwick again skated in Looch’s place along the first line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel during practice, and could play forward again tomorrow if Looch isn’t ready to go.

–Petteri Nokelainen also donned the red non-contact sweater for the snowy afternoon practice, and Julien indicated that the Finnish forward will be meeting with doctors on Tuesday to get clearance for contact during practice. Nokelainen has been out nearly a month after suffering a high stick to the right eye against the San Jose Sharks back on Feb. 10.

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Capitals capture season series with another win over B’s 02.28.09 at 6:37 pm ET
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Watching the Washington Capitals take three of four games from the Bruins during their season series — albeit all of them except for the first being one-goal games — has to have the Black and Gold concerned about getting past the high-wattage Caps in any potential playoff series.

The Washington bunch once again played the B’s with the right amount of grittiness, used their dazzlingly high-powered PP unit to pop in a pair of power play strikes and then took advantage of a rare Tim Thomas softie in a 4-3 overtime defeat of the Spoked B in a battle of Eastern Conference titans. The game was played before a playoff-style atmosphere at the TD Banknorth Garden on Saturday afternoon, but left Bruins Nation what might happen when/if the two teams find their fates intertwined a few months from now.

The Caps’ victory highlighted their three wins in four games against the Bruins this season, and — while it wasn’t quite the dominant fashion that the Montreal Canadiens used to hand out losses to the B’s during last year’s torture chamber of a season series — the visiting hockey club exited Boston’s frozen sheet with the logical reasoning that they could take down the first place B’s in a potential winner-take-all playoff series.

Alex Ovechkin finished with one goal on the day — a typical whistling wrister that he snapped off quickly to beat Tim Thomas in the second period – and brazenly proclaimed after the game that “we can beat the (Bruins)”. In Ovechkin, Washington has that one dynamic, hard-hitting superstar capable of either completely destroying a skater in the treacherous corner or rifling a wrist shot top shelf against a snoozing defense. He’s the kind of player that could easily be a difference-maker in a seven games playoff series once the puck tournament begins.

The Caps also offer a bevy of talented, top-shelf offensive talent around their Russian superstar with the likes of record-breaking D-man Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Victor Kozlov all chipping in offensively, and making up perhaps the star-studded PP unit in the NHL.

It’s exactly the kind of hockey squad that will test the discipline, mettle and defensive will limits of the Bruins should both Eastern Conference top seeds win out and face each other in a late May ice war for Stanley Cup Finals rights. It was easy to spot the on-ice focus of both teams, hear the frothy booing of Ovechkin each time he touched the puck and then close your eyes and envision these two teams tangling again in a late spring battle royale on the frozen sheet — a series that the B’s will have to tighten up and fly right in if they hope to improve on losing 3-of-4 and getting outscored 11-8 by the Caps.

“Every game against them we got a point, so it’s good for us,” said Ovechkin. “It’s good for us because we can tell that we can beat them. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or second (place in the Eastern Conference). They still play great. I think it’s all about us. We just need to play our game, our system and we can beat everybody.”

B’s coach Claude Julien has obviously taken a front row seat to this production before, and watched the Black and Gold snap Montreal’s spell last year once the postseason began. The young and hungry B’s pushed the top-rated Habs to the brink of elimination in a hard-fought seven game series that truly forged this year’s edition of the Spoked B. So rather than fearing a potent Washington group that seems to own their regular season number, the B’s bench boss sees a pair of closely matched teams that simply played four extremely tight hockey games during the season. If they meet again in the playoffs, all bets are off and Julien flatly states that the Capitals are far from “in their heads”.

“We’re the top two teams in our conference,” said Julien. “I’ve heard them say that they think they’re in our heads, and they do a lot of talking. They obviously don’t do a lot of research, because as I mentioned, I don’t think they really rattled us last year against Montreal when it came to playoff time. Totally different things. They were one goal games and could have gone either way. If anything, it’s two good teams going at each other, but by all means I don’t think they scare us at this point.”

Both teams are a long way off from punching up the conference finals tickets, but it could be one hell of a series if Ovechkin comes calling again with his gap-filled smile during the merry hockey month of May.

Injury Ward: Milan Lucic sat out the game with an upper body injury suffered against the Anaheim Ducks. Marc Savard and Blake Wheeler both played through injuries also suffered during that physical grudge match against the Ducks, and Savard said he’s okay “but not 100 percent”.

Player of the Game: Matt Hunwick, in a brilliant move by Julien, was pushed up to the first line wing in place of Lucic, and responded with a speedy skating presence that produced a goal and an assist. Hunwick had the aforementioned goal and an assist, was a +2 for the afternoon and provided an offensive spark along with defensive responsibility. Not bad for a natural defenseman pushed into an emergency role for the day. Savard said that skating on the same line with Hunwick reminded him of playing with the smooth-skating and skilled Marco Sturm.

“I thought there was a chance I might play forward but obviously the last time I did I was playing on the fourth line and tonight I was playing on Savvy’s line,” said Hunwick. “It wasn’t something I was expecting coming in here today, but it was a lot of fun to be out there with those guys.”

Goat Horns: It’s too bad because Tim Thomas was brilliant in many portions of the hockey game and stoned the Caps on several breakaway bids, but losing in overtime on an 80-foot dump-in shot by Alexander Semin is pretty tough to wrap the hockey brain around. Thomas said that the puck sailed a bit on him as it approached the net, but he didn’t offer any excuses for simply not stopping the long shot.

“That last goal was a bad goal, and he can say all the things that happened with the puck, but the bottom line is, you should tell yourself, ‘I should have had it, I didn’t have it, turn the page, and let’s move on,’ said Julien. “He’s given us too much to be worried about the negatives, and he’s been far much better than he’s been the other way.”

Turning Point: So many to choose from, but the Bruins undisciplined play led the high-powered Capitals PP attack to tally a pair of power play strikes in the first and third periods. That would be culprit number one when a big portion of Boston’s game plan was to stay out of the box against the Caps. Washington entered the game ranked third in the NHL in terms of power play success and are 13 for 25 in first period PP opportunities over their last 14 games.

“We kept going in the box.  Like I said they’ve got too many skilled guys there to let them be on the power play,” said Savard, who took a hooking penalty that led to Washington’s first goal. “Their power play stays out there for two minutes and they move the puck pretty well.  You know, if we see these guys down the road, we’ll have to take that into account again.”

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No place like home for the Boston Bruins 02.25.09 at 4:41 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — There’s no sense in clicking their hockey skates three times and chanting “There’s no place like home,” but the Black and Gold reached a welcomed portion of the schedule when they notched a victory over the Panthers Tuesday night. The tilt against the upwardly mobile Eastern Conference team was the first of six straight games at the Garden that will take the Bruins crew past the March 4 trade deadline and right on through a March 7 matinee against the Chicago Blackhawks.

It’s a mighty positive development for the Good Ship Bruins as the Spoked B play 14 of their final 21 games within the friendly, frozen confines, and have a chance to put themselves in a solid season-ending position with the right amount of energy, strength and determination.

The Big, Bad B’s are 20-4-4 in 28 games at the Vault on Causeway Street this season, and have been pretty successful at making life difficult for opponents inside the loud and rowdy Boston rink. It should be a fun next couple of weeks, as a young hockey club continues to get their groove back and readies themselves for a long run through the postseason. The next handful of games should start warming up the B’s crowd for the fever pitch expected once Lord Stanley’s playoff challenge begins.

Two guys home means quite a bit to: Milan Lucic and Dennis Wideman. Wideman has 18 points in 32 road games this season, but is nearly one point per game at the Garden (5 goals and 18 assists in 29 games) while Looch has 15 points in 29 road games as opposed to 8 goals and 11 assists in 24 home tilts this season.

“It was great for our team to be back (home),” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “It was a tough road stretch and the fact that we were able to find our game a little bit was great. I think it was about getting out of our funk. Every team goes through that during the season at some point, and the good thing for us is to get out of it sooner rather than later as we head toward the end of the season.”

The B’s aren’t exactly chopped bratwurst on the road either, as the 21-8-4 record in hostile hockey territory would attest. But the first trip back to the Garden coincided with the B’s finally putting disciplined play, fearless ventures by the forwards into the goal area and the danger zones of the rink, aggressive support by the defensemen and normally solid goaltending into a once-again unbreakable chain.

It all starts on Thursday with a pretty stiff challenge against an Anaheim Ducks squad that’s sitting squarely below the cusp of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, and could start selling off valuable wares like Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer if things don’t start improving. In other words, the B’s will be facing yet another talented hockey team filled with desperation while they protect the pole position in the East.

“The 50 or the 60 game mark is historically the toughest part (of the schedule), but at this point we’re over that and the last 20 games or so you start gearing up for the Big Push,” said tough guy Shawn Thornton, who participated in the ultimate “Big Push” when he was a member of the Ducks squad that won the Stanley Cup back in the 2006-07 season. “I think we’re starting to feel that now. We had a little slide, but I think now we’re starting to back on track mentally and bringing it every night.”

There it is. The Boston Garden: where the Black and Gold “bring it” on a nightly basis.

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Byron Bitz playing big for the Bruins in victory 02.24.09 at 11:10 pm ET
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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.”

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Julien: Kessel shouldn’t be afraid “to do extra” while in slump 02.20.09 at 5:00 pm ET
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The last 13 games have been pretty damned unlucky for Phil Kessel.

The last 13 games have been pretty damned unlucky for Phil Kessel.

It’s pretty clear that one of Bruins head coach Claude Julien’s famous messages is being extended out to winger Phil Kessel, who hasn’t scored a goal in his last 13 games — including 10 since returning from mononucleosis in late January.

The streak is the longest since he had a pair of 15-game goal-scoring droughts back in his rookie season of 2006-07.

The 22-year-old was pulled off the power play in Boston’s win against Carolina on Tuesday night, and Julien indicated he wants to see something out of his skilled winger before he’s placed back on the unit. The man advantage scored two goals without Kessel buzzing around at his normal position, so it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the youngster’s immediate return to the special teams’ squad.

It’s not exactl akin to benching Kessel in the playoffs as he did last season against the Montreal Canadiens, but it’s another example of some tough hockey love from a coach imploring he see more out of his budding superstars. The Bruins will need Kessel’s firepower with the playoffs on the horizon, and — reading between the lines — they’d like to see him work a little harder at lighting the lamp.

Skating with playmaking David Krejci — who appears to have turned the corner earlier this week against the Hurricanes – and the gritty, aggravating Vladmir Sobotka could be just what the doctor ordered for Kessel. But the B’s bench boss clearly wants to see more oomph and effort out of his ice-cold forward with whichever linemates he finds himself with. 

“The message you’ve got to give to any young player that’s (not scoring) is to work your way through it,” said B’s coach Claude Julien following this morning’s practice at Incredible Ice in Coral Spring, Fla. “That’s the biggest thing. Some people wait for it to happen again, and some people work to make it happen again. That’s that the message that we’re giving him. Don’t stop doing things or don’t be afraid to do extra stuff to get yourself going. If you can shoot 100 extra pucks at the end of practice, then you go and do it.”

The additional work extends out to his work in the shootout, where Kessel has gained a slight air of predictability while continuing to employ his his favorite “deke and drive” move during the shootouts. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole thing sounded quite a bit like a parent telling a young child that they’ll get a better grade if they start doing a little more studying.

“Even in the shootouts it’s about trying to use different moves for him as well and to expand his different types moves,” added Julien. “Nowadays everybody has those scouting reports on both the goalies and the shooters for the shootouts.”

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Strange days indeed for the Montreal Canadiens 02.17.09 at 6:25 pm ET
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Despite the shot in the arm that would normally accompany an NHL deadline deal for puck-moving blueliner Matthieu Schneider, the Montreal Canadiens are continuing to navigate through some choppy waters as they tumble through the Eastern Conference.

Watching wunderkind goalie Carey Price struggle through each and every game has been bad enough, but the epic struggles of Montreal’s power play have been downright incomprehensible after lighting it up on the PP one season ago.  Meanwhile at Habs practice on Tuesday morning, things got even worse for Les Habitants as the other shoe finally dropped on underperforming forward Alex Kovalev. 

According to the Gazette’s Habs Inside Out blog, the enigmatic Canadiens forward is being kept home for the next two games against Washington and Pittsburgh because he hasn’t displayed the proper emotion and passion out on the ice while skating for his floundering Canadiens. Canadiens GM Bob Gainey said that Kovalev hasn’t demanded a trade, so this looks like a strict punitive hockey measure designed to light a fire under a notoriously moody, tremendously talented scorer.

Given Kovalev’s aversion to discipline back to Claude Julien’s days as the Habs coach, it should be interesting hockey theater going forward and could signal serious trouble for Boston’s arch-rivals. 

According to the blog: Montreal General Manager Bob Gainey said he told Kovalev the team has no need of Kovalev’s services the way he’s currently playing. He added that Kovalev was tired and wasn’t playing with any emotion. The GM said Kovalev’s situation would be re-evaluated at the end of the week but wouldn’t commit himself to saying that Kovalev would be back in the lineup for Saturday’s home game against Ottawa.

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