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Amid second-half slide, B’s searching for answers 03.05.09 at 11:37 pm ET
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Frustration appears to be bubbling over in the Bruins dressing room as the inconsistent performances stack upon each other, and those immediately chasing the Spoked B in the Eastern Conference standings keep gaining ground in disconcerting clumps.

Things hit a new low last night, as the Bruins clearly got back to their difficult-to-play-against ways but couldn’t muster up enough lunchpail offense in a 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes at the TD Banknorth Garden.

The straggling, struggling Black and Gold sit mired in a 3-6-2 slump over their last 11 games, and have degenerated into a mystified hockey team searching for answers amid a series of passionless periods, 80-foot fluke goals and bang-bang shots at open nets that inexplicably sail over the inviting crease.

The catalyst for the current 11-game slide back to the pack? Travel back to a Feb. 10 loss to the San Jose Sharks on their home ice where Jumbo Joe Thornton and Co. clearly turned on the jets in the third period and left the B’s scrambling for confidence after getting beaten down by the Western Conference powerhouse.

It was a national Versus game billed as a potential Stanley Cup Finals matchup between the Beast of the East and the Best of the West, and it ended with a stunning collapse from which the Bruins still haven’t fully recovered. Instead of a crowning moment punctuated by the triumphant Bruins leaving the arena with NHL bragging rights, Claude Julien’s boys have dropped into an undeniable rut that has some in the hockey world wondering whether this team was truly as good as its nearly letter-perfect first half.

Perhaps the overwhelming nature of that third period simply humbled a young, fearless puck bunch and splashed a bit of doubt into the minds of a group of brash young hockey players.

Boston has flashed glimpses of the dominant squad that simply slammed the hammer down on opponents during the first three months of the year, but it’s becoming apparent the San Jose defeat damaged the exposed psyche of a young, talented team attempting to make their first big statement.

Despite their current freefall, the Bruins have maintained the top spot in the East and have blowout wins over the Ducks and Panthers within the erratic stretch. But even Boston’s best players are starting to search for answers just out of their reach. The New Jersey Devils remain six points behind the B’s in the East, and they’ve won 8 of their last 10 and regained their Hall of Fame goaltender in the same breath.

Is it time to worry yet?

“What’s frustrating is that we know how we can play, and we can dominate when we’re at our best,” said center Marc Savard. “We didn’t put any pucks in the net and maybe we’re being a little too cute at times. We’ve got to try to nip this in the butt right now. We’ve got a big weekend ahead of us and we all know that. We’ve got to start pulling points out of games, and we all know that.

“It’s not for the lack of effort,” added Savard. “We’re trying. I know the fans come out all year. We heard the boos off the second, and we don’t want that. We want to go and show them what we can do, and want it to be a long run here. It was frustrating for us too.”

The Big, Bad hockey club put forth a grating, physical brand of hockey, outhitting the young Desert Dogs by a 31-10 margin during last night’s defeat, and Milan Lucic, Mark Recchi and Chuck Kobasew were all — at different times – camped out in the middle of the high-traffic zones attempting to redirect pucks, screen the goaltender and manufacture any kind of goal. There just wasn’t enough of it happening to make a difference.

It was exactly the kind of things that hockey purists preach to escape a rut, but nothing worked for a club that’s clearly squeezing the daylights out of their hockey sticks.

“I wish I had the magical answer for what’s going on, but it’s simple things right down to plain effort from every single player,” said blueliner Aaron Ward, who was part of an aggressive corps of defensemen that time and again pinched and crashed into the offensive zone without ultimately cashing in. “You’re out there and you hear the fans booing, and it’s justified right now to express displeasure for our performance. You watch video postgame and that’s simply not the way we need to be playing the game.

“I’m laughing, but it’s pretty (discouraging) to sit here and wonder what’s going on,” added Ward.

Several players talked afterward about “being too cute with the puck” and “not playing a full 60 minutes of hockey,” but they also appeared frustrated to hear boos cascading down to the ice from the 16,818 in attendance in the closing seconds of a flatter-than-flapjacks second period.

The worst part?

The B’s knew they deserved the Garden catcalls after seizing control of the game early on the strength of Chuck Kobasew’s goal, and then simply allowed things to slip out of their fingers later in the first — and then stumbled right on into an uninspired second period.

The B’s have become a shadow of their first-half selves as the postseason pressure cooker looms closer with every passing day, and the time has come to pack away the rookie walls, nagging injuries, and line chemistry questions into the excuse box in the Garden attic.

The time has come for the Bruins to regain the confident identity of the season’s first half and simply start willing themselves to goals and wins against whatever lines up across the ice from them. The time has come for the B’s to heal up the damage of month-old wounds and protect what they’ve worked so very hard for over the course of a long hockey season.

If they don’t — and fast — then things will get far worse than they were against the Coyotes on a random Thursday night in March.

“I just feel that talk is cheap,” said Julien. “The same thing with standing up front here and trying to explain to (the media). Talk is cheap right now. We have to go up there and then execute. I can stand here and give you all of the excuses. There shouldn’t be excuses. There’s got to be reasons to want to turn this thing around.”

Injury Ward: Milan Lucic came through with flying colors in his first game back from an “upper body injury” and was a physical presence with six crunching body blows against the Coyotes. Other than Looch, everyone else appeared to come through okay.

Player of the Game: Zdeno Chara. After the rare off-game on Tuesday night, Chara responded by playing with some snarl and absolutely beating down Coyotes all over the ice with punishing checks and intimidation tactics. A good rebound game for Big Z.

Goat Horns: Dennis Wideman. It was a bad night for Wideman, who turned a puck over in the D-zone during the Phoenix power play that quickly led to Scottie Upshall’s first Coyotes goal. The score deflated the team for a bit, and Wideman was on the ice for both of the Coyotes’ goals on the evening. Blake Wheeler has also continued to struggle in the final months, and was limited to little more than 10 minutes of ice time on a night when backchecking seemed optional among many of Boston’s forwards.

Turning Point: The Bruins basically crawled up and died for the next 30 minutes of play once Scottie Upshall banged home the Coyotes’ first goal — a power play score — off a bad Dennis Wideman turnoever. A hockey team simply can’t do that anymore in March and April.

Read More: Aaron Ward, Claude Julien, Dennis Wideman, Marc Savard
New Bruins ready to take ice… at 1:33 pm ET
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One thing that has made Claude Julien so popular among his players is his ability to clearly define roles for his team.

He wasted no time on Thursday at the morning skate prior to the Bruins game with the Phoenix Coyotes in doing so for newcomers Mark Recchi and Steve Montador.

He was clear with them – don’t try to do too much too soon. Just play your game.

“They’ve been around,” Julien said. “We’ve already had our one-on-one meetings. I even tried to not give them too much information because I don’t want them going out there and over-thinking. Just go out there and play. We think you’re a good player and that’s why we got you. If there’s some adjustments to make along the way, we can make those. They got the basic crash course. Now it’s just go out there and play.”

Julien was one of those watching Wednesday’s trade deadline with great enthusiasm.

“Well, hopefully our whole team can give us the energy we need but those two guys are certainly bringing some life to our hockey club,” he said. “By the time 3 o’clock rolled around, we were a better team than we were at 9 o’clock, just with the addition of those guys.”

He could notice a jump in his team’s collective step on Thursday morning. They could use one after the performance they gave against the Flyers on Tuesday night, giving up three in the third as Philly captured a 4-2 decision.

He also could tell that some players were relieved that they weren’t the ones dealt out of town from a first-place contender just to shake up the team.

“There’s no doubt that that the guys this morning were pretty excited this morning, not only for still being here but for the additions,” Julien said. “We’re pretty pleased with what’s happened and looking forward to taking another step in the right direction.” Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, history, Mark Recchi
Lucic, Montador and Recchi all in lineup against Coyotes at 11:54 am ET
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New trade acquisitions Mark Recchi and Steve Montador will both be in tonight’s Bruins lineup against the Phoenix Coyotes, and bruising left winger Milan Lucic will also be back in the hockey swing after missing two games with an “upper body injury” believed to be a concussion.

Julien preached patience with some new elements being introduced to the lineup, but it was clear that a message has been sent to the team by the number of players on the ice for a voluntary practice. Play with 100 intensity and tenacity and a spot will be dusted off in the lineup, but slackers and soft hockey players might just be headed for a healthy scratch or two in the future.

In short, it’s the kind of depth that can be a coach’s dream when a player’s most prized possession, ice time, hangs in the balance. 

“Hopefully our whole team can give us the energy we need, but we think those two guys can bring some life to our hockey club,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “Now we’ve got competition. It’s important for the guys to understand that we’re at a stage where it’s going to be who is playing best.”

Recchi also revealed that he’ll be manning the post down low opposite play maker Marc Savard on the first power play unit — ostensibly supplanting P.J. Axelsson in the left-handed shooting role – and the 41-year-old will be able to utilize some of the skills that allowed him to pile up 19 PP points for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.

“I’m not sure who I’m playing with yet, but I’m ready to play with and do whatever role they put me in,” said Recchi. “I do know that I’m playing with Savvy on the power play down low. I’m excited to be on that unit. I’ve played down low and on the point most of my career. I’ll be playing down low because we’ve got some great guys here on the point, and I’ve been playing down low by the post for most of my career on a traditional power play.

“When you’ve got a guy like Savvy you’ve got to be ready for him to pass the puck at all times, so that’s going to be neat for me,” added Recchi. “You get to the front of the net, and hopefully I’ll get some ugly goals.”

Byron Bitz expressed a level of disappointment with the assumption that Recchi’s arrival may relegate him to a healthy scratch status tonight, but Bitz — along with Shane Hnidy and Matt Hunwick – was saying all the right things after playing such effective hockey lately.

For all the uniform afficianados out there, Recchi will be wearing #28 and Montador #23 for the Spoked B tonight.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Marc Savard, Mark Recchi
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.

Read More: Byrton Bitz, Claude Julien, Don Cherry, Shawn Thornton
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.

Read More: Claude Julien, Matt Hunwick, Milan Lucic, Petteri Nokelainen
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.”

Read More: Alex Ovechkin, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Marc Savard
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.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Shawn Thornton,
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