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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.

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

Read More: Boston Bruins, Byron Bitz, Claude Julien, Michael Ryder
Julien: Kessel shouldn’t be afraid “to do extra” while in slump 02.20.09 at 5:00 pm ET
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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.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, David Krejci, Phil Kessel
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.

Read More: Alex Kovalev, Bob Gainey, Boston Bruins, Carey Price
Phil Kessel looking to put an end to “frustrating” scoring drought 02.11.09 at 7:37 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — Phil Kessel is quick to admit that he’s frustrated after going a season-high 10 long games without lighting the goal lamp.

For a 21-year-old that was on pace to score 50 goals during a white hot first half of the hockey season, it’s a pretty stunning cold stretch for a young sniper that had seemed to be putting it all together. During those aforementioned 10 games Kessel has managed only four assists and is sitting at a -1 amid a battlefield of hockey games against playoff teams across the Eastern and Western Conference.

It should be noted that Kessel — who missed a handful of January games with mononucleosis and has been mired in the goal-less stretch in games sandwiched around the illness — said he’s only felt 100 percent himself on the ice in the last few games. But it’s clear that Kessel has been among the stick-wielding culprits in a Boston offensive slowdown since the All-Star break that’s seen them average only 2.6 goals per game over their last eight games.

The B’s right winger has already set career highs in virtually every offensive category this year as he heads into restricted free agency, but that doesn’t stop this current slump from bugging the Bruin.

“Obviously you get a little frustrated, but you’ve got to go out there and keep doing your job until things change,” said Kessel, of the longest goal-scoring drought of what’s been a pretty charmed season for the third-year skater. “I’ve had some good opportunities, but they’re not going in. You’ve got to keep going and try to get back into it.

It’s gonna come…stuff changes,” added Kessel. “It’s a funny game like that. You go through little stretches and stuff won’t go in. You get a little frustrated, but things will turn.”

Some of it has been an inability to get to the spots and creases he found so plentiful in the first half of the season, and some of it has simply been getting back into the flow with linemates Marc Savard and Milan Lucic. Kessel has averaged 3.3 shots per game over the course of the season, but he’s dropped down to 2.4 shots per game since coming back from mono on Jan. 29. 

Bruins coach Claude Julien pointed to some progress in Kessel’s game, but there’s still improvement to be made in getting to the grimy areas of the ice and “digging deeper” after the coaching staff went through video work with the young forward last week.

“He’s gotten some chances,” said Julien. “Sometimes you can work at creating more as well. But it’s never a one-sided thing. The fact that he’s getting some chances is a good sign, but you’ve also got to find a way to bury those and dig deeper to score goals. That’s what good goal scorers do.” 

–B’s coach Claude Julien didn’t have anything to add to the conditions of injured players Petteri Nokelainen (eye) and Chuck Kobasew (upper body, lower body, knee), and said they will both be evaluated and perhaps an update will be available on Thursday. Kobasew was at the B’s practice rink to receive treatment on Wednesday morning, but didn’t get out on the ice.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Chuck Kobasew, Claude Julien, Petteri Nokelainen
Sounds of the game… Sharks 5, Bruins 2 02.10.09 at 11:38 pm ET
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Maybe the Bruins needed that.

Maybe it was a wakeup call.

And maybe, just maybe, Joe Thornton is right.

When they’re on, no one can be the San Jose Sharks, not even the Black and Gold.

Thornton gave us all this little nugget afterward when he said no one can handle the Sharks.

Though for two periods on Tuesday night, they appeared ready to take the bite out of the Sharks, leading San Jose, 2-1.

But then they dropped the puck in the third and the Sharks circled and cycled and tore into the Bruins.

San Jose scored four times in the third period on their way to a 5-2 win, their 37th of the season, just two fewer than Boston and they drew to within four points of Boston’s 85 for top spot in the NHL.

Thornton did score in his return, making his comeback to Boston a pleasant one.

The Bruins could rely on just three lines because of injuries to Michael Ryder and a nasty eye injury late in the first period to Petteri Nokelainen.

Bruins coach Claude Julien said the Bruins simply looked worn out in the third.

Julien said the Sharks are the best team the Bruins have played this season.

Marc Savard said it was simple, you can’t sit back against a team like San Jose.

Aaron Ward said the Bruins hopefullhy have learned their lesson about playing 60 minutes.

Tim Thomas said the Bruins lost their mojo in the third.

Thomas said the Bruins could have won the game.

Milan Lucic said the Bruins lack the killer instinct right now.

Lucic said the Sharks are first in the West for a reason.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Joe Thornton, Marc Savard
Jumbo Joe Thornton gets the last laugh in Boston at 11:20 pm ET
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The script had a deliciously Boston flavor to it after the first two periods of play last night, but Jumbo Joe Thornton got the last surfer boy chuckle in a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks at a jazzed up TD Banknorth Garden.

Milan Lucic banked himself a pair of blue-collar goals in the first period to push the Bruins out to a 2-1 lead, and the Bruins had their new punch ‘em out/light ‘em up face on the franchise staring down their old hockey hero in the NHL “Best of the Best” showdown. Looch had two goals, four bone-shattering hits and a +2 after two periods of play, and Thornton was doing his best “vintage 2003-04 big game no-show” impression with a -1, one measly shot on net and a generally invisible game in this second Hub homecoming.

But everything turned in the fateful third period. Up became down, and down became up. The Bruins, normally dominant in the final period, coughed up four goals over the final 20 minutes and looked like a weary and beaten team with the rest of the hockey world watching. 

A B’s team that has prided itself on being tough to play against suddenly lost a pair of forwards (Petteri Nokelainen, Chuck Kobasew) to injury and their hockey mojo — as the inimitable Dave Lewis would put it — seemed to shrink back before San Jose’s challenge. The Bruins managed only seven shots despite a pair of power play opportunities during a limp third period performance, and watched as the Sharks poured it on with four unanswered goals en route to Boston’s worst defeat of the season.

“Our third period has been our best period most of the year,” said Marc Savard. “It’s really frustrating. It’s almost…I’m mad right now. I’m really mad right now because we had a chance to set a statement tonight here, and we let it slip in 20 minutes of play. It’s frustrating, I think, to all of us.”

The backbreaker in this frozen sheet horror show, you ask?

That would the insurance marker scored by the once-invisible Jumbo Joe, who picked the exact opportune time to drop his 6-foot-4, 235-pound body right in front of the net with 9:48 to go in the third period. Devin Setoguchi whistled a pass from the corner that simply deflected off Thornton’s shimmering skate blade and then slipped between Tim Thomas‘ pads.

“I think midway through the game we kind of turned it on and when we do that team can’t handle us,” said Thornton in perfect bulletin board form. “That’s what you saw tonight. Just our size, our speed, everything. You can’t handle the Sharks for 60 minutes.”

It was the perfect storm of absurdity for the Boston hockey fan. They watched their former No. 1 draft pick and Bruins poster boy venture to the treacherous middle — a place where he would never set up as a member of the Black and Gold — and get rewarded with the fickle bounce of a puck that both cinched the game and gave the Big Lug his cathartic Boston moment — a cherry on top of the puck sundae that he had surely always craved while surfing along the Pacific Ocean in lovely San Jose.

While the goal clearly brought a smile to the happy-go-lucky face of the former Bruins star, it probably brought a good faction of the B’s fandom running for some Puck Pepto-Bismol with the familiar sinking feeling in their collective stomachs. Instead of the deja vu appearance of Thornton prepping for his next playoff no-show, the Bruins are instead a team that’s beginning to show cracks and weakness where once they appeared young, strong and invincible.

The numbers don’t lie and younger players like David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel are continuing to recede to the background as the NHL seasons turns into the final stretch — and the hockey-playing men go out hunting for playoff spots. Boston’s power play has been sapped of its energy over the nine-game stretch they just completed against playoff-caliber opponents, and they’ve been held without a power play score in six of their last seven games. The B’s man advantage has gone 2-for-30 during that seven-game stretch, which gives them a 6.7 percent success rate and has seen them drop from a 25 percent success rate to 23.3 in just nine games. 

So much for Jack Edwards’ “Peach Fuzz” power play that shocked and amazed over the first four months of the NHL season.

“I don’t think we’re moving the puck with enough authority, we’re not moving it quick enough and we’re definitely not strong enough on the puck,” said Julien. “You’ve got to work the PK. Those three things aren’t happening right now.”

The numbers weren’t too pretty for the young players that have looked altogether too invisible and timid on the puck as the physicality has increased. To wit:

*David Krejci — 17:01 of ice time, no points, -1 for the game, and zero shots on net.

*Blake Wheeler — 13:07 of ice time, no points, and four shots on net.

*Phil Kessel — 19:43 of ice time, no points, and three shots on net.

That trio certainly weren’t the only players that couldn’t distinguish themselves in the ultimate “statement  game” the Bruins will play during the regular season — Patrice Bergeron, P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle had a pretty rough ride of it as well — but they simply appeared overmatched amongst the tall trees within the big-bodied Sharks lineup. It’s a stark contrast to a first half that saw them set the NHL world on their ear, and it’s something that will need to change before the ultimate hockey tournament begins in April. 

“I think obviously with our youth that we’re still learning,” said defenseman Aaron Ward. “With our team, we’ve obviously got some lessons to learn with our competition. Big game against Jersey coming up, and we have to realize that every game is important whether or not it’s in a national level like it was today or it’s a game against a conference foe that means a lot more in the standings.”

Medical Ward: Petteri Nokelainen was hit in the eye with a high stick by Sharks D-man Dan Boyle at the end of the first period, and many of his teammates and coaches were voicing concern after the game while the Finnish forward was getting treatment at a nearby hospital. “It’s an eye injury and I don’t think it looks very good right now,” said B’s coach Claude Julien.

Chuck Kobasew managed to play 14:35, but suffered both a lower body and upper body injury in the second and third periods.

B’s Player of the Game: Milan Lucic had nothing to hang his head about after the game as he made himself a physical presence during the game and scored both of Boston’s goals in the first period. Looch would have been hailed as a hero had the Bruins answered San Jose’s call to hockey arms in the third period.

Goat Horns:  Patrice Bergeron took Boston’s only penalty, which led to a power play goal, was a -2 for the evening, wasn’t a factor while running the point on the first power play, lost 8 of 11 faceoffs in a forgettable night for the B’s from the dot and just didn’t look strong on the puck amidst the playoff intensity. There was plenty to go around in this category, however.

Turning Point: Both referees Chris Rooney Don Van Massenhoven missed a high sticking call on Dan Boyle that ripped open a cut around Petteri Nokelainen’s right eye at the end of the first period — an injury that sent Nokelainen to the hospital. The B’s missed out an obvious four minute power play for the high-stick that drew blood, and the Sharks began stealing momentum away from a B’s team with a shortened bench.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, David Krejci
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