|Warding off worry… B’s blue liner returns||12.09.08 at 3:08 pm ET|
While he didn’t take part in any contact drills on Tuesday, Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward felt good about returning to the ice after a left leg injury that has forced him to miss the last three games.
“That’s the approach now,” Ward said before joining the team on its sojourn to Washington for Wednesday’s game against the Capitals. “Only have taken seven days off, I can’t have lost a whole lot. To touch a puck and to play around with it rather than sit out three weeks and miss it, that’s why I’m taking the road trip, hopefully start skating a little bit more aggressively and hopefully go from there. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a need right now. I can take my time.
“It’s just the pace of the game, getting your head up and playing with the puck, especially this team, so much more demanded from a defenseman in terms of putting the puck in the right place and reading the play and understand where you’re supposed to be. That’s the essential part of it all,” he said.
While Ward is having fun watching the team continue to roll along, there is some tension knowing that other younger players are coming up and could make an even better impression.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ward said. “You don’t want to be supplanted from where you feel where you might add to the team.”
One of those younger players is Vladimir Sobotka, who was recalled on an emergency basis following Monday’s game after Stephane Yelle collided with a linesman and suffered a minor rib injury.
“I was on the first line in Providence, playing on the power play some,” Sobotka explained Tuesday. “Here I’ll be on the fourth line. I admit I’ll be a little nervous before the game (on Wednesday).”
As for Ward, he said he doesn’t expect to return on Wednesday.
If I were a wagering man, I’d say no. But again, (Wednesday) is another step in the recovery process,” Ward said.
The always artful Ward also made the following observation about Sean Avery’s pending punishment from the NFL for his untoward remarks about a former girlfriend and his brotherhood of NHL skaters.
“How happy Plaxico Burress is that Avery shot his mouth off and now no one knows who Plaxico is,” Ward said.
And props to Matt Kalman of The Bruins Blog, who didn’t miss a beat responding, “Maybe in the hockey world, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the world (does).”
Don’t have to look very far for confirmation of that, Matt.
|Sounds of the game… Bruins 5, Lightning 3||at 7:32 am ET|
You know you’re a good hockey team when your coach says, “We’re getting used to wins, and that’s nice. But we’re at the stage now where we’re really looking at how we’re winning hockey games.” Claude Julien didn’t have to say anything to his team following its 5-3 dispatching of the woebegone Tampa Bay Lightning at the Garden. He left them to think about how a 3-0 first period lead turned into a nail-biter in the final minute of regulation. All of which leads to this, when you are a good team you learn from your wins just as much as your losses and that was the case last night. The Bruins are still in phenomenal shape at 19-4-4, with 42 points and atop the Eastern Conference. Only the unconscious San Jose Sharks have more points in the NHL.
|Hockey Notes: Hunwick earning his spot||12.07.08 at 12:27 pm ET|
Members of the Bruins brain trust correctly predicted that — after playing 10 games in 18 days through a brutal November stretch of hockey – the Black and Gold would begin incurring some injuries that would challenge the team’s overall depth. The Bruins flew through that stretch with a bevy of W’s and continue building a burgeoning lead in the Eastern Conference’s top spot, but bumps and bruised began cropping at a position where Boston could seemingly least afford them: the blue line.
First it was Andrew Ference going down with a broken right tibia and then Aaron Ward followed with a left leg injury, likely a sprained ankle that wasn’t going to keep a tough-as-nails customer like Ward out for a long stretch. But then Dennis Wideman missed a game with the dreaded “middle body injury” and things really began to stretch out in an area that Boston wasn’t especially deep.
But a funny thing happened along the way to Boston succumbing to their defenseman injury woes: they discovered a host of other young guys that have stepped up and filled in along the vacant spots. Matt Lashoff and Johnny Boychuk, who was send back down to the AHL this afternoon, have both arrived fresh off the AHL bus ride circuit to step up and provide steady D-man coverage — with a hint of offensive potential from each young colt — and 23-year-old Matt Hunwick has been an absolute revelation for the Spoked B.
Hunwick was the last defenseman returned to Providence when cuts came down at the end of training camp, and he was handed marching orders to continue raising his competitive levels during one-on-one battles for the puck while gaining physical strength to shake off the hurtling bodycheckers abundant in the NHL.
Hunwick kept his solid D-zone responsibilities and puck-moving ways sharp in two games with the P-Bruins between two different call-ups to Boston, and the 23-year-old was the first one called up to “The Show” when Ference was lost for an extended period.
Young forwards Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel are rightfully getting much of the credit for the puck renaissance that’s currently taking place in the Hub, but Hunwick has similarly emerged as a force within Claude Julien’s defense-first system. The 5-foot-10, 187-pound rookie is behind only Wideman and Zdeno Chara when it comes to defenseman scoring for the B’s with three goals and six assists in 14 games, and he boasts the second-best +/- along the blueline with a sterling +12 mark. More importantly, he’s given the Bruins an average of 21 minutes of ice time per night over the last five games, which has softened the sting of the injury bug along the blue line.
The game of hockey is – in many ways — a game of dopplegangers, where any observant player can scout out another skater with the same skill set, physical attributes and on-ice temperament and begin absorbing valuable puck lessons. Prior to the iron man hockey act he’s pulled over the last handful of games, there were a glut of contests early in the season that Hunwick didn’t dress for. Hunwick instead opted spent his time watching his fellow defensemen — with a discerning eye toward Wideman and Ference. Ference, in particular, is a good match for the relatively undersized Hunwick and offensively-skilled defenseman.
“I’ve tried to be more aggressive in the play and I’m trying to get more of an edge out there,” said Hunwick. “[Ference] is the same size as me and he’s definitely a guy that I paid attention to when I was up in the press box watching the game. Not only is it the size thing, but the way he’s able to be physically involved at his size too. How hard and intensely he plays, how smart he plays and how good he is on special teams. He’s been around playing this game for a long time, and there’s a lot I’ve learned from him.”
Hunwick’s elevation within the eyes of the Bruins’ coaching staff was never more apparent than their highly successful two-game swing through Florida. During the third period a tight, one-goal effort against Tampa Bay, Hunwick (a career-high 23:27 of ice time), Shane Hnidy (who also elevated his game to another level during a serious time of need for the B’s) and Chara were all playing yeoman’s minutes with a depleted corps, and they still managed to hold down a group of individual offensive talents to one goal. Down three D-men, it was just another night for the NHL’s best defensive crew ( one of only three teams that have allowed less than 60 goals this season along with the Ottawa Senators and the notoriously defense-minded Minnesota Wild) and another rookie quickly learning the new-and-improved Bruins Way of doing things.
“The more he plays and the better he’s going to get, and that’s really just the normal cycle of experience,” said Bruins head coach Claude Julien. “He’s been put through game situations and so there’s improvement through game experience and there’s a real raising of his confidence levels.
“Every game we keep a close eye on him and gauge how things are going, and if he’s playing well then we’ve got to make sure we find him some ice and if he’s having a tough night then we make sure he doesn’t lose his confidence,” added Julien. “We keep a close eye on him, but he’s playing very good hockey right now.”
For Hunwick, watching Wideman and Ference — before he went down — was like attending a Defenseman Master Class. The young defenseman, who displayed outstanding leadership abilities first skating for the US National Team Development Program and then along to the Michigan Wolverines and the minor leagues, is beginning to look like a steal out of a productive 2004 entry draft for the Bruins that also churned out Krejci and high-scoring Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg. While Krejci and Versteeg were both taken in the first few rounds, Hunwick was a seventh round selection that’s already begun making inroads toward a full time job in the NHL.
“It’s a big opportunity to play good minutes and be a big part of this defensive corps,” said Hunwick. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this squad, and also show the coaching staff that I’m capable of playing at this level.”
|Yelle getting comfortable in the East||12.04.08 at 10:52 am ET|
It would have been pretty easy to assume Father Time had simply come calling a bit prematurely for veteran center Stephane Yelle when the thirtysomething pivot was slow-moving out of the gate this season. The 34-year-old seemed to be having trouble getting into the flow of the game and the faceoff specialist — targeted by the Black and Gold in the offseason for his ability to win draws along the dot and specialize in the little things needed to kill penalties – was uncharacteristically struggling in the faceoff circle while hovering around a 40 percent success rate.
Looking back in hindsight, it’s probably understandable that there was a healthy period of adjustment for Yelle, who has always been a Western Conference denizen and carries around hockey skill set that doesn’t exactly jump out and grab the unsuspecting fan.
In many ways Yelle is similar to P.J. Axelsson in his ability to go long periods of ice time doing all the little things without screaming out for attention with a teeth-chattering body check or a one-man dangle-fest through a host of defenders before scoring. Off the ice, he’s similarly quiet and reserved while also holding the respect of younger players that probably spent an ample amount of time playing Yelle in Sega Genesis or Playstation video game hockey.
The 34-year-old simply had to make an adjustment to the Eastern Conference-style and tinker with his hockey dial to something with a great deal more aggressive physicality and dump-and-chase puck philosophy, and that adjustment seems to now be complete. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder was scoreless through his first seven games and sat at a -2 through that time period, but things finally started to slow down for the seasoned vet just as the Bruins team caught fire.
Yelle is back up to winning 49.7 percent of his faceoffs, and has quickly learned the habits and tricks of the trade employed by his new Eastern Conference draw adversaries. Opposing centers basked in the element of surprise during Yelle’s first time around the division, but the Old Rebel Yelle Dog has caught on to the new tricks.
“Yeah, there’s definitely always a transition period to a new team, but I feel like I’ve been around long enough to really be comfortable with the guys now,” said Yelle. “I’m comfortable with the systems and stuff. Usually you don’t want to get off to a bad start [with the faceoffs] because it’s a long climb up, but I’ve been working hard, doing different things and not being predictable. There are different little strategies you can implement to keep guys guessing.”
Yelle will switch things up on opponents that feel like they’ve got Yelle pegged. The former Avalanche and Flames skater will take some draws with his backhand and go after others with his forehand – or just tie a guy up and attempt winning a one-on-one battle for the free puck — that all fits under the heading of the cat-and-mouse game played with the opposing centers that he’s customarily lining up with.
“Coming from the Western Conference, you play the same guys a lot and you don’t know the Eastern guys as much,” added Yelle. “You don’t know their tendencies and sometimes it becomes a guessing game. Now that I’ve played them a couple of times I’m getting an idea of what they intend to do, and hopefully it can help me out down the road.”
Yelle has 3 goals and 5 assists and sits at a +2 in his last 17 games and the Bruins coaching staff has taken note of him reaching his water level – even if his contributions aren’t easily pinpointed by a casual perusal of the postgame stat sheet. He’s on a pace for 10 goals and 17 assists this season, which would be perfectly acceptable numbers out of the middle man on the energy line.
“Our young guys have been getting better in the faceoff circle and Yelle really brings that experience when he gets in there,” said Julien. “We knew when we brought Stephane in here that he would have a veteran presence and a lot of experience along with his penalty kill and faceoff skills. He’s been a very good fit for this team.”
|Savard on Dale and Holley||12.02.08 at 4:47 pm ET|
Marc Savard has been in the middle of the most effective and high-powered Bruins line this season and he’s putting up some pretty good numbers for himself in the process: Savard has been among the NHL’s scoring leaders all season, collected his 600th career point earlier this year and is widely considered a strong candidate to put together his second All-Star season in a campaign that’s already garnered him National notice. Savvy sat down for a phone interview with Dale and Holley this afternoon to talk about his two young linemates, PJ Axelsson’sunique fashion sense and whether he ever had second thoughts about signing with Boston. Here’s the transcript:
You had a nice little run there in November. MS: We obviously had a good run. We didn’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. We just kept working and that was the big thing. We’re a team that knows we have to work hard to win, and we were able to do that.
You’ve had a string of games there and some regularity in the schedule, and now you’ve got some time off. Is that something where you would have liked to keep playing? MS: I think this time off is good. We’ve been going at it pretty hard here in the month of November, and I think some time off really helps a lot with the bumps and bruises that guys have that nobody knows about. We’re resting those up and getting ready to go south, so we’re getting ready for that.
Speaking of that, you had some bumps and bruises yourself. You took a hit against Florida that some might view as questionable. Did you think it was dirty? MS: I’m not sure. I think it was a good hit. It came in low, but it was just a hip check and you can’t really complain about that. But as we’ve done all year Wardo jumped in there and helped me out when he thought it wasn’t a legal hit. We’ve been covering each other’s backs like that all year and it was a good job by Wardo to do that. It was a little bit of a charley horse there, but no real damage done.
We brought up this point to Milan Lucic last week. This team is tougher this year. When did that attitude change for this team? MS: I really think it was last year, and then we got into the playoffs against Montreal and grew as a group and we really took big steps. We put [the Canadiens] against the wall and almost snuck out that seven game series. I think coming into this year we knew that we had a pretty good hockey team and we just had to put it out there on the ice. We’ve been able to do that this year. We’ve had each other’s backs for a long time.
We’ve got some big boys. We’re not only tough dropping the gloves, but we can bang with the best of them when we have to. We’re a good team, we have good balance and hopefully we can keep doing what we have to do to win.
Big Picture: you recently scored your 600th career point. When you first played hockey, what were your expectations for yourself? MS: Okay, when I first started playing and when I was growing up in Canada I dreamed of playing in the NHL, and that was my dream. At junior hockey I kind of knew that if I put in the time then I could achieve [the NHL] and then once I got here I honestly never thought I’d get 600 points and be as productive as I’ve been as a player.
I’m come a long way as a player and I’ve learned a lot and had some great coaches along the way and had some ups and downs as a player along the way. I’ve learned a lot. I think in the last few years I’ve seemed to grow and grow and keep getting better at the game and learning every day. Just trying to work hard and having a lot of fun doing it. Who knows how many more that I’ll get, but I’m enjoying my time right now and I am thankful for what I have done.
Who was your guy that you grew up wanting to be like? MS:
Oh, it was Wayne Gretzky for sure. As a kid it was Gretzky everything, and I used to have his video called “Hockey, My Way” and I would pop it in before every game I went to. I would watch his highlight goals and always try to emulate everything he did. He was the Greatest to play the game as far as I was concerned. Obviously I got the chance to play with him in New York. It was tough because I got caught watching him all the time and being around him was a special thing.
I always felt a little nervous, but he was a great guy and he would always tell me to just be myself and act normal because he was just a normal person. It was a special thing.
The Bruins made a big splash when they signed Z and they signed you. Did you ever have second thoughts about coming here? MS: No, I always loved this city. Every time I came in as a visiting player I always loved the city and thought this would be a good place to play. When Peter called me on July 1 I had a couple of offers too but this one kept jumping up at me because I’ve always loved this city and I love playing in Boston. I’m happy and I’m really happy now obviously, but there were some growing pains coming here and I went through a tough year my first year. But we really built off that last year and had a great season. This year we want to do more and keep getting better.
I imagine Claude Julien wants you guys to be happy with how things are going, but he doesn’t want you to be satisfied. MS: Exactly. He keeps reiterating that to us and he’s not going to let us get comfortable around here…that’s for sure. That’s his job and he’s done a good job with it at that. We keep coming to the rink and he keeps putting it in our heads that we’re a good team but if we don’t work then we’re not very good. So he keeps putting it in our heads and it’s in there. Even today in practice today if we’re not doing a good job he’ll stop practice and let us know and bring us back down to earth.
We don’t get too high around here and we just keep it even. We know we’ve got 60 games left still and there’s a lot that can happen. We keep bringing up the Ottawa Senators who got off to a flying start last year and then kind of went down. We can’t get too high. We just keep trying to play hard do things right.
I’m sure there are adjustments you’ve had to make as opposed to when you were in Atlanta with Kovalchuk and Heatley? MS: Well, I think the big thing is playing with those guys they were my No. 1 options and pretty much I went with them most of the time. Where here I’ve had to look around a little more and I’ve always been one of those guys that if you’re open then I’m getting it to you…It doesn’t matter who you are. But in Atlanta, Kovalchuk was my No. 1 target and that worked out well.
Playing with Kessel and Lucic we’ve got a great thing going and we’re having a lot of fun coming to the rink every day. They’re great kids and they make me feel like a kid skating with them and I’m really enjoying it. We’ve got a good mix going and hopefully we can keep it going.
What have they taught you? They must have some pop culture stuff going on you haven’t heard of? MS: They’re excited all the time and they’re little chirpers. They chirp me all the time so we have a lot of fun with that. They keep me cool, I guess, yeah. They keep me cool and up to date with what’s going on in the younger world. We have a lot of fun with that.
Those that think Lucic just drops the gloves are missing out on a lot. He’s got some skills. MS: Yeah, I keep going back to Day One when he came out and i got to play with him against the Islanders in the first exhibition game. I went to Peter Chiarelli, our GM, after the game and I remember just saying this kid can play, he’s ready and he’s got more skills than people give him credit for. It’s become evident each day when he’s out there. He makes those little plays, he’s great along the wall and he knows where the net is and he’s going to keep growing.
I think the sky is the limit for him and I hope I’m around for a lot longer than next year because I enjoy playing with those guys and I enjoy playing in this city.
When Phil Kessel got benched in the playoffs last year he could have gone in two directions, and it seems as if he’s really gone in the right direction since then. MS: Yeah, exactly. When he was sat out in the playoffs I had a chance to talk to him and I just told him to really stay with it. I know it’s a bit different these days because a lot of these kids get a chance to play right away. I know when I came in with the Rangers I would play two games and sit two, so I just told him to keep his head on straight and work hard and be ready because you’re going to get another chance. He’s obviously run with that and taken the high road. He works hard every day and he’s getting better at both side of the rink every day too. Obviously his speed is incredible and I love playing with him because I can take advantage of that.
Does Phil remind you of anybody? MS: Well, he has a lot of Kovalchuk in him too with the speed and the skill level and getting to holes really fast. He does. He’s just a great player and the sky is the limit for him too. That’s why I want to say around here and stay on this line for a long time. That would be a lot of fun.
What did you guys think that Claude Julien tapped PJ Axelsoon for the shootout a few weeks ago? MS: Send the Swede in, Oh no! Axy has been working on in practice and he’s a skilled forward. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that and he hasn’t scored yet this year, but that’s coming. He’s got some great hands on him and he’s patient with the puck, so the shoout out fits him pretty good and obviously he’s proven that.
That’s the highlight goal of the year. MS: It was and he lets us know it all the time…that’s for sure.
People that don’t know, he’s also Mr. Fashion on that team. MS: Yeah, but he’s Mr. Fashion out of left field, though. He’s got some fashion that we’ve never seen before. I guess if you call it fashion, then he’s pretty fashionable.
|Ward out at least a week||12.01.08 at 11:07 am ET|
Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward will not be making the two-game road trip through the Sunshine State (Tampa Bay and Florida) after injuring his left foot/ankle during Saturday night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.
Ward was viewed walking through the locker room during Monday morning’s practice with a protective boot on his left foot/ankle, but declined to elaborate on the extent of his injury. “He’s not making the trip to Florida, so he’s definitely out for this week,” said B’s coach Claude Julien, who wouldn’t get any more specific than to call it a ‘leg injury’. “Then he’ll be reevaluated when we get back, and hopefully from there he’ll be day-to-day.
“Our depth is being tested more and our experienced guys are getting whittled down a little bit,” added Julien. “It is something that we have to work with a little closer. You might see some D pairs like we saw [Saturday] night where it’s not always the same pair and it’s more mix-and-match. We want to make sure we have the right combination against the other team’s top lines.”
Ward was walking through the locker room area with a healthy limp after taking the boot off, but the new NHL rules on injuries are keeping the nosy Fourth Estate from differentiating between what’s likely a sprained ankle or foot for the veteran blueliner. Expect Matt Lashoff, Johnny Boychuk or Adam McQuaid to get the call from Providence, with the Pucks with Haggs money centered squarely on Lashoff. The youngster had been practicing with the team up until Thanksgiving and has already gathered a handful of NHL experience during his up-and-down career – with the only apparent problem being that the 22-year-old’s blueline puck skill set doesn’t match up with the fallen Ward as much as perhaps the rugged McQuaid does. Mark him as the dark horse candidate if GM Peter Chiarelli goes in a different direction.
|Sounds of the game… Bruins 7, Islanders 2||11.28.08 at 2:47 pm ET|
The big train known as the Boston Bruins keeps on rolling. Following their ONLY regulation loss of the month in 12 tries on Wednesday night in Buffalo, the Bruins came out looking a little sluggish in the first period against the New York Islanders, falling behind 1-0. A true testament to their early season dominance is the following stat… It was just the sixth time in 23 games the Bruins have found themselves behind after 20 minutes. But that was not even a speed bump to the Black and Gold as they responded with five straight goals and put the game away with a five-goal onslaught of the overmatched Gordon’s Fisherman in the third. Scott Gordon, who coached the Baby B’s in Providence, was not shown any hospitality by the Bruins on the ice. Michael Ryder netted two goals and seven Bruins had at least two points in the win. Next up, the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings at the Garden on Saturday night. That’s can’t miss hockey for those wondering if the Bruins should be put in the same class as the the defending champs.
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